A major issue once championed by Republicans but now quietly dumped by many as voter sentiment swiftly turns looks set to be a deciding factor in the US presidential election.
And it has nothing to do with the economy or cost-of-living issues.
President Joe Biden looks all but certain to face-off against Donald Trump in November, where a growing number of pundits believe the hot-button topic of abortion could decide things.
Mr Trump, who lost the White House in 2020, has repeatedly taken credit for the Supreme Court decision to overturn abortion rights – something Republicans have spent decades fighting for.
But voter backlash to the decision has been fierce and many conservatives are now backing away from their anti-abortion stances, in a bid to hold onto their jobs and defeat the Democrats.
‘Dog that caught the car’
In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned the historic Roe vs Wade ruling, which gave Americans the constitutional right to abortion, after almost half a century.
The sensational decision was supported by three justices appointed by Mr Trump – Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett – despite the trio insisting at their respective confirmation hearings that they respected the original ruling.
Since the Supreme Court’s decision, 14 states have introduced bans or significant restrictions.
In total, 21 states now have outright bans on abortion procedures, or restrictions that are tougher than the standards set in Roe vs Wade.
In a handful of other states, attempts to crack down on abortion access are being fought in courtrooms and legislatures.
Gutting abortion rights is something Republicans have fought for doggedly for decades, but senior figures and election strategists now believe it’s a “losing issue” for the party.
“This is not a conversation we want to have,” John Thomas, a prominent conservative election adviser, told Politico.
“We want to have a conversation about the economy. We want to have a conversation about Joe Biden, about pretty much anything else besides [abortion]. This is a losing issue for Republicans.”
Another strategist, Sarah Longwell, said many elected Republicans would wind up being “the dog that caught the car”.
And a key operative speaking on the condition of anonymity told Politico that polling on the issue was alarming.
“It takes a sizeable bloc of voters who were leaning [to Republicans] and gives them reason to vote Democrat – and they haven’t had any reason to vote Democrat in quite a while.”
Abortion could decide it
While abortion has always been a deeply partisan issue, it has never ranked that highly on voters’ list of priorities when deciding who to back in major elections.
But Prudence Flowers, a senior lecturer in US history at Flinders University, said that has all changed.
“Support for abortion is now at a record high among Americans, with 69 per cent believing abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy,” Ms Flowers said in analysis for The Conversation.
“And 61 per cent [believe] that overturning Roe vs Wade was a ‘bad thing’.”
Young people and women have rushed to register as new voters and 21 per cent of those about to cast a ballot for the first time say abortion rights as their main concern, she pointed out.
“In the 2022 midterm elections in the US, voter anger over [the Supreme Court ruling] was widely credited with stopping the expected ‘red wave’ in Congress and state races, even as President Joe Biden’s approval rating hovered around 40 per cent.
“Abortion was also central to Democrats gaining control of the Virginia state legislature in 2023.”
Seven states have since voted on abortion referendums and all were decisive victories for reproductive rights, she said – even in typically staunch Republican states like Kentucky, Kansas and Ohio.
“In Ohio, one in five Republicans voted to constitutionally protect abortion access in the state,” Ms Flowers pointed out.
That rapidly changing sentiment has some Republicans in a panic, with a flood of politicians rushing to scrub their support for abortion bans from the public record.
Pro-life stances hidden
Mr Trump, the presumptive Republican candidate for president, has repeatedly touted his anti-abortion credentials while taken credit for the death of Roe vs Wade.
“If it weren’t for me, with Roe vs Wade, you wouldn’t even be talking about this stuff,” he said at a campaign event last month.
“For 54 years they were trying to get Roe vs Wade terminated, and I did it – and I’m proud to have done it.”
Many Republicans running for re-election seem to be less enthusiastic to celebrate.
It emerged this week that many conservative politicians who had previously declared their staunch pro-life and anti-abortion views are having changes of heart.
The Independent reported that several have “quietly deleted” all or most references to abortion from their campaign websites.
Texas Congresswoman Monica De La Cruz scrubbed all mentions and, when questioned about the edits, seemed to soften her previously hard line stance.
“Monica believes in finding common ground on this issue,” a campaign spokesman told The Independent.
Three other Republicans, including Ohio Congressman Troy Balderson, deleted phrases including “abortion”, “pro-life” and “protecting the unborn” from their re-election websites, The Independent found.
Oregon Congresswoman Lori Chavez-DeRemer’s site previously prominently declared she “won’t stand” for “abortion on demand” but those words have now vanished.
The Democrats are determined to remind voters of the views of many Republicans, launching a campaign website prominently displaying past comments from Senate candidates in Florida, Texas, Ohio, Michigan and Arizona, among others.
And Danielle Butterfield, executive director of Priorities USA, a leading Democratic fundraising committee, said the party would “communicate heavily” on abortion.
“It’s pretty evident, both with research and the elections we held in 2023, that abortion is a winning issue for us,” Ms Butterfield said.
Biden seizing momentum
Back in 1973 in the wake of the original Roe vs Wade decision, newly elected Senator Joe Biden was anti-abortion, describing the Supreme Court’s ruling as going “too far”.
In an interview shortly after, Mr Biden said a women should not enjoy a “sole right to say what should happen to her body”.
Decades later, while serving as Vice President in the Obama Administration in 2012, he declared the government should not have “a right to tell other people that women, they can’t control their body”.
But as President, Mr Biden didn’t utter the word “abortion” for the first 468 days of his term, Ms Flowers pointed out.
“Initially, the Biden Administration was slow to respond to the palpable threat to reproductive rights in the lead-up to [Supreme Court’s 2022 ruling].
“However, [afterwards], both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris became assertive in defence of abortion rights. Legislatively hamstrung, the administration used the Food and Drug Administration, the Justice Department, and executive orders to try to protect and expand access to abortion and contraception across the country.
“And abortion will be ‘front and centre’ for Democrats in the 2024 elections.”
In late January, Mr Biden and Ms Harris appeared together at a campaign event to decry “draconian” abortion bans by Republicans.
Countless advertisements as well as media and campaign appearances by key Democrats highlight the battle the party is preparing to wage.
Few places to hide
Conservative action groups are preparing a plan for Mr Trump to enact a national abortion ban on day one of his presidency, should he win in November, Politico reports.
“Nearly 100 anti-abortion and conservative groups are mapping out ways the next president can use the sprawling federal bureaucracy to curb abortion access,” a story last week revealed.
“Many of the policies they advocate are ones Trump implemented in his first term and President Joe Biden rescinded — rules that would have a far greater impact in a post-Roe landscape.
“Other items on the wish list are new, ranging from efforts to undo state and federal programs promoting access to abortion to a de facto national ban.
“But all have one thing in common: They don’t require congressional approval.”
That fierce lobbying means Mr Trump will be unable to hide from the issue during the campaign and forces Republicans fighting for their political lives firmly into the spotlight.
“We’re trying to do as much, now, of the future president’s work that we can,” former Trump Administration special assistant Spencer Chretien, who now heads the Project 2025 action group, told a pro-life convention recently.
“We need our people, our pro-life conservative people across America, to get fired up and to know that help is on the way and that they have something to look forward to.”
An emotive and significant issue
Tracy Weitz, a professor of sociology at the American University in Washington DC and a reproductive health expert, described the past 18 months as “legal chaos” as states rushed to bring in new laws.
On top of the legal consequences, the Supreme Court’s ruling had a chilling effect on the wellbeing of millions of women and their families, Professor Weitz said.
“Abortion is a health care option most frequently needed by people affected by the structural inequalities of poverty, racism, and xenophobia,” she said.
“Almost 75 per cent of abortion patients live at or below 250 per cent of the federal poverty level. More than 50 per cent of abortion patients are women of colour, and 60 per cent of all patients already have children.
“People’s reasons for abortion are as complex as their individual lives, and I fundamentally believe no one should have to justify their reason for abortion; simply wanting to no longer be pregnant, or needing an abortion to save their own life, is enough.”
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