The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling overturning the right recognized in 1973 has completely changed the climate of discussion.
Quite a few years ago, E.J. Dionne Jr. — a columnist first for The New York Times and later for The Washington Post — in his book “Why Americans Hate Politics,” identified a strange coincidence in abortion-related answers to opinion polls.
About 75% percent of people both opposed abortion and supported the voluntary termination of pregnancy. They believed that there was an excessive amount of abortions and that the decision was being made casually. However, at the same time, they opposed the criminal prosecution of women who terminated their pregnancies and the doctors who performed the procedure. The percentage of people supporting abortion was small, but the percentage supporting the voluntary termination of pregnancy was very high.
This overlap of conflicting majorities was a response to the climate generated by the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, in which the Supreme Court recognized constitutional protection for women who terminated pregnancies. As the judicial issue vanished, people calmly expressed their opinions about ending pregnancy without drama. Conflicting majorities coexisted in relative harmony, even if there was always a raucous minority against abortion.
In recent years, the advance of the far right within the Republican Party set in motion the idea of criminalizing abortion through coordinated action by certain highly conservative, if not shamelessly reactionary state legislatures and judges. The movement began to bear fruit with the election of Donald Trump.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning the right recognized in 1973 has completely changed the climate of discussion. And not because the Supreme Court has decided that terminating a pregnancy is an unlawful act, but because it has left the decision in the hands of state legislatures or directly in the hands of citizens by way of referendums.
The Supreme Court’s recent decision means the debate regarding ending pregnancy is no longer a legal matter. It has become an outright political issue that must be settled in the only way that these kinds of matters can be settled: through the principle of democratic legitimacy, which means either directly through putting it to a citizen referendum or through their democratically and directly elected representatives.
Such is the domain in which the debate is taking place. This week, we saw how citizens in Kansas citizens, by an overwhelming majority, rejected a proposed amendment to the state’s constitution banning the right to terminate a pregnancy. Votes will take place in a number of states this November seeking to incorporate protection for the right of abortion into the state constitutions or state law. Other states, however, are passing laws to criminalize abortion even in cases of rape.
The New York Times’ Nate Cohn projected the outcome of the Kansas referendum across the entire country, and concluded that four out of five states would legitimize abortion under state law. The Supreme Court’s ruling overturning the 1973 decision resulted in a clear and resounding shift of public opinion toward validating the right to end a pregnancy. This has made apparent the disharmony between the Supreme Court’s ultraconservative majority and public sentiment.
It may be a blessing in disguise, as the saying goes. It appears to be the case with respect to voluntarily ending a pregnancy in the United States. This year’s court decision may outweigh the extraordinarily positive influence that the 1973 decision had. But now, the conflict will be resolved through an exercise in democracy, either directly or through democratically elected representatives, which is how these matters must be addressed.
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