Some 165 years ago, the newly nominated Republican candidate for the Senate from Illinois stood before his party convention and, in a reference to the slavery issue that was tearing the United States apart, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “house divided against itself” speech, arguing that the U.S. government could not “endure permanently, half slave and half free.” Last year, Margaret Atwood released a book titled Burning Questions, in which she argued that abortion restrictions create a culture “in which half the population is free and the other half is enslaved.”
Perhaps no issues have shaped U.S. politics more directly, more passionately and more consistently than slavery and abortion. From the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to the opening of the Civil War in 1861, the country’s civic debate seldom veered from the fight over slavery – just as, from the early abortion wars of the 1960s to today, the political landscape has been dominated by fights over extending, restricting, adjusting and eliminating abortion rights.
Just this Thursday, Florida’s legislature passed a measure prohibiting abortions after six weeks of pregnancy, a landmark restriction that Governor Ron DeSantis signed later that night and which will be a factor in his drive for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. DeSantis – who only a year ago signed legislation limiting abortion access after 15 weeks of pregnancy, down from 24 – is wagering that alienating moderate voters in the general election is worth the risk because of the appeal of his posture as an abortion warrior in Republican primaries.
The legislature’s vote in a state that was once a magnet for abortion seekers comes amid an already fractious presidential campaign, fresh restrictions being passed nationwide, court cases being decided from coast to coast and extraordinary offers being made to accommodate abortion seekers from faraway states.
The Florida measure – passed on the same day the state Senate in New Hampshire, site of the first Republican presidential primary, voted not to lift civil and criminal penalties for women who have an abortion after the 24th week of pregnancy – is the latest sign that the issue is flaring up again.
“For 60 years this issue hasn’t gone away,” said Bill Baird, a pioneer activist for contraception and abortion who opened an early abortion clinic on Long Island, N.Y., in an interview. “This fight is a permanent part of our culture.”
So permanent is it that several important developments occurred in the past several days alone, less than a year after the Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion rights.
“Abortion opponents feel they will never again have a Supreme Court this conservative, so they are trying to move as far as they can,” said Kristin Luker, a professor of law and sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of several books on abortion. “But this spurt may be an interregnum because the pro-life activists have set in motion changes that will have unintended consequences. They’ll end up making people in the passive middle more militantly pro-choice. A lot of voters never thought abortion opponents would go this far.”
This week the Biden administration promulgated new rules designed to restrict access to the health records of women who have abortions, an effort to undercut attempts by authorities, sometimes acting with court orders, to track down and ultimately punish residents of states where access to the procedure is limited by law or is unavailable.
Such attempts are an effort to prevent abortion migration, a phenomenon that is prevalent in states such as South Carolina and Missouri, whose residents travel to states such as Illinois and Massachusetts for abortions. New York City health officials have even paid for billboards in Texas, Florida and South Carolina offering information on abortion options there, where it is legal during the first 24 weeks and, under some circumstances, even later.
The White House rules limiting access to health records came amid two clashing court rulings that added fresh uncertainty to the use of mifepristone, approved more than two decades ago by the Food and Drug Administration to be used along with a second drug, misoprostol, to end a pregnancy.
A Texas judge blocked the use of mifepristone only to have a three-judge panel in Louisiana restore its availability, though not by mail and only during the first seven weeks of pregnancy rather than 10. One result of the contradictory court action, which almost certainly will be resolved by the Supreme Court: Several states, including Maine, Massachusetts, New York, California and Washington, are now stockpiling mifepristone.
At the same time, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, running for the Republican presidential nomination, seemed to attempt to cool the debate about abortion. Though the Republican Party has formally opposed abortion since the platform it adopted at its 1976 national convention, Ms. Haley, who generally opposes abortion rights, told a political audience in Iowa this week that she wouldn’t “judge anyone who is pro-choice any more than” she would judge those who agree with her view.
The issue is of particular sensitivity in Iowa, which next winter will hold the first contest in the 2024 Republican nomination fight. A law banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy is now before the Iowa Supreme Court.
“This is a personal issue for women and for men,” Ms. Haley said. “It needs to be treated with the respect that it should. I don’t want unelected judges deciding something this personal.”
Iowa isn’t alone in facing court tests on abortion rights. In Wisconsin – where, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that advocates abortion rights, 70 per cent of women live in counties where there are no abortion clinics – voters this month sent an abortion rights supporter, Janet Protasiewicz, to the state Supreme Court, which is all but certain to rule on abortion restrictions in the coming months.
“The abortion issue will never be resolved,” said Mr. Baird, one of a handful of Americans with his name on two Supreme Court rulings, one of which struck down a Massachusetts law requiring unmarried minors to get the consent of both parents or a court order before proceeding with an abortion. “Our opponents changed the whole vocabulary of this debate, using the phrase ‘pro-life’ and saying that embryos are not embryos but people. The people on my side never had the vision to see that, on the other side, this has been a holy war from the beginning.”