Texas Efforts to Curtail Abortion Access May Soon Test Public Tolerance

Texas has long-been in the vanguard of creating new abortion restrictions along with a handful of other GOP controlled states, but as summer turns to fall, Texas has taken two giant leaps in its continued efforts to limit abortion access. Last week, an appeals court allowed Texas to enact a law passed in 2017 that would limit the most common procedure for second trimester abortions, and on September 1, as a result of the so-called “fetal heartbeat” law passesd during the regular session of the legislature, a woman will now have to decide whether to obtain an abortion within the first 6 weeks of pregnancy (if they’re aware they’re pregnant), down from the 20 weeks set into law in 2013

The most recent ban signed into law by Governor Greg Abbott is a big win for anti-abortion forces in the GOP and Republican lawmakers ecstatic about taking their victory to the 2022 primaries, in addition to testing the anti-abortion commitment of a U.S. Supreme Court shaped by Donald Trump’s three appointments. But the law’s success relies on more than a conservative majority on the high court.

Long-evident patterns in public opinion suggest that supporters of the legislation hope to exploit a probable misunderstanding of the effects of the legislation among the public. Abundant polling results over the last few years suggest that we could reasonably expect increased opposition to the effects of the bill were voters made more aware of the law’s implications — and were the bill’s supporters more honest about them.

If the repeated results on proposals like banning abortion after 6-weeks suggest a high tolerance for regulating abortion, voluminous and long-standing results are even more clear in illustrating that a majority of Texans do not want to ban abortion outright.

Taken at the face value, University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling has found evidence of majority support for limiting the availability of abortion after six weeks of pregnancy. In April polling conducted during the legislative session, 49% of Texans said they supported making abortion illegal after 6 weeks while 41% opposed it. Like most questions related to abortion, there were sharp partisan differences, with 74% of Republicans supportive of the measure (54% strongly) and 69% of Democrats opposed (58% strongly).

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Strongly support34%
Somewhat support15%
Somewhat oppose10%
Strongly oppose31%
Don’t know10%

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Strongly support15%24%54%
Somewhat support9%12%20%
Somewhat oppose9%19%8%
Strongly oppose58%26%10%
Don’t know10%18%7%

June polling conducted at the regular legislative session’s conclusion found opinion statistically unchanged, with 44% in favor of the 6-week ban compared to 46% in opposition; including 74% of Republicans in support (56% strongly). Among Democrats, opposition remained at 77%, however, the intensity of that opposition increased 12-points to 70%. Independents expressed a pattern more similar to that of Democratic voters over the time span, with plurality opposition remaining the same — 45% in April, 46% in June — but strong opposition increasing by 7-points from 26% to 33%.

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Strongly support32%
Somewhat support12%
Somewhat oppose9%
Strongly oppose37%
Don't know/No opinion10%

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Strongly support9%22%56%
Somewhat support6%12%18%
Somewhat oppose7%13%9%
Strongly oppose70%33%9%
Don't know/No opinion7%20%8%

But as the floor debate over the new law in both chambers amply illustrated, the common descriptions of the law doesn’t accurately capture the practical implications of the bill as passed. Setting aside the science or semantics of what actually constitutes a heartbeat, the floor debate raised the real issue of how a basic understanding of female biology dictates that 6 weeks is the maximum amount of time a now-pregnant woman might have to make a major life decision. In reality, this decision would likely be afforded significantly less time. As Shefali Luthra at The 19th explains:

In 2018, the most recent year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has data, more than 92 percent of abortions took place at or by the 13th week. Almost 78 percent took place at or before nine weeks of pregnancy. That same year, about 36 percent of abortions — just over a third — were performed at or before six weeks. 

That indicates that the majority of abortions occur between six and 13 weeks of gestation. A six-week ban would prohibit the procedure at a point when almost two-thirds of people who would have sought an abortion haven’t yet terminated their pregnancy, according to those numbers

Given these implications of the law, it should be no surprise that many defenders of the bill have been willing to feign ignorance about basic facts of human reproduction and otherwise reject science in order to avoid going on the record as confirming that in many cases, the bill not only severely curtails the autonomy guaranteed to women within the first trimester of pregnancy by the Roe v. Wade framework, but creates a de facto ban on access to the procedure during the timespan in which the vast majority of abortions take place.

The subterfuge or, to be as charitable as possible under the circumstance, the willful ignorance, is necessary not just because of current constitutional standards (however under siege) that have generally disallowed or limited interference by the state in the first trimester, but also because of high baseline support for maintaining access to abortion among the public.

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Never permitted13%
Permitted in cases of rape, incest, danger to mother31%
Permitted in cases other than rape, incest, danger to mother12%
Always permitted38%
Don't know6%

In the same April polling from this year that found 49% of Texans supportive of the 6 week ban, 54% opposed automatically banning all abortions in Texas should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. While 81% of Democrats expressed opposition (74% strong opposition), Republican support stood at 58%, less than the 74% supportive of the 6-week ban, and with significantly less enthusiasm: 54% strongly support the 6-week ban, 39% a total ban — likely reflecting that few would fully revoke access to abortion in all circumstances.

Asked in February, 2021 under what circumstances abortion should be permitted, only 13% of Texans said “never”, including only 21% of Republicans, with the plurality of GOP voters, 47%, willing to allow for abortion in cases of rape, incest or danger to the life of the mother (two of the three of which the current 6 week ban makes no exception for). This is a long-standing finding in both UT/TT polling, but also other polling in Texas and nationally. February 2011 UT/TT polling found the same share saying abortion should never be permitted, while October 2014 UT/TT polling, probing the circumstances under which Texans believed it “should be possible” for a pregnant woman to obtain an abortion, found at least three quarters of Texans believing that it should be possible if the woman’s life is endangered by carrying the fetus to term (81%), or if the pregnancy was the result of either rape (77%) or incest (75%).

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Never permitted2%14%21%
Permitted in cases of rape, incest, danger to mother16%28%47%
Permitted in cases other than rape, incest, danger to mother12%6%14%
Always permitted64%43%14%
Don't know6%10%5%

At the same time, the symbolism of making abortion laws more strict is a powerful motivator: among Republicans in that April 2021 survey, a majority, 55%, said that they wanted abortion laws made more strict, compared to only 29% who said they should be left alone and 9% who wanted them made less strict. These results say nothing about the intensity of that opinion or the likelihood of the most intense abortion opponents to participate in low-turnout GOP primaries — both of which are likely consequential in the politics playing out here. Among the most intense abortion opponents, the goal is to ban abortion completely. As Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance for Life, said in response to the Appellate Court’s greenlight for Texas’ de facto second-trimester ban:

While the goal of the pro-life movement remains the complete protection of all unborn babies from abortion, the terrible Supreme Court precedent under Roe v. Wade prevents this...Our hope is that the Court will modify or reverse Roe and allow states to ban abortion.

While anti-abortion forces are generally not shy about such goals when preaching to their own choirs, they have often taken a more elliptical tact when promoting their agenda. Someone was willing to say the quiet part out loud, but the question remains how the vast majority of Texans will react when they hear it for themselves.

Keywords: abortion