Much About What Americans Think About Dobbs, Kansas Abortion Vote Is Wrong

The latest news from Kansas was a shock to many in America who thought they understood the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization case and what might happen in its aftermath. As was true of the Dobbs case itself, and how most Americans processed—and are still processing—it.

That includes people on the left and right, those against abortion and those for abortion rights, and the vast majority of Americans who care about the issue but refuse to be reduced to a simple "for" or against" binary. Like all things in life, but especially abortion, it's more complicated than that. And for a simple reason: There isn't just one life in the balance but two.

Don't believe me. Let's look at Gallup's 2022 polling on the subject, because the numbers tell a heck of a story. When Americans were asked if they thought abortions should be legal only under certain circumstances, the number was 50 percent. Those who thought abortion should be legal under any circumstances accounted for 35 percent, and 13 percent thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Women polled by Gallup didn't deviate much from those numbers, trailing by 1 to 2 percentage points.

Then the polling got interesting. Asked about when they thought abortion should be legal, 67 percent of Americans said only in the first three months of pregnancy. That number dropped precipitously in the first week of the second trimester—to 36 percent. Three weeks later, it dropped to 24 percent.

Which means an overwhelming majority of Americans are aligned with the abortion ban passed in Mississippi in 2018. It was set at 15 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergency or severe fetal abnormality.

A mere 20 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal in the last three months.

Those numbers are a wake-up call for state legislators on both sides of this issue, and why it was so important for Roe v. Wade to be overturned: Because there's an actual debate finally happening about the most compassionate and moral path forward on the subject of abortion. Moreover, the numbers prove that there's a growing consensus among Americans that abortion should be, in Bill Clinton's words, "safe and rare."

The absolutists on both sides are in the minority and will learn as much in the ensuing years as the American people sort things out—state by state, as the founders envisioned. It will include lots of uncomfortable real-life conversations and the compromising that's at the heart of self-governance. No one will get close to 100 percent of what they want.

Abortion vote in Kansas
Abortion rights supporters in Overland Park, Kansas, cheer while watching TV as a proposed state constitutional amendment fails. Photo by Dave Kaup/AFP via Getty Images

Interestingly, the decision by the voters in Kansas is receiving all kinds of press, most of it overblown too. True, it was a 20-point loss for Kansas folks who wanted abortion rights banned entirely from their constitution. But that issue won't be on the Kansas ballot in November. What will be are issues like inflation, crime, gas prices, recession, 401(k) losses and a sense that America is in decline—urgent issues that affect the present worries of an overwhelming majority of the electorate. A failure to address those core issues will end catastrophically for Democrats. But if Republicans charge ahead and fight for outright abortion bans in their states, they'll face political headwinds of their own making.

What is still not quite understood is what actually happened when the Supreme Court overturned Roe. To best describe that misunderstanding, a story about an encounter with some anti-abortion activists in my hometown is worth telling.

I was at my local Panera Bread on the July Fourth weekend, ordering my favorite snack, when I saw a small group of people sitting at a table preparing for a march on our small downtown square in Oxford, Mississippi, where I live with my wife, daughter, two dogs, two cats and 12 chickens.

The folks had assembled for some sustenance before marching at a local "Rally for Reproductive Freedom." There was a sense of excitement in the air, as happens when Americans gather to exercise their most basic civil right: the right to criticize their government. I love watching this in any form—protesters I am with or against. There were the usual signs that accompany such rallies: "My Body, My Choice" and "Women Are People Too," to name two. There were signs disparaging the conservative Supreme Court justices and one attacking the conservative Catholic justices. And one about how the Court's ruling had banned abortion in America.

I did what I do when these opportunities present themselves: I sat down and asked some of the mostly female activists some questions. Why were they here? What did they understand the ruling to be? And what did they hope to accomplish? The answers were fascinating.

The women were passionate and good people. One young lady explained to me that she wrote what was on her sign because the Dobbs case outlawed abortion in America. Another young lady explained that it was the Catholics on the Court she had a problem with, because they had imposed their religious beliefs on the American people.

I listened intently and then asked my first question. "Is your understanding that the conservative Court outlawed abortion in all 50 states?" The girl paused, and her friend did too. They weren't sure if I was asking a trick question, so I asked them to Google it. They discovered that the Court had done nothing of the sort: It had returned the issue to the states for the people to decide.

"If the conservative Catholic judges voted their Catholic consciences, wouldn't they have voted to ban abortion in all 50 states?" I asked. "The Catholic justices had to know that huge states like California and New York were going to create even greater access to abortion than Roe provided for, not less." There was a long pause. They were curious, hoping I'd provide an answer. I instead asked another question. "If it wasn't the justices' personal religious objective to overturn Roe, why did they do it?"

They were now seeking an answer, which I cheerfully—and gently—provided.

"Those conservative Catholic judges don't like abortion, but their job is to enforce the law and follow the real-life words of the Constitution," I explained. "What they did was give back to the American people the right to vote on this complicated issue after having it taken away, with no constitutional justification, 50 years ago."

They'd never heard any of this before, by their reaction, and through no fault of their own. They wanted to hear more. "The Catholic judges didn't vote their Catholic conscience," I said. "They voted their constitutional philosophy, which is that nine judges in Washington, D.C., shouldn't make laws from the bench."

Still sensing they wanted more clarity, I added one more point. "Let Berkeley be Berkeley and Birmingham be Birmingham, was what the Court was saying," I told them. "It's a big country with diverse states and viewpoints, and it's up to each of us in those states to hash these issues out with fellow citizens and vote. If we don't like the results, rinse and repeat. That's what democracy is all about."

I then approached the lady with the "Women Are People Too" sign. I did the same thing with her that I did with the others. I asked questions, listened carefully to her answers and restated her position, letting her know I'd listened. Then I asked some questions.

"At what stage in their pregnancies do you think the vast majority of women exercised their legal right to an abortion in 2019?" I asked. She told me she had no idea, but the number was easy to find. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 42.9 percent of abortions in 2019 took place in the first six weeks, 36.4 percent between seven and nine weeks, 13.4 percent in weeks 10-13 and 2.9 percent by week 15.

When the numbers are added up, it turns out 95.6 percent of women who had abortions would have had them legally under the 15-week ban passed by Mississippi's Legislature in 2018, a ban decried by anti-abortion advocates across the nation as a stripping of a fundamental right. That's 95.6 percent!

I then asked her if all women across the nation had the same abortion rates or did it vary from place to place. In short, I was asking if there were different cultural dynamics among and between women, or did all women act and think and believe the same things about abortion.

She was curious about the answer. It turns out the places with the highest abortion rates in America are all extremely blue. In Washington, D.C., a tragic 52 percent of all pregnancies were aborted, followed by 35 percent in New York and 34 percent in New Jersey. The states with the lowest abortion rates per pregnancy were Wyoming (2 percent), South Dakota (1 percent) and Missouri (2 percent). Those numbers surprised even her.

Then came one more question. "Do you know what the polling says about abortion and the American people?" I asked. "And American women?"

She was pretty sure the majority of Americans were for abortion rights and was certain a much higher percentage of women believed the same. I asked her to Google the Gallup poll, and she was stunned to learn that the vast majority of Americans aligned with the 15-week abortion limit passed by the Mississippi Legislature before the Dobbs ruling. She was even more surprised to learn that women didn't trail the national averages by much at all.

Then came my final question. "What do you say to the millions of American women who are pro-life or are for the 15-week limit to abortion?" She told me she had women like that in her family, mostly older women who were a part of the old patriarchal system that catered to men and their beliefs.

I didn't challenge her. I told it was a pleasure talking to her and to enjoy the march. I didn't have the heart to tell her that the numbers in Gallup's poll had remained fairly constant since it had begun doing polling on the issue back in 1976.

"It's tough to make predictions," baseball great Yogi Berra once opined. "Especially about the future." The political and social aftermath of the Dobbs decision and the Kansas referendum will one day be understood. But in the meantime, be wary of anyone who makes bold predictions about where it will all lead, let alone land. And how Dobbs will affect the upcoming elections, let alone future ones.