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Pro-Lifers Are Unprepared for Abortion as a Political Issue

The GOP’s flirtation with pulling up the federal restriction plank underlines the post-Dobbs crisis.

Supreme Court
Credit: Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Court Accountability

Two years after Roe v. Wade was overturned, Republicans are poised to rewrite their platform plank on abortion to more closely reflect the presumptive nominee’s federalist position on the issue, possibly setting up a major confrontation with pro-life activists in Milwaukee next month.

The pro-life plank has been in the GOP platform, with varying degrees of firmness or equivocation, for 48 years. Language backing “a constitutional amendment to restore protection of the right to life for unborn children” was initially introduced amid infighting between delegates committed to Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan in what was the closest thing to a contested convention in the modern political era, just four years after Gallup found Republicans were more likely than Democrats to believe “the decision to have an abortion should be made solely by a woman and her physician.”


I’ve generally defended Donald Trump’s approach to abortion this election cycle, not because I think it is ideal—though constitutionally, police powers do belong to the states—or that the right to life is contingent upon geography. But I do not want the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, handed down by the conservative Supreme Court majority Trump helped build, to be a pyrrhic victory. 

Dobbs returned abortion policy to the people and their elected representatives after nearly a half century of it being mostly at the discretion of judges, with some marginal improvements after Casey v. Planned Parenthood that led to the debate largely being conducted in the 1990s and 2000s on grounds favorable to the pro-life side.

Dobbs opened the door to greater legal protection for the unborn, but it didn’t guarantee it. It also shifted the abortion debate to terrain less favorable to the pro-life cause. Abortion restrictions can now be enacted even when they are unpopular, if pro-lifers can win the elections necessary to do so.

President Joe Biden likes to mock Justice Sam Alito’s line in Dobbs that women are not without political power in modern America. It is simply true that allowing abortion policy to be formulated democratically means that public opinion on this question now matters more than it did for decades of Roe, not less.

The following worst case scenario for the pro-life movement is not my prediction for November, but not wholly implausible: Biden is reelected; Democrats win control of the House of Representatives, where Republicans have a slender majority that has been beset by infighting and dysfunction; Democrats hold the Senate, where Republican candidates look for the moment to be underperforming yet again, this time without filibuster-defenders Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema.


Even a modest Democratic majority in the Senate could eliminate the legislative filibuster. Democrats could then pass and have Biden sign federal legislation that would jeopardize if not nullify state-level abortion restrictions. All this while blue and purple states increasingly adopt state-level constitutional protections for legal abortion. This would lead to a worse abortion outcome than prevailed under the final years of Roe.

Such legislation could be much more quickly and easily repealed than Roe the next time Republicans held the necessary power. (The same would be true of Democrats with federal pro-life laws passed by Republicans.) But there is nothing in the Obamacare “repeal and replace” experience that suggests this would be something to bank on, especially with so many GOP politicians eager to get back to their abortion positions being toothless.

There was always a risk that returning abortion policy to the people would produce abortion laws no better than most of Europe’s, though that would still have been an improvement over the Roe status quo. Those were the laws produced by other secular democracies, after all. But this would be worse.

Every action produces an opposite reaction. It is possible that Democratic overreach, such as reopening the debate over partial-birth abortion, would swing the pendulum back in the pro-life direction. And as new issues like IVF emerge, pro-lifers cannot entirely subordinate principle to politics or banish from their discourse all that is not immediately politically possible.

But abortion politics are no longer a matter of virtue-signaling or moderating the worst excesses of the pro-abortion side. A confused and conflicted electorate is being asked to engage on this issue while a cynical and unpopular political class has been empowered to govern on it.

The pro-life side is going to have to give serious thought about how to ensure Dobbs remains the once-in-a-generation win and opportunity it appeared to be two years ago.