As we near the midterm elections many are asking how will the Supreme Court’s decision on abortion influence how people vote? With a host of other issues like inflation, student loans, the war in Ukraine, immigration, the president’s age, and the pandemic competing for the attention of voters, just how important is the issue of abortion?
The reason is that in politics, intensity matters. Unlike every other issue pollsters ask about, abortion and the broader questions it raises about reproductive health are central to the existence of 51.1% of the population in a way that no other issue in politics is or has ever been.
From the time a young woman menstruates to the time she is done with the last symptom of menopause and beyond, women are in constant conversation with other women about the everyday reality of their reproductive organs.
For many women these discussions eventually revolve around pregnancy, and for a subset of the female population, there is an additional struggle and trauma associated with getting pregnant in the first place. The intensity of pregnancy is usually the first time in this saga that men become aware of the realities of reproduction as they learn about the dangers and problems their partners could face. For most of human history, pregnancy has been dangerous and often fatal. Women with uteri can experience ectopic pregnancies, preeclampsia, and placental complications. After these health risks comes the trauma of delivery and the possibility of fetal distress, perinatal asphyxia, placenta previa, and host of other complications that can still be fatal even with modern medicine. Most men have never heard of these complications until their wife or partner is pregnant. And after the pregnancy, men rarely talk about these issues again and they recede into the background.
This is no criticism of men, they don’t live the reproductive cycle so of course they don’t pay much attention to it. But it does make them less acutely aware of the enormous dangers women face when the government starts telling doctors what they can and cannot do to pregnant women. There are some things the government is simply NOT good at and dictating individual medical outcomes is near the top of the list.
So, we now face an election where that is exactly what is on the ballot. Everyone born with a uterus has an interest and a stake in the abortion issue that those without a uterus do not have—meaning, the abortion issue will be intense for a lot of people. In addition to the intensity of this issue is the sheer number of females in the population and the electorate. First, there are more women than men in America—167,500,000 women compared to 164,380,000 men.
But more importantly, women vote more often than men—in the 2020 presidential election, women constituted 52% of the electorate compared to 48% for men.
Small shifts in this vote yield big numbers. Take, for instance, the swing state of Pennsylvania. It, like many states in 2020, had record high turnout of 6,924,558. According to exit polls, 52% of those voters were women or 3,600,827. A shift of only 3% of the women’s votes would be equal to 108,025 votes or 27,470 more than Biden’s close victory over Trump.
No wonder Republican candidates are trying to soften their abortion stances. As men get a crash course in reproductive biology, more and more will have the experience that South Carolina State Rep. Neal Collins had when he regretted voting for an anti-abortion law that put a young women’s life at risk and the near loss of uterus when her water broke just after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Collins went on to vote for a less radical bill—one that listed 12 to 14 situations where the life of the mother would be protected. But what if there are more situations that threaten the life of the mother than the South Carolina legislature knows about? Women know that ultimately these decisions must be made between themselves and their doctors (and the men in their lives know that too). Nothing else will work, which is why the abortion issue is unlike anything else we have seen in politics.