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Roe and Progressive Politics


It’s the anniversary of Roe v. Wade today, and Jessica has put together Blog for Choice day. As a result, there have been many first-rate celebrations and eulogies for Roe. While most people are explaining why Roe is important, I’ll take a slightly different angle and discuss things from a political perspective.

With Alito about to be confirmed, reproductive rights are about to be seriously restricted in this country, and should Bush (or a Republican successor) get to replace Stevens or Ginsburg Roe is dead, whether the overturning will be open or sub silento. It is common, however, for people who are (at least nominal) supporters of reproductive rights to argue that overturning Roe is really no big deal. One variation of this argument holds that Roe being overturned (or gutted) won’t have a big impact on women’s access to abortion. This argument is utterly unserious, and it crops up mainly because of the apparently boundless appetite some sectors of the liberal media have for “contrarian” arguments no matter how specious they are. People making such argument either don’t care about the reproductive rights of women in different classes and geographic regions, or are badly confused about the political context. Either way, I don’t think it requires much work to show why such arguments aren’t useful.

Somewhat more serious is the idea that overturning Roe might benefit progressive politics (including women’s rights more broadly) because its overturning would be a disaster for the Republican Party. This argument has the advantage of not being obviously implausible on its face: after all, Roe is very popular, and one would assume that if it were overturned by Republican judges this would be bad for the GOP. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that it will be a net negative for the Republicans. Is this reason to believe that overturning Roe might not be so bad in the long run? I don’t think so; if you care about reproductive rights at all:

  • Most presidential elections aren’t close. Elections like 2000 and 2004 are very rare in American history. Even if the Dems gain something by Roe being overturned, in most elections they would win or lose irrespective of this anyway. Pace Will Saletan, individual stands on hotly contested issues have less impact on voting than one might think–the Republicans have less popular stands than the Democrats on many domestic issues, and this hasn’t stopped them from controlling every branch of the government.
  • In addition, whatever benefits that would accrue to the Democrats are severely limited by the various idiosyncrasies of the American electoral system. The states in which Roe being overturned would be the most unpopular are states where the Democrats are already dominant. If Roe was overturned the Dems might carry New York by a similar margin to which the GOP carries Texas–but who cares? It’s far from clear what state the Dems lost in 2004 that they would win if Roe were overturned. It’s the same elsewhere. The Senate’s gross malapportionment overrepresents states where overturning Roe would do little damage to (or actually help) the GOP, and gerrymadering in the House makes for few contested seats no matter what issues are in play. In other words, overturning Roe might help the Dems in generic national polls, but most of the benefits would be filtered out by the many counter-majoritarian effects of the American system (the same factors that will also greatly benefit anti-choicers in terms of policy outcomes.)
  • Some people will argue that there would be huge benefits in terms of mobilization. Maybe, but I’m skeptical. Again, most of this mobilization would have would have limited political effects for the reasons stated previously. And, of course, the prospect of banning abortion will also give reactionaries a permanent basis for their own mobilization. In addition, I think the alleged de-mobilization of abortion rights supporters has been greatly overstated.
  • Most importantly, any much benefits are premised on Roe being explicitly overturned, which I think is unlikely. Something like Rehnquist’s incrementalist strategy would produce the same results without even the minimal political costs that the GOP would incur by overturning it honestly–and Republican partisans like Alito and Roberts, as we know, understand this perfectly well.
  • And most importantly, I still don’t think the argument makes any sense even if the benefits are greater than I think they would be. Having the Republicans overturn Social Security would provide clear political benefits; that’s not a reason to hope that it happens. Again, all such arguments ultimately circle back to an assumption that reproductive rights aren’t important, a claim which is profoundly misguided.

On balance, then, I don’t think there’s any way the risks balance out. The costs of overturning Roe are serious and indisputable; the benefits are speculative and very likely to be minimal. Fighting to preserve Roe is crucial policy, and there’s no reason to think it’s bad politically.

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