Commentary: The Politics of Abortion

Jun 14, 2012

Here’s something that occurred to me yesterday, when the Michigan House of Representatives passed what is really an anti-abortion bill. Consider probably the two most controversial U.S. Supreme Court decisions in modern history.

Roe vs. Wade, which said that women have a constitutional right of privacy to abortion, and two more recent cases, District of Columbia vs. Heller and McDonald vs. Chicago, which established that individuals have a constitutional right to own and carry a gun.

My guess is that virtually everyone thinks the nation’s highest court wrongly decided at least one of those cases.

However, they are the law of the land. It is pretty clear that it would now be unconstitutional for the Michigan legislature to pass a law banning ownership of handguns.

But ever since Roe vs. Wade 39 years ago, state legislatures have attempted to either overturn vast portions of it or nibble away at abortion rights. In some cases they have been slapped down by the nation’s highest court; in others, they have gotten rulings that more closely defined those rights.

But anti-abortion activists won’t give up, and in the last few weeks they suddenly unveiled a package of bills in Lansing, the first of which was passed by the state house yesterday.

This bill does a number of things, some of them fairly innocuous, like set rules for the proper disposal of fetal remains. But most of it has to do with punishing physicians for “coercing” women into having an abortion, under the guise of protecting them.

Minority Leader Kate Segal said bluntly, “this bill is not about protecting women’s health,” and whatever your politics, she was certainly right; the bill is meant to have a chilling effect on abortion.

However, those pushing what is actually a package of anti-abortion bills were politically more clever than in some other states. They toned down some of this bill’s provisions because of constitutional concerns, and delayed action on two other bills for the same reason. One of those would ban all abortions after twenty weeks, something that would seem to conflict with Roe v. Wade.

This battle isn’t over, and the state senate won’t vote on any of these bills till they come back from summer recess. But what I am wondering is whether those pushing these bills are going to reap some unintended consequences. Surveys consistently show a majority of voters are at least moderately pro-choice. If there is wide feeling that the majority Republicans in the legislature are on a crusade against a woman’s fundamental right it could backfire at the polls in November.

This has happened before. Affluent, educated women in places like Oakland County have been walking away from the GOP, and these bills won’t help. Twelve years ago, Republicans pushing another social agenda -- school vouchers -- sparked a reaction in Michigan that turned a close presidential contest into an easy win for the Democrats, and helped Debbie Stabenow gain a senate seat.

We’ll see what happens. And we’ll also learn something about Rick Snyder when these bills reach his desk. Will he prove that he is indeed a moderate -- or will he cave in to a right-wing social agenda he has said he wants no part of? The future will be fascinating.