Call it what you will, but there is no enduring benefit to having a media and political ecosystem that is primarily made of impenetrable “bubbles” of reality, distinct worlds in which “epistemic closure” means never having to encounter a single idea that challenges your preexisting beliefs. And yet, we are about to see it tested in an ominous natural experiment. Abortion is a subject in which certain aspirations about what reality might be are pitted directly against what is actually happening on the ground. Forced-birth proponents—who won huge at the Supreme Court when Dobbs v. Jackson came down in June—are perennially being described in terms of the “dog who caught the car.” The November midterms will tell us whether their reality is ascendant in America, or just their judicial and state legislative power.
It’s being called “Roevember,” a reckoning around women’s rights and fundamental liberties that hasn’t been witnessed since the shaggy-haired days of the ERA. As Jeremy Stahl noted just last week, recent polling seems to show that women are pretty affirmatively pissed off about Roe v. Wade being overturned, and it’s affecting a set of key Senate races, in addition to down-ballot contests around the country. Mark Joseph Stern and I wrote recently that there is virtually no other way to assess the beatdown Kansas voters recently unleashed upon an amendment that would have removed abortion rights from their state constitution than as a repudiation of the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs intervention, and a promise that even in ruby red states, and even among ruby red voters, only a tiny minority of female voters would endorse forcing teen girls to carry pregnancies to term. After Dobbs came down at the end of June, Kansas reported a 1,038 percent increase in voter registrations that week alone, compared just with the week before.
Since the Dobbs leak and certainly since the final opinion came down, polling has strongly suggested that the position taken by Justice Samuel Alito and the other justices in the majority was not only broadly unpopular but also broadly unpopular among Republican voters. In addition to the polling examined by Stahl, a Fox News poll last week had fathers moving from +20 support for the Republican Party in May to +8 support for the Democratic Party in August—a 28-point shift. The same poll found an 8-point shift to support Democrats among white women; a +9 point shift among suburban women; and a +10 shift among women of color.
Oddly, the response to this polling on the part of anti-abortion groups has not been to reflect and moderate around the fact that voters don’t like Dobbs. With the exception of a handful of flabby rhetorical feints toward the GOP briskly reconstituting itself as a party dedicated to expanding the social safety net to protect and honor both fetal and maternal outcomes, most states have moved instead in the opposite direction, toward punishing women and their babies rather than protecting them. That focus on criminalization rather than maternal support was long expected, according to Mary Ziegler, at Florida State University College of Law. Immediately after Dobbs came down, she told Elaine Godfrey at the Atlantic that in Republican-dominated states, “the focus has been and will continue to be penalizing the person supplying the abortion—not helping the person seeking the abortion.”
It is no surprise whatsoever to hear that Mississippi—the state that prevailed in Dobbs and continues to have one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation—is one of many GOP states that has not opted to expand new mothers’ Medicaid coverage; or to expand the social safety net in any material fashion. The data on the connection between poverty, death, illness, and inequality in the bulk of the states that ban abortion is unequivocal. Yet discussions about states making life easier for mothers have been shut down using the same tired and wrongheaded GOP talking points about the worthless, lazy poor and their entitlements.
What has changed, perhaps, is the stories. Every day between now and November we are going to hear about atrocities befalling women whose complicated pregnancies, miscarriages, and forced birth are not the stuff of Hallmark movies. These tales are becoming part of virtually everyone’s collective muscle memory. This week alone, we have endured the story of the Louisiana woman, Nancy Davis, who will be forced to carry a skull-less fetus for the next six months, and the 16-year-old in Florida deemed too immature to abort, but seemingly just fine to be a parent. Republicans devoted last month to calling a child rape victim who was denied abortion care in Ohio and flown to Indiana for treatment a liar. We’re hearing horror stories about women denied access to methotrexate, which is used to treat certain types of cancer, because it can be used for abortion. We’re hearing about pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for Plan B and oral contraceptives. We’re hearing about the Texas woman who carried a dead fetus for two weeks, and the women who cannot be treated for ectopic pregnancies and miscarriages until their own lives are at risk are now the stuff of daily reporting, as are the certifiably insane responses from Republican candidates, including Michigan’s GOP candidate this week, who argued that 14-year-old rape victims should be forced to carry to term because the forced birth will provide a “bond” that is “healing.”
This, then, is the sticky wicket. Pro-lifers who could have taken their win after Dobbs showed that the real endgame was never going to be “letting the states decide” or tweaking the line for fetal viability downward or any of the rape and incest exceptions bargaining positions that are now policymaking detritus post-Roe. The endgame was always a national personhood amendment that confers all the rights of a person on a fetus, and that while such efforts have been defeated, time and again, at the ballot box in even red states, the plan is to just make it happen the same way Dobbs happened, through unscrupulously gained court seats and state gerrymandering and vote suppression and bottomless dark money.
So as states like Louisiana and Georgia and Mississippi and South Carolina trip over themselves to create the dystopian reality of a sprawling class of moms-slash-criminals and young girls too immature to be trusted with Anne Frank’s diary, but unfathomably mature enough to birth and raise an infant, the polls will continue to surge away from them. Indeed it’s hard not to wonder why—in the manner of Justice Samuel Alito this summer—they are willing to openly discuss the plans, rather than to just hide it and prevail.
There are two possible answers to this question of why they continue to do all this out in the open. One of them goes to the inextricable need to perform religious extremism in public ways, which certainly seems to animate the legislative footrace to declare that a fetus is a legal person and its mother is not. The other, possibly more depressing explanation, is that the forced-birth faction of the GOP, like the Trumpists who primary mainstream Republicans, believe that while they may not have the full authority of the democratic will on their side, they will always have the force of violence and vigilantism to fall back on. They aren’t as worried about a blue wave in November, propelled by angry women, and concerned fathers, and voters of color, and moderate Republicans, because law is increasingly being enforced by rogue state officials who are not in fact very bothered by the demands of popular majorities or even by electoral outcomes, should they even opt to concede to the existence of electoral outcomes.
Put another way, the uncompromising punitive extremism around pregnancy, childbirth, and miscarriage that we have seen rolled out in the states in the wake of Dobbs is either headed for an absolutely gobsmacking reality check in the 2022 midterms—an all-out drubbing that will conclusively prove that women have supersized voting power that cannot be suppressed or ignored. Or—and this is what the relatively tiny forced-birth faction is betting on—by the 2022 midterms, majority electoral blowouts won’t actually matter because the election deniers and the religious zealots will have engineered it that way. Perhaps calling Dobbs the dog that caught the car has it backward. Maybe we should think about the case as God catching the car. And whether it has the power to bend polling numbers and voter registration data to its divine will, or not, the experiment on what voters really hate is now afoot. We’re going to find out the consequences sooner than we think.