On Aug. 8, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts announced he was ending his push for a special session of the state legislature to pass new abortion restrictions. He didn’t have the votes.
“It is deeply saddening that only 30 Nebraska state senators are willing to come back to Lincoln this fall in order to protect innocent life,” Ricketts said in the announcement.
The Cornhusker State is a Republican bastion that Donald Trump won by 19 points in 2020. So what happened?
On Aug. 2, Kansas voters rejected an anti-choice ballot initiative by a margin of 59-41 — in a state Trump won by 15 points. The measure would have repealed the right to an abortion guaranteed in the Kansas state constitution and empowered the state legislature to pass an abortion ban.
The ballot initiative was crushed by overwhelming turnout in Kansas City’s affluent suburbs. It also underperformed in the deeply conservative western parts of the state. Six weeks after the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, Kansans had glimpsed the dystopian realities of a post-Roe world — a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio forced to cross state lines to receive an abortion, pregnant women at risk being forced to reach the brink of death before getting the care they needed, a burgeoning surveillance state to enforce such madness — and they want nothing to do with it.
The impact of the pro-choice victory in Kansas will ripple across the country in the November midterms. At the moment of one of its greatest triumphs, the conservative movement is reaping the consequences of a political alliance that for decades has been premised on trading away women’s freedom to control their own bodies for political power.
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In the late 1970s, the Republican Party was hungry to overturn the New Deal order which, over the previous 40 years, had ushered in the most egalitarian period in U.S. history. This era had been marked by high taxes on the rich, a thriving (though mostly white) middle class, the advent of at least a rudimentary social welfare state and tighter regulation of big business, especially Wall Street.
Kansans had glimpsed the dystopian realities of a post-Roe world and they want nothing to do with it.
This arrangement had been too politically potent for conservatives to defeat. However, surging inflation, resentment over the humiliating end to the Vietnam War and, crucially, a backlash against the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s offered them an opening.
Reactionary tropes about Cadillac-driving welfare queens, anti-family feminists and promiscuous gays played to the fears and resentments stirred by historic advances in the rights of racial minorities, women and LGBTQ+ people. The culture war was on. However, no issue would prove to be of more enduring value for driving social conservatives into the arms of the Republican Party than abortion.
What had once been an obsession of the Catholic Church was turned into a mass movement by conservative evangelical leaders such as the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell. Where evangelicals had once take a passive attitude toward the “fallen world” of politics and shown little interest in abortion, they were now inflamed by the desire to “save the unborn” and, more broadly, roll back the social transformations of the 1960s.
In 1967, California Gov. Ronald Reagan had signed one of the most liberal pro-choice laws of that era. By the time Reagan ran for president in 1980 he was fully on board with the “pro-life” movement. “Pro-lifers” delivered their votes by the millions, and he delivered huge tax cuts for the rich, slashed government regulations on business and opened the door to devastating attacks on labor unions. This lopsided bargain has continued for decades, with country club Republicans reaping the benefits while offering rhetorical support for a movement many of them privately disdain.
In 2016, Donald Trump needed to reassure the hesitant, self-styled “values voters” in the Republican Party that he was worth their vote. Famous for being a Manhattan playboy, Trump had shown no interest in abortion during his decades of public life. But selling out women and other menstruating people to advance his own prospects was an easy choice for The Donald. He made Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, a fierce abortion foe, his running mate and released a pair of lists composed of 21 anti-choice individuals that he would draw from when nominating Supreme Court justices. Among those on Trump’s lists were Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh.
As for the Democrats, they have trumpeted their support for Roe for decades, but have done little to act on it. The past four Democratic presidents have had Democratic congressional majorities during their time in office but never codified Roe into law. When pressed on his inaction in 2009, President Barack Obama stated that fighting for abortion rights was not his “highest legislative priority” or, as it turned out, any priority at all.
The past four Democratic presidents have had congressional majorities during their time in office but never codified Roe into law.
That lethargy has continued to the present. When Dobbs was announced on June 24, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi read a poem and sent out a tacky fundraising email. Pelosi’s top lieutenant Jim Clyburn (D-SC) called the ruling “anticlimactic,” while the Biden administration was silent for days about how it would respond before being shamed by activists into speaking out.
In the aftermath of the Kansas referendum, the Democrats have begun pouring tens of millions of dollars into campaign ads defining Republican candidates as anti-abortion extremists. They have plenty of material to work with. These efforts will likely succeed in many races. If history is a guide, keeping Democrats to their pro-choice promises — such as carving out an exception to the Senate filibuster to pass a law codifying Roe v. Wade — will be a whole other task.
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The egg released each month from an ovary is 100 millionths of a meter in diameter. Abortion rights opponents believe that the moment the egg is penetrated by a sperm cell, a new human being with a soul has been created, with rights equal to other humans and in many ways superior to those of its host. To end the newly formed zygote’s existence is thus tantamount to murder and must always be opposed.
This is religious dogma. In the real world, the cruelty it requires to be fully enforced is unsustainable. If exceptions are granted, the whole ideological construct of the “pro-life” movement unravels. It took a viciously misogynistic Supreme Court ruling to make this clear. Republican candidates now find themselves in an untenable position: Defy the wishes of millions of their most implacable supporters? Or defy a clear majority of Americans on an issue that can no longer be overlooked?
May this moment mark the unraveling of the unholy alliance between big money and religious zealots that has fueled an increasingly extreme Republican Party for the past 40 years. And out of this debacle may we also see a new politics emerge that recognizes the humanity of all people.
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