In a striking demonstration of political backlash against the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, Kansas voters on Tuesday resoundingly rejected–by a considerable 19-point margin–a constitutional amendment that would have given state lawmakers the power to ban abortions.
The defeat of this referendum sends a clear message to national Democrats that the energy surrounding this issue is on their side, and with the right messaging, the party can successfully circumvent Republican-led efforts to ban abortion at the state-level in the upcoming midterm elections.
Polling conducted by Schoen Cooperman Research in the immediate aftermath of the Supreme Court’s leaked decision to overturn Roe elucidates how Democrats can achieve wins like this across the country in November: by re-framing the fight over abortion rights as one to protect women’s access to safe health care, rather than a fight over choice versus life.
To be sure, Democratic messaging around abortion has evolved considerably over the last several decades. In 1992, Bill Clinton coined the phrase “safe, legal, and rare,” which at the time enabled the party to expand the pro-choice tent by appealing to Americans who supported women having access to abortion care as a concept, but were still morally opposed to the procedure.
However, Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “rare” during her 2008 campaign triggered backlash from abortion rights supporters on the left, who felt that “rare” stigmatized abortion and overlooked the movement’s true purpose: female autonomy.
As a result, between 2008 through present day, the Democratic Party moved away from the use of “rare” and evolved to speak about abortion as being a matter of protecting a woman’s right to choose at all costs, regardless of the circumstances.
Yet, the standard ‘choice’ articulation overlooks critical nuances in the public’s views on abortion–namely, that the national electorate’s attitudes are not absolutist, and are more complicated than assuming a simple pro-choice or pro-life stance.
The majority of Americans (55 percent) support abortion as a legal right with some restrictions, according to our polling. Just 11 percent believe abortion should be legal at all stages of pregnancy, while only 20 percent say it should be illegal at all times.
This nuance is one of the main reasons why Republicans have been so successful at making what is permissible vis-à-vis abortion access increasingly narrow at the state-level and branding Democrats’ positions on the issue as extreme. Now more than ever, the Democratic Party needs to adopt a message that appeals to the broadest coalition of voters possible—which our data indicates is through the lens of health and safety.
Indeed, there is broad-based majority support for abortion legality when the woman’s health is at stake. Our polling found when “the mother’s physical health is endangered,” more than four-fifths of the electorate (82 percent) support abortion as a legal right to some extent, while just 9 percent believe it should be illegal at all times.
Similarly, a Gallup poll conducted this Spring found that only 11 percent of Americans believe abortion should be illegal if the pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health, while 87 percent are at least open to abortion being legal under these circumstances, including three-quarters (73 percent) who say unequivocally that it should be legal, and 14 percent who say it depends on the unique situation.
In contrast, when the situation concerns a woman’s choice–namely, “when the woman does not want to have the child for any reason”–just 62 percent of voters support abortion as a legal right, while 3-in-10 (29 percent) say abortion should always be illegal under these circumstances.
The strength of the health-focused argument for abortion is further evidenced by the fact that nearly two-thirds of voters are compelled to support protecting abortion rights based on messaging that positions abortion as essential to ensuring quality health care for women (65 percent) and as a safe medical procedure that is only undertaken after careful consultation between a woman and her doctor (63 percent).
In contrast, voters found pro-choice messages centered on choice and autonomy as well as economic security to be less compelling.
Framing access to abortion as a matter of protecting women’s health is also effective at rebutting the right’s primary pro-life counterargument–as voters are nearly twice as likely to believe that ensuring quality health care for women (58 percent) is more important than protecting unborn life (30 percent).
In that same vein, per the findings of a KKF poll prior to Roe being overturned, voters were four-times more likely to say that decisions about abortion should be made by women in consultation with their doctor (79 percent) rather than by lawmakers deciding when abortions should be available and under what circumstances (20 percent).
To that end, while our poll did find that voters favor the contemporary description of abortion being “safe, legal, and accessible” (46 percent) rather than the Clinton-era phrasing of “safe, legal, and rare” (29 percent), the electorate is receptive to the concept of abortion being rare in the sense that it should be a procedure that is only undertaken after careful medical consultation.
By recasting abortion rights as a matter of protecting women’s health and safety, Democrats will be better-able to safeguard abortion rights at the state-level in November–and more importantly, will be on track to build an enduring majority coalition that supports a legal right to choose in a post-Roe world.