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Roe v. Wade Is More Popular Than Ever—A Fact the Supreme Court Is Unlikely to Ignore

On this fortieth anniversary of the Supreme Court decision in the abortion case, Roe v. Wade, a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found 70 percent of U.S. adults support the decision, compared to 58 percent in 1989. That marks an all-time high. 2012 saw a huge number of abortion restrictions passed through state legislatures (though significantly less than 2011). But the feminist movement’s main victories last year came on the national stage: not just the defeats of Senate wannabes Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock, but also the election of President Obama himself. Fifty-five percent of women voted for Obama, making him the first president in history unambiguously elected by women when men wanted the other guy. (Bill Clinton won women in 1996, but his loss among men was within the margin of error of exit polls.)

The surge of support for Roe in the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll reveals that the core groups in the liberal coalition that elected Obama have a surplus to offer others. The pollsters found the new support for abortion rights, long seen as the effete preoccupation of middle class white women, was concentrated among African Americans, Latinos and women without college degrees. These highly religious groups tasted political power as the Obama campaign scrambled for re-election. Now the polls show them supporting a new cause: women’s right to abortion. And so a virtuous cycle begins.

Something similar happened last May, when President Barack Obama spent some of his liberal political capital coming out for same sex marriage. Gloomy pundits predicted that his declaration would cost him dearly among African-Americans, many of whom had religious objections. Just the opposite occurred. After the leader of the liberal coalition extended membership to the LGBT community, ABC/Washington Post polls found the support for same sex marriage among African Americans rose from 40 to 59 percent. Gays and lesbians poured into the Obama campaign, with money, talent and huge appeal to the youth vote. On election day, same-sex marriage won approval in three states including Maryland, where a heavily African-American electorate supported the gay cause.

President Obama may not have made as dramatic a gesture on reproductive rights, but his opponents, from Mourdock and Akin to Rush Limbaugh (who called Sandra Fluke a “slut”), did much of the work for him. Now the core groups comprising the liberal resurgence are polling robustly in support of abortion rights. The first indication of a new political order has already appeared: the most insulting and extreme attacks are disappearing. There has been less talk lately of vaginal probes, personhood amendments and “legitimate” rape. When gay marriage reached this stage, the argument shifted from talk of sin and crimes against nature to mealy-mouthed arguments about how opponents want gays to have everything but the title. When the victim group is no longer treated as a rhetorical free-fire zone, the process of empowerment begins. The shift in power on this issue will take a while to unfold, because of the Republican dominance of local government in normally blue states like Michigan. But, as with same sex marriage, as the population hardens around support for women’s abortion rights, the resistance will be concentrated more and more in the red states, mostly of the South and West. (The latest rape confusion, for instance, came from a congressman in Georgia.)

This is not the time to declare victory, as states continue to pass laws making it harder to “execute” as Obama put it in his Inaugural Address, the rights that Roe located, so long ago, in the founding document. Indeed, although there is not a case pending at the moment, the decision itself is widely viewed as hanging by the slender thread of a single vote on the Supreme Court. Even in those remote chambers, however, public sentiment echoes. Although the Court does not follow the election returns, there are rumors that Chief Justice John Roberts cares about the reputation of his institution and its place in history. And even a Supreme Court hell-bent on reversing Roe v. Wade would pause at the polling revealed today.