This article is part of HuffPost’s biweekly politics newsletter. Click here to subscribe.
If you want to know how the politics of abortion is playing out in America right now, pay attention to a pair of high-profile governors who just signed major abortion-related legislation ― and, more important, pay attention to how they signed it.
The bill was, in some respects, symbolic. A ballot measure that voters approved in November put a guarantee of reproductive rights into Michigan’s constitution. Abortion is going to stay legal in the state as long as that amendment is part of its charter.
But Whitmer cares about symbolism these days, because she’s trying to send a message about reproductive rights in Michigan ― and how hard she’ll fight for them now that the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, leaving discretion over abortion to the states.
It’s why, during last year’s reelection campaign, Whitmer wore a sweatshirt that said “Roevember.” It’s why, during her State of the State address, she touted Michigan as a haven for abortion access, hailed legislators who had fought to protect that status and explicitly linked reproductive rights to her broader vision for freedom.
It’s also why, when she signed that bill rescinding the 1931 ban, she did so in front of the cameras, in a well-orchestrated afternoon ceremony, while wearing a bright pink blazer with a gold pin that said “Bans Off Our Bodies.”
The devastating consequences for women mean there’s nothing symbolic about Florida’s bill. As HuffPost’s Alanna Vagianos has explained in her coverage, many women don’t even realize they are pregnant at the six-week mark. The law’s limited exceptions for rape or incest require “a copy of a restraining order, police report, medical record, or other court order or documentation” that will be difficult for many to get. And with these new restrictions in place, Florida will no longer be an abortion option for women from neighboring states that already have extreme bans on the books.
The Florida Supreme Court could still intervene, and use a separate lawsuit to rule that bans violate the state constitution. But, as Vagianos noted, abortion rights advocates are not optimistic because the court is now full of DeSantis appointees.
The new Florida ban is as much a victory for opponents of abortion rights as the Michigan amendment was a victory for abortion rights supporters. But DeSantis hasn’t exactly been eager to talk about it.
And that’s not a new development.
After praising the summer Supreme Court decision overturning Roe and vowing to “work to expand pro-life protections,” DeSantis spent his reelection campaign dodging questions about what that meant. In March, when he gave his State of the State address, he included just one brief and relatively bland reference to abortion: “We are proud to be pro-life in the state of Florida.”
He had little to say about the six-week ban while the legislature was deliberating over it and on Thursday, when he signed it, he did so in an unannounced, invitation-only ceremony after 10:30 p.m. Reporters learned about it a few minutes later, when the governor’s office distributed a press release that included a single quote from DeSantis along with a photo ― taken, apparently, from the only camera present. (“Apparently,” because the governor’s office did not respond to questions HuffPost submitted Friday morning.)
The very next morning ― which is to say, Friday morning ― DeSantis gave a speech at Liberty University, the evangelical school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell and famous for its ultra-conservative politics. He didn’t mention the ban once.
To be clear, there’s no reason to think DeSantis feels any less strongly about the bill he just signed than Whitmer thinks about the one she signed the week before. But there’s every reason to think he’s a lot more nervous about his legislation, because he’s preparing to run for president ― and, even though the Florida ban will please many Republican primary voters, it’s likely to repel the independent voters he’d need to win in the general election.
This is the core political dilemma facing him — and the rest of his party, too.
Republicans Are Losing Where Public Opinion Matters
A clear, nearly two-thirds majority of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the latest PRRI poll. That’s up from 55% in 2010. And just 9% think abortion should be illegal all the time, down from 15% over the same time span. Other polling on abortion has yielded similar results, with signs of rising support for abortion rights now that the Supreme Court has struck down Roe.
A headline in Politico last week captured the situation perfectly: “Abortion was a 50/50 issue. Now, it’s Republican quicksand.”
And it’s not just abortion where Republicans have embraced such politically toxic positions. It’s also their opposition to widely popular, modest gun regulations, plus their refusal to acknowledge that President Joe Biden’s win in the 2020 election was legitimate.
The need to back former President Donald Trump’s outlandish fraud claims unconditionally is particularly problematic for Republicans because it requires a willingness to suspend basic intellectual functioning ― or, perhaps, to lack such functioning in the first place. Candidates who fit that criteria tend not to perform so well on the campaign trail, which helps explain why Arizona now has a Democratic governor, for example, and Georgia didn’t elect a Republican to the U.S. Senate. (It also helped Whitmer win in Michigan.)
But no issue may be as politically potent as abortion right now, perhaps because of the immediate, direct threat to bodily autonomy half the population faces now that Roe is gone. Reproductive rights were by all accounts a big (and maybe the biggest) reason Democrats running for Congress avoided the usual backlash to the incumbent’s party in the midterms, and why they made such big gains at the state level.
That obviously doesn’t guarantee abortion will be so decisive in the 2024 elections. The shock of the Supreme Court’s ruling could fade by then. Americans could adjust to a new normal, in which abortion is legal in some states and illegal in some others.
But that normal includes a steady stream of high-profile stories like the one that reporter Caroline Kitchener wrote for The Washington Post this week. It was about a pregnant woman in Florida whose membrane ruptured 16 weeks into pregnancy. Instead of inducing an abortion, which is the obstetric standard of care, doctors mindful of a 15-week ban DeSantis signed into law last year sent her home. She nearly died.
News like that could keep abortion on the minds of voters, no matter how hard Republicans try to avoid or downplay the topic.
Republicans Are Winning Where Public Opinion Doesn’t Count
Republicans are also continuing to crusade for more abortion bans through the courts ― and they have been winning, as they did over the last week with a lawsuit to invalidate the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, a pill used in medication abortions.
Doctors have been prescribing it for more than 20 years, to millions of patients. Experts like to say its safety record compares favorably to common drugs like Tylenol and penicillin. But three Trump-appointed judges ― one at the district level, two at the circuit level ― have now overruled the FDA, at least in part, and restricted access to the pill.
The U.S. Supreme Court will likely have the final say on the matter, and as usual it’s anybody’s guess how they will rule. The legal reasoning of these Trump-appointed judges is as weak as their scientific logic, so it’s possible the court will keep the abortion pill on the market. Then again, this is the same conservative court that overruled Roe in the first place.
Democrats have reacted to the rulings with blistering attacks on the GOP’s anti-abortion crusade. Republicans have once again tried to change the subject, sometimes to comical effect ― as South Carolina Sen. and GOP presidential candidate Tim Scott did twice this week when dodging questions about whether he supports bans.
But access to mifepristone (which, in many cases, is the equivalent of access to abortion) will depend ultimately on the opinion of nine unelected, democratically unaccountable judges. This too is a sign of the times.
The places where the GOP crusade against abortion rights is making the biggest advances are the places where the voters have the least direct influence ― whether it’s at the courts, at the hands of judges serving lifetime terms, or in deeply red and heavily gerrymandered states, where Republican lawmakers have a virtual lock on power.
Abortion’s Future Depends On Democracy’s Future
Florida is one of those states, naturally. One of DeSantis’ most consequential actions as governor was his rejection of an apportionment map that the legislature wrote, in favor of one from his office.
The legislature’s map was already gerrymandered in a way that helped Republicans. DeSantis’ map tilted the districts even more in favor of the GOP, and led to an even larger GOP majority in Tallahassee. That helps explain why the six-week ban could pass in a state where, polling suggests, the majority of residents think abortion should remain legal under most circumstances.
Here, too, the contrast with Michigan is instructive. It wasn’t just the voter backlash on abortion that reelected Whitmer and allowed Democrats to gain control of their state legislature for the first time in more than 40 years. It was also a previously enacted voter initiative that turned apportionment over to an independent commission, breaking up a longstanding and severe pro-Republican gerrymander.
Without that commission’s new maps, the Michigan legislature would still be under GOP control today. And that zombie 1931 abortion ban would still be on the books.
All of this suggests that the fight for reproductive rights, like so many issues today, is inextricably tied to the fight for democracy. Voters as a whole have no appetite for the kind of abortion ban DeSantis just signed; his own actions are making that clear. But public opinion only matters if the public actually gets a say. And that doesn’t always happen.