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Opinion | What a Reversal of Roe v. Wade Might Mean for the Midterms

Caitlin Myers, a professor of economics at Middlebury who has written extensively on reproductive issues, was pessimistic about the likelihood of abortion functioning as a liberal mobilizing issue. She wrote by email:

The brunt of the impacts of a Roe reversal will be felt by young, poor and Black women living in the Deep South and Midwest. Will their plight mobilize the left? I don’t know. But I will observe that when I drive around liberal Vermont, I see plenty of lawn signs supporting Ukraine and Black Lives Matter but have yet to see one supporting abortion rights.

Eitan Hersh, a professor of political science at Tufts, noted that a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe “would reinvigorate mass organizing on the left,” but, he added, “there’s a caveat” in the vitality of the grass-roots infrastructure the right has built over decades:

Even with all the news about the leaked court opinion, I’m not sure it sinks in for most Democrats what a long-term, deeply organized mass movement was behind the change. In addition to the development of the conservative legal movement and their nomination strategies, we have seen activists organizing in state legislatures preparing for this moment for decades. It took a very long time, a lot of patience and a lot of hard work from ordinary activists.

Hersh’s point is well taken, but there is a counterargument. Over the same decades, while conservatives made their case that abortion was immoral and tantamount to homicide, social scientists have quietly but steadily produced detailed research reports describing the social benefits that have been spurred by the Roe decision. Such studies have had limited visibility, as far as the general public is concerned, but are surfacing or resurfacing now that Roe is facing an imminent upheaval.

In “Abortion and Selection,” for example, Elizabeth Ananat, Jonathan Gruber, Phillip Levine and Douglas Staiger, economists at Barnard, M.I.T., Wellesley and Dartmouth, argued that their research provides “evidence that lower costs of abortion led to improved outcomes in the form of an increased likelihood of college graduation, lower rates of welfare use and lower odds of being a single parent.”

The authors concluded:

Our findings suggest that the improved living circumstances experienced by the average child born after the legalization of abortion had a lasting impact on the lifelong prospects of these children. Children who were “born unwanted” prior to the legalization of abortion not only grew up in more disadvantaged households, but they also grew up to be more disadvantaged as adults.

Gruber wrote by email that he, like many others, is “pro-choice on the grounds of women’s reproductive freedom,” and that too few people recognize “that ending abortion rights imposes enormous additional costs to society.”

He continued:

The very states that oppose abortion rights are the ones that engage in poorly designed tax cuts that leave them without the resources to support their neediest citizens. So ending abortion rights is basically imposing a large new tax on all citizens to support millions of unwanted, and disadvantaged, children — a tax that these governments are then unwilling to finance.

Ananat elaborated on a related point in an email:

We also know from recent research that has followed women who were unable to get an abortion under new laws — because they came to a clinic just after instead of just before a gestational cutoff in their state — that it is the case today that those who were unable to get a wanted abortion are much more likely to be poor in the years afterward, much more likely to get evicted, are in much worse mental and physical health, are much more likely to be in an abusive relationship. Their existing children — 60 percent of women seeking an abortion are already mothers — end up with poorer developmental outcomes. All of these results portend badly for their futures and their children’s.

Ananat argued that the role of abortion in coming elections depends on whether “the enormity of this news” sinks into the public,

particularly given the signals coming from the court and from state legislatures of an interest in complete bans on anything affecting a fertilized egg, including lifesaving surgeries such as for ectopic pregnancies and bans on some kinds of contraception and fertility treatments. Saliently for coalition building, these medically necessary abortions, as well as contraception like IUDs and Plan B and interventions like I.V.F., are used by a much broader and more privileged cross-section of women than the low-income, politically marginalized women who are most impacted by laws that represent restrictions rather than abolition. And then some politicians are talking about taking on other rights guaranteed under Griswold, Obergefell, Loving, etc., which may help an even broader group of people see the linked fate of these civil rights.

Many Republican elected officials are legitimizing liberal fears.

Republicans in the Louisiana House have approved legislation in committee that would apply criminal homicide charges to both the woman and the abortion provider. In Idaho, Brent Crane, the chairman of the House State Affairs Committee, announced on May 6 that he will hold hearings on legislation banning emergency contraception and abortion pills. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, told USA Today that if Republicans win control of Congress and the White House in 2024, a national abortion ban is “possible,” noting that “with regard to the abortion issue, I think it’s pretty clear where Senate Republicans stand.” The governor of Mississippi, Tate Reeves, was equivocal when asked if the state might make contraceptives like the Plan B pill or IUDs illegal: “That’s not what we are focused on at this time.”

Perhaps most ominously for those on the left, Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, told The Times, “If a dog catches a car, it doesn’t know what to do. We do.”

I asked two Republican pollsters — Ed Goeas and Whit Ayres — about the possible consequences of a court ruling overturning Roe. Their replies could best be described as restrained.

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