Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Here’s the best-kept secret about the so-called abortion “debate” in the United States: It’s actually not that much of a debate at all. A majority of Americans believe that the decision to end or continue a pregnancy should be left to a woman and her doctor, not the state. Most Americans oppose laws that make it more difficult for reproductive health clinics to operate. The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments next month challenging Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion nationwide, but fewer than a third of Americans want Roe to be overturned.
Those are the results of a new ABC News / Washington Post poll, and the findings are consistent with previous polling on the issue. Despite political treatment of abortion as a contentious partisan issue, the truth is that America is a pro-choice nation. And if the anti-abortion movement gets their way and the Supreme Court overturns Roe, the Republican Party and the Supreme Court itself will have a lot of angry Americans to contend with.
Too often, American politicians and media outlets talk about abortion as a political issue or a front in the culture war, and not a matter of basic health care that women the world over have been availing themselves of for many centuries. The self-defined pro-life movement and their representatives in the Republican Party very much benefit from redefining abortion from common (though stigmatized) medical treatment into a partisan wedge issue: In doing so, they radically change the framing, and may even convince significant swaths of the public that their position enjoys far more support than it actually does. That keeps the narrative around abortion as one about “both sides” of a political drama rather than a fundamental question of health care access that enables women’s physical safety and personal freedom.
According to this latest poll, even a slim majority of Republicans and conservatives, and 75% percent of Americans generally, believe that abortion should be a private decision between a woman and her doctor. Just one in five Americans, a small minority, want to see the decision of whether or not to have an abortion regulated by law. Majorities support abortion rights across racial, gender, regional, and educational lines; almost half of white Evangelicals, the most conservative voting bloc in the country, say abortion should be between a woman and her doctor instead of regulated by law and 62% of Catholics favor upholding Roe v Wade. Only about a quarter of Americans strongly support state laws that make it more difficult for clinics to run.
The Americans who are most directly impacted by laws regulating abortion – women under 40, who remain the most likely group to become pregnant – remain some of the strongest supporters of abortion rights: a whopping 86% say the decision should be between a woman and her doctor.
This poll didn’t look at support for contraceptive access, but Americans should understand that the right to prevent a pregnancy and plan a family is tied up with the right to abortion. Even though access to highly effective and long-acting contraception is the most effective way to reduce the abortion rate – and is in fact the primary reason abortions have become less common in the US – many major “pro-life” groups actively oppose most forms of modern contraception, including the IUD and the birth control pill. And many pro-life groups have long been working to redefine some of the most common forms of contraception – the IUD, the birth control pill – as “abortifacients,” despite the fact that these medications prevent pregnancies and do not end them. Anti-abortion legal organizations have supported Supreme Court cases allowing private employers to refuse to allow employee health plans to cover contraception if they have personal religious objections.
This much is clear: Many of the most influential anti-abortion groups are also anti-contraceptive, and if they succeed in outlawing abortion, contraception could be next.
There is also the basic fact that Roe was decided based on the precedent set by a 1965 case, Griswold v. Connecticut, in which the Supreme Court found a constitutional right to sexual privacy for American adults and legalized contraception for married couples. From that case sprung Roe and others, including cases legalizing consensual sex between adults regardless of gender and establishing a right to same-sex marriage. The primary right-wing legal argument against Roe is that a constitutional right to sexual privacy doesn’t exist. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe on that basis, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which the rights to contraception and marriage equality couldn’t be similarly challenged.
Close to one in four American women will have an abortion in her lifetime, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
According to the last available numbers, almost two-thirds of American women of childbearing age were using some form of contraception, and 99% had used at least one contraceptive method in the past.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe either formally or functionally – by allowing states vast leeway to curtail abortion rights – the Court and the Republican Party may see just how much of a minority abortion opponents actually are, how crucial abortion and contraception are for American women to be free and how angry women (and those who love them) will get when our rights to our own bodies are taken away by five or six conservative judges who are unaccountable to the voting public. The GOP face a guaranteed backlash if the anti-abortion movement gets what it wants, and the Court faces a potential loss of public confidence.
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But this is also a lesson for journalists and other media-makers: abortion rights are not broadly controversial. This isn’t a debate; it is about an authoritarian minority seeking to force a majority to comply with its (largely religious) views. Americans support abortion rights. Americans understand that abortion is a private medical decision that should be between a woman and her doctor, not a woman and the state. And while too many Americans have been shamefully inert when it comes to supporting abortion rights, they will not shrug it off if those rights are taken away.