TRuth Bader Ginsburg’s death raises the immediate question of whether President Trump will be able to successfully install a new Supreme Court justice ahead of the election, or whether he will be thwarted. There are electoral advantages for him either way: he gets his replacement – among the touted names are Amy Coney Barrett and Barbara Lagoa, the two candidates representing another right turn – or his failure to do so is motivating his base.
Either way, it turns the 2020 election, among other things, into an abortion referendum. Trump’s explicit promise in 2016 was that any Supreme Court justice he appointed would “automatically” overturn Roe v Wade. Four years ago, this statement was a box-ticking exercise; opposing abortion as a Republican candidate is a minimum entry requirement, not a campaign slogan.
Reproductive rights are the gift that continues to give in the culture war; the problem cannot be solved by persuasion, negotiation or compromise. Yet the less often told story of this Gordian knot is that sooner or later people get tired of it. This is the story of abortion over the past decade – both sides have remained relentless, while every now and then a Republican nominee has tried to make a name for himself with a new absurd iteration (of which my favorite was Todd Akin, claiming that it was nearly impossible for a rape victim to get pregnant, because “the woman’s body has ways of trying to shut it all down”), but the debate lacked novelty and benefit to make it a central issue in the campaign.
This has now changed. When the entire fertile population of the United States has a question mark about their self-determination, no one can say the question is lacking in advance.
Superficially, this seems to be an advantage for Donald Trump. He is rock solid in his opinions, where those of Joe Biden are more of a truce between his faith and his politics (“I am ready to accept for myself, personally, the doctrine of my church. [on when life begins] … But I’m not ready to impose this on all other people, ”he said, in what would have been clever wording a thousand years ago, but not very 2019).
More and more Trump supporters see this as a “very important” factor in how they vote. This is a classic problem of asymmetric polarization – moderates like to say there are extremists on both sides, but the pro-choice side should never have accepted this premise. Anti-abortionists, at their extremes, want to restrict this right for every woman, under all circumstances. There isn’t a pro-choice activist on Earth who wants all pregnancies to end in abortion. If the last five years have taught us anything, it’s that the most polarized have the most to gain, politically, from a calcified debate.
Precisely because it is insoluble, the problem has an obliterating quality, burning everything that surrounds it. Who wants to talk about tax brackets and green energy subsidies when life or death is on the line? This, again, seems to work better for Trump, as the left wins when it builds a plausible, detailed, and cohesive plan for a different future, while the right wins when it comes up with absolutes and asks the voter to build a identity in the first round or the other.
However, there are deeper drivers in politics than these big brush maneuvers, and there are hard numbers too. With 61% of Americans in favor of legal access to abortion, public support is the highest in decades. Moreover, the issue of a woman’s right to choose tends to be abstract to those who oppose it – this fervent crusade for the unborn child is such a conceptual cause that it rarely makes the leap into the real world. ‘a corresponding interest in child health.
The pro-choice, for their part, are very concrete in their convictions. They know, or at least remember, the searing anguish of a presumed pregnancy they haven’t planned and can’t afford. If, as the saying goes, your message begins to get through when the reality you describe matches the reality people live in, Biden and (if he has the slightest sense) his most incisive advocates of choice will find an electorate who lived the truth. of what they say.
When the right draws a line, it rejoices to find, and often relies on, progressives caught off guard: the history of the left’s failure, in the United States and in Europe, has recently been advocating for causes that we just weren’t hoping to resurface. Fighting open white supremacism, defending human rights and the rule of law, offering international cooperation, rejecting narrow nationalism, so many of these debates seem to belong to another era. It’s like showing up to a badminton match and ending up in a duel. Brutality is exhilarating, but you’ve also forgotten all the rules. Abortion is different – the muscles of this argument never atrophied, because the fight was never over.
Even though abortion has receded as a topic of debate, the past 15 years have seen the constant erosion of access to it – there are now six states with only one abortion clinic each – and of its legal basis. Under Trump’s presidency, the southern and midwestern states passed laws criminalizing six-week abortion. Even before that, 38 states had introduced fetal homicide laws; 29 of them apply from conception. These, according to Roe v Wade, exclude abortion, but it has created the anomaly that a fetus has constitutional rights if you accidentally kill it – through drug use, for example – but not if you interrupt. deliberately pregnancy.
Perhaps an unwritten constitution could withstand such a contradiction, but a written constitution cannot, and Trump’s cheerful promise that a new justice would automatically overthrow Roe, contrary to so many of his claims, had its foundations . The right to abortion was already hanging by a thread, but the alternative perspective is that it was a battle to be fought; many activists will think, bring it on.
• Zoe Williams is a columnist for The Guardian