Roe v. Wade didn’t legalize every abortion across the United States back in 1973. Nor did the June 24 Dobbs decision suddenly turn every abortion into an illegal act.
The facts are much more complicated.
Roe set new limits on state governments’ ability to restrict abortions. Yet some restrictions remained possible, even after the 1992 case Planned Parenthood v. Casey revised Roe’s rules.
Dobbs overturned national court-mandated limits. Now states will have more latitude to enact restrictions.
So debates about abortion policy are likely to shift back to state capitals.
A recent Civitas Poll offers clues about where abortion policy could be heading in North Carolina. Pollsters contacted 600 likely general election voters on May 21-22, after the controversial leak of the draft Dobbs decision. The survey included a series of questions about abortion.
Pollsters asked first whether people aligned themselves with the self-described “pro-choice” or “pro-life” camps. While 43% considered themselves pro-choice and 40% pro-life, it’s helpful to dig deeper into the details.
Just 35% of those surveyed said they considered themselves “strongly” pro-choice, with 31% calling themselves “strongly” pro-life. That leaves a full third of likely voters somewhere in between the two groups.
It’s not hard to imagine abortion policy in this state following the lead of that potentially persuadable middle.
A majority of voters (51%) polled one month before the Dobbs decision indicated they did not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned, with 34% saying they supported overturning the 1973 case. Another 8% indicated that the decision “doesn’t matter either way,” while 7% said they were unsure.
Now that the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Roe, it’s likely that advocates on both sides of the issue will spend much more time engaging the ambivalent. Abortion’s supporters and opponents will need to hone their arguments.
Yet another question from the Civitas Poll offers revealing information. When asked whether abortion should be legal or illegal, those favoring a legal procedure prevailed, 51% to 42%. But that simple yes/no division hides much more complexity.
Just 23% of voters think “abortion should always be legal, and there should be no restrictions.” On the other end of the spectrum, only 10% of voters believe “abortion should be illegal, and it should never be allowed under any circumstances.”
Abortion supporters can take comfort in the fact that nine out of 10 likely N.C. voters see at least some situations in which abortion should be permitted. On the other hand, the most zealous among the pro-abortion crowd should note that 77% of voters endorse the idea of at least some restrictions.
Answers closer to a middle ground attracted more support than either absolute position. A plurality (32%) agreed abortion “should be illegal except in special circumstances.” Those circumstances might involve pregnancies tied to rape or incest, or cases in which pregnancy endangers a mother’s life.
The second-most popular answer, with 28% support, said abortion “should be legal but with some restrictions.” Suggested restrictions involved abortions for minors and late-term abortions.
Add the last two groups together, and roughly 60% of likely voters say they support a policy combining some degree of legality with some level of restriction. One suspects that policymakers will haggle in the months ahead over a demarcation line between legal and illegal.
The Dobbs decision has thrown abortion back into the electoral debate. The Civitas Poll offered some hints about how the issue could impact 2022 contests.
While 36% of voters said they support pro-choice candidates, versus 34% who said they vote pro-life, far fewer said they support only pro-choice (11%) or pro-life (13%) candidates. Another 23% answered “I do not make my decisions about candidates based on their views on abortion.”
Even worse for those who see abortion as the driving issue in the fall campaign, some 46% of respondents say they prefer candidates who agree with them on abortion but “do not make decisions based only on that issue.”
In other words, abortion could take a back seat to significant concerns about inflation, education, foreign policy, or other major issues. Those who see 2022 as an “abortion election” will likely end up disappointed.
Views might have shifted a bit in the month since the Civitas Poll’s release. But it’s doubtful that the shift would be so great that either the pro-abortion or anti-abortion camps should expect to have gained any major advantages.
Debates about abortion policy are likely to remain heated. But advocates ought to remember that those in the persuadable middle are likely to play a significant role in determining North Carolina’s line between legal and restricted.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.