Nearly a year after the United States Supreme Court overturned the Roe v. Wade legal precedent from 1973 that codified women’s right to abortion in America, the decision seems to have instigated a transformation in the country’s political environment. Many Republican-controlled states have enacted stricter and stricter bans on the procedure, while many Democratic-controlled states have enacted more and more extensive safeguards for it. U.S. public opinion on the issue—highly consistent for decades—meanwhile appears to have shifted substantially toward greater support for access to abortion.

In last November’s U.S. midterm elections, Democratic candidates made it a central campaign issue—and their party performed better than historical and economic data predicted it would. This month, in a special election to the Wisconsin State Supreme Court, the Democratic candidate focused her campaign on abortion and defeated her Republican opponent for the decisive seat on the state bench. It was one among a number of notable Democratic wins at the state level where the issue of abortion was a major factor. Just how much is the Supreme Court’s decision altering U.S. political life?

Mary Ziegler is a professor at the Florida State University College of Law and the author of three books on the history of U.S. abortion law and politics. To Ziegler, the repeal of Roe hasn’t really changed American voters’ views on abortion policy; it’s changed their views of its political stakes. Increasingly, Americans see even limited Republican initiatives to regulate abortion as belonging to a more ambitious strategy to enact maximal and broadly unpopular restrictions. In the near term, it’s unclear how Republicans will adapt their political strategies as they look ahead to the U.S. elections in 2024. It’s also unclear how Democrats will sustain their political advantages of the moment, as other issues start to compete more for voter attention. But with an emerging generation of American voters now understanding abortion access as a defining political issue, Ziegler says, a new American political reality is just beginning to take form.

Eve Valentine: Polling seems to show a remarkable change in U.S. public opinion on abortion since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last June. How do you interpret that?

Mary Ziegler: I’d say we have to be a little skeptical about it, actually. If you look at certain aspects of public opinion on abortion in the U.S., they’ve been very sticky over time. Since the 1970s, Americans have tended to be opposed to outright bans on the procedure; they’ve tended to be supportive of certain restrictions; and they’ve tended to be more supportive of those restrictions the later in pregnancy you go. The pattern hasn’t really shifted. What’s shifted is what it means to Americans to be opposed to or supportive of restrictions on abortion. That’s where something’s really happening.

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