Members Only | September 9, 2021 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
The Republican Party overplayed its hand in Texas
A new abortion fight will mobilize a Democratic Party that has not foregrounded social policies so dramatically since 1965.
The Texas Heartbeat Act (SB 8), which went into effect on September 1 when the conservative majority on the United States Supreme Court declined to review it, packs a big political punch.
The law is rife with misinformation. A fetus, for example, has no heartbeat at six weeks. It has no heart. The law ignores the fact many women are unaware they are pregnant at six weeks. It is also designed to sap the morale of progressives, who have collectively spent half a century of time and treasure defending reproductive rights.
But SB 8 is also a calculated political move. Determined Democratic organizing, millions of new voters and explosive urban growth in its increasingly cosmopolitan cities has made Texas a wobbly brick in the GOP’s southern wall. Governor Greg Abbott’s Trumpian refusal to take sensible public health measures against covid create a opening for Texas Democrats to make new gains in 2022.
SB 8 will have real-life consequences for real-life women, regardless of party or class.
To Republicans nationwide, of course, the law demonstrates that the GOP, now mobilized almost exclusively by zombie Reaganism and culture wars, has the power to deliver a policy, one that has been at the center of the New Right’s agenda since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide in 1973. It may even reassure Trump supporters smarting from 2020 that, by seizing the Supreme Court, the party won after all.
But Texas may also have overplayed its hand.
As the Pew Research Center noted in May 2021, public support for legal abortion remains high. Today, 59 percent of Americans support the procedure in “all or most cases,” and 39 percent do not. But unlike other issues, those numbers are not fully defined by political party affiliation: 22 percent of conservative Republicans, and a whopping 59 percent of moderate Republicans believe in reproductive freedom.
SB 8 and the threat it poses to reproductive rights in other states is, in other words, a gamble for a party that, in 2020, lost the women’s vote by 13 points, the Black vote by 65 points and the Hispanic vote by 33 points. And the 18-40 demographic, people of childbearing age who represent 40 percent of the national electorate? The Republican Party lost those voters by a combined 40 points.
The Texas legislature may cynically imagine women of means will access the procedure, and vote as they always have. Poor women who cannot get a legal abortion, targeted by the voter suppression bill Abbott signed on September 7, won’t be voting in the fall. Right?
This isn’t 1977 when — against the wishes of feminist allies — Democrat Jimmy Carter signed the Hyde Amendment, banning the use of federal dollars for abortion. Since then, poor women have given birth to unplanned children at a higher rate than middle class and wealthy women. Democrats went on the defense, trying and failing to serve the need for abortion through private philanthropy. Politically, Democrats, presumed that abortion could be preserved by retaining the Supreme Court’s liberal majority. And the strategy that evolved out of this was to fight for the presidency, not the country.
But today’s Democratic party — the president, the House Majority and its razor-thin Senate voting majority — is united in the belief that universal health care is a human right. Democrats believe that abortion is a personal, not a political, decision, and a keystone of reproductive health. This includes fighting for accessible clinics (Planned Parenthood is a leading provider for men’s sexual health services); sex education; contraception; and the maternal care that produces healthy, planned births.
It’s also an overstatement to say money solves the abortion problem. True, in the pre-Roe years, women of means could access a “therapeutic” abortion if a sympathetic doctor was willing to fudge the paperwork. But Republicans might be shocked to know how many older women in their party vividly recall the shame and isolation of an accidental pregnancy, the trip to a dodgy abortionist; and being spirited away from high school to deliver a baby they never saw again.
SB 8 will have real-life consequences for real-life women, regardless of party or class. Within hours of it taking effect, many were flocking to neighboring states. That this makes access unequal is part of what activates the reproductive rights movement. “Traveling for an abortion may be impossible for women who would struggle to find childcare or take time off work,” a Houston reporter explained. “And for those without legal US status along Texas’ southern border, traveling to an abortion clinic also entails the risk of getting stopped at a checkpoint.”
But because of this glaring inequality, the new abortion fight will mobilize a Democratic party that has not foregrounded social policies so dramatically since 1965 to win in 2022.
Furthermore, this new fight for reproductive rights will activate the same voters that the GOP is working to silence. It will not just draw on feminists who have fought this fight for over 50 years. It will draw on woman of color mobilizations that the Roe generation only dreamed of: activists mobilizing against anti-Asian hate crimes, #Fightfor15 organizers, the Movement for Black Lives, immigration activists, and grassroots LGBTQ groups who understand the links between abortion and legislation that targets them.
Finally, the law is also a sign of how rudderless, and desperate, the GOP has become. While SB 8 will please the base, it will bring the intensity of a presidential election to the 2022 midterms — not just in Texas, but everywhere there is a Senate or a House seat in play.
Claire Bond Potter is the Editorial Board's politics historian. A professor of historical studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City, she is the co-executive editor of Public Seminar and the publisher of Political Junkie. Follow her @TenuredRadical.