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Does the War Over Abortion Have a Future?

In decades past, as the calendar turned to January, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade would come into view. Abortion opponents would be planning to acknowledge the date with the annual March for Life in Washington, D.C. Supporters of abortion rights would schedule seminars or meet for quiet conversations about whether and when the Supreme Court might actually go so far as to repudiate the decision it issued 50 years ago on Jan. 22, 1973.

There will, of course, be no Roe to march against this year, the right to abortion having died a constitutional death in June at the hands of five Supreme Court justices. There has been ample commentary on how anger at the court for its decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization helped to block the predicted “red wave” in the midterm elections. Not only did Dobbs-motivated voters enable the Democrats to hold the Senate, but they also, given the chance to express themselves directly, accounted for abortion rights victories in all six states with an abortion-related question on the ballot (California, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana and Vermont).

But the justifiable focus on the role of abortion in the country’s politics has crowded out much talk about what this unexpected political turn actually means for the future of abortion. There is a case to be made, it seems to me, that abortion access has won the culture war.

I know that might sound wildly premature, even fanciful: Abortion access has vanished across the South in the wake of the Dobbs decision, and anyone anywhere in the world remains free to pursue Texas women seeking abortions, along with anyone who helps them, for a minimum $10,000 bounty under the state’s S.B. 8 vigilante law. The picture is bleak indeed. But it’s when it appears that things couldn’t get worse that weakness can become strength.

Consider that as the midterms approached, Republican candidates for whom taking an extreme anti-abortion position had been as natural as breathing started scrambling for cover, blurring their positions and scrubbing their websites, as Blake Masters did to no avail in his campaign for an Arizona seat in the U.S. Senate. (Doug Mastriano, the Republican candidate for governor of Pennsylvania, held to his extreme no-exceptions position, and that didn’t help either.)

The full dimension of the post-Dobbs world will come into ever clearer view, as news accounts mount up of what happens when women whose wanted pregnancies have gone drastically wrong are denied the prompt terminations that barely seven months ago would have been the obvious treatment. People who have regarded abortion as something that befalls wayward teenagers will come to realize that abortion care is — or was — an ordinary and necessary part of medical care. And while all the justices in the Dobbs majority were raised in the Catholic church, nearly two-thirds of American Catholics believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.

In suggesting that abortion has won its corner of the culture wars, I don’t mean that those wars are over in general or that the road ahead for abortion access is easy. Trans teenagers and their struggle to find a place in the world will continue to be fodder for cynical politicians. School boards taken over by conservative activists will continue to vet reading lists for any hint that the country’s past was less than perfect. Those Supreme Court justices who remain unreconciled to marriage equality will keep looking for ways to enable self-described Christians to avoid treating same-sex couples equally in the marketplace for goods and services. Texas voters just re-elected Greg Abbott as their governor, and the Texas Legislature is not about to repeal S.B. 8.

What I mean is that the polarity has shifted. The anti-abortion position that was so convenient for Republican politicians for so long is, with surprising speed, coming to seem like an encumbrance. The once-comfortable family-values rhetoric no longer provides cover for the extremism that the Dobbs decision has made visible. Yes, the new Republican majority in the House of Representatives this week passed two anti-abortion measures, both recognized as dead on arrival. The important point about this bit of legislative theater was the label a conservative South Carolina Republican, Representative Nancy Mace, affixed to it: “tone-deaf.” Even so, she voted for the two bills.

In a recent article published by ProPublica, Richard Briggs, a Tennessee state senator and cardiac surgeon who co-sponsored the state’s exceptionally strict abortion ban in 2019, now says he had assumed the law would never actually take effect and believes it is too harsh “because the medical issues are a lot more complex.” Not incidentally, 80 percent of Tennessee voters believe that abortion should be legal at least under some circumstances.

Abortion is surely not going away as an issue in politics. But it will be just that: an issue, like food safety, reliable public transit, affordable housing and adequate energy supplies. All these, and countless others, are issues in politics, too. We need these things, and if the government won’t provide them, we assume at least that the government won’t stand in the way of our getting them.

Democrats played defense on abortion for so long (remember the apologetic Clinton-era mantra “safe, legal and rare”?) that defense became part of the Democratic DNA. What this posture ultimately led to was Dobbs. And now the midterm elections have made Dobbs not an end point but an opportunity, a gift, albeit an unwelcome one, in the form of a national admonition on what extremism looks like.

The decision and its aftermath have freed people to acknowledge — or even shocked them into realizing for the first time — that a civilized country requires access to abortion. It is possible, and I’ll even be bold enough to say that it is probable, that in Roe v. Wade’s constitutional death lies the political resurrection of the right to abortion.

Linda Greenhouse, the recipient of a 1998 Pulitzer Prize, reported on the Supreme Court for The Times from 1978 to 2008 and was a contributing Opinion writer from 2009 to 2021.

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