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Reversing Roe would deepen cultural divide

Pro-choice and anti-abortion groups demonstrate Dec. 1 in

Pro-choice and anti-abortion groups demonstrate Dec. 1 in front of the Supreme Court in Washington as the justices hear arguments in a case relating to a Mississippi law banning abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy. Credit: Getty Images/Chip Somodevilla

What will the end of Roe v. Wade mean for America?

A reversal of the case that established a constitutional right to an abortion suddenly looks real. In a Supreme Court hearing last week on challenges to a Mississippi law banning abortion after the 15th week of pregnancy, some of the conservative justices raised the possibility of overturning Roe and subsequent rulings that govern the nation’s abortion law.

While nothing is known for sure, abortion-rights supporters are bracing themselves for Roe’s downfall while abortion foes anticipate victory.

Even a complete repeal will not outlaw abortion nationwide, instead sending the issue back to the states. Twenty-one states, including New York, already have their own legal protections for abortion access, while 22 are likely to issue near-complete bans.

To what extent this will actually reduce abortion is unclear. One study from Middlebury College estimates a drop of at least 14%. Women still have the option to travel out of state, and mutual aid networks will spring up to assist those facing financial or other barriers to such travel. Abortion pills are likely to remain obtainable online even in states where they are made illegal.

But besides the impact on abortion, there are also the political and cultural effects of state-level abortion battles. It's been long predicted that dismantling Roe would ultimately hurt Republicans on the state level. Until now, harsh anti-abortion laws in the red states were unenforceable and symbolic. But the prospect of actual abortion bans will galvanize not only liberals but even plenty of moderates. Republicans may well lose ground in state legislatures, while the more centrist GOP governors will likely find themselves under pressure to veto bills that are seen as too restrictive.

What’s more, in the 2020s, we are amid a massive national surge of progressive activism that can mobilize quickly against state legislation; the boycotts over Georgia's new voting laws are a case in point. What’s more, progressive activism today has the backing of many national corporations. We could see corporate boycotts of states with especially punitive anti-abortion legislation — especially if public opinion is roused by stories of women injured or dead because of botched do-it-yourself abortions.

Of course, the real-life, non-hypothetical outcomes of future events are notoriously hard to predict. For instance, it’s generally assumed that the fall of Roe will rouse left-wing activism; but it could also boost activism on the right by boosting morale with a major culture-war victory.

Some conservatives believe getting rid of Roe would bring abortion back into the realm of political give-and-take that could yield reasonable compromises — for example, fully legal first-trimester abortions with drastic restrictions for later ones, as in many European countries. Perhaps the return of state-level abortion politics could eventually lead to such solutions and lower the temperature of the debate.

Yet short-term, the fall of Roe will almost certainly escalate the culture wars, which are already at critical levels. If only because of that, we should all hope that the Supreme Court will stop short of overturning Roe completely. A Supreme Court compromise that allows more restrictions but not prohibition is likely to disappoint both sides, but it will also preserve something like the status quo — which, in this case, is the option least damaging to the body politic.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a contributing editor at Reason magazine, are her own.

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