How Public Opinion Fueled Senate's Abortion Fight in Texas

Texans woke up Wednesday morning to find that the politics of abortion rights had somehow led the leadership of the Texas Republican Party to hand its Democratic opponents a dramatic and galvanizing political victory while simultaneously launching state Sen. Wendy Davis onto the national stage.

While much attention has been paid to the political conflict on the floor of the Texas Senate last Tuesday, the subtleties of public opinion on abortion in Texas framed the clash in the upper chamber. Results from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll suggest that Senate Bill 5 triggered intense public opposition because the bill's provisions threatened to significantly limit women's access to abortion. A significant share of the public has been tolerant, even accepting, of measures to regulate abortion, but opposes attempts to significantly restrict access to abortion services or to abolish the availability of the procedure altogether. The line between "regulating procedures" and "restricting access" may be a blurry one, but SB 5 appears to have crossed it, given the opposition it aroused in a reliably conservative state.

Not surprisingly, results from the UT/TT Poll reveal broad openness to the kinds of procedural restrictions that abortion opponents have used nationwide over the last two decades to chip away at abortion rights after failing to get Roe v. Wade overturned, but a reluctance to terminate abortion rights entirely. For example, our June 2013 poll asked respondents whether they thought that laws restricting abortion should be made stricter, less strict or left as they are now. Overall, 38 percent wanted them made stricter, 26 percent less and 21 percent left as they are now. Among Republicans, the percentage wanting stricter abortion regulations jumped to 59 percent, and up to 68 percent for Tea Party Republicans - the priority of right-leaning legislators and those looking to bolster their conservative credentials in a GOP primary.

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The abortion restrictions brought up early in the session included a 20-week ban, or "fetal pain" bill, and the requirement that doctors personally administer the two-drug cocktail used in nonsurgical abortions that is generally administered first in a doctor's office and then self-administered at home. While the 20-week bans have been criticized for having a scientifically dubious foundation, and for backing into a violation of Roe's trimester framework, in terms of public opinion, these "procedural" restrictions appear to fall in line with the incremental approach taken by Republican legislatures in a number of states. In slightly varied items asking about a 20-week ban in the June UT/TT Poll, 62 percent of respondents supported the proposal, while between 27 and 30 percent opposed it. While there were no significant gender differences in responses, Republicans overwhelmingly wanted this portion of SB 5 passed - between 85 and 86 percent, the vast majority expressing strong support. Democratic opposition was much less overwhelming - between 46 and 52 percent, depending on question wording.

SB 5, however, went well beyond the 20-week ban. Other provisions of SB 5, which advocates argued would bolster women's health and opponents argued would shut down the majority of the state's abortion providers, crossed into the rhetorical terrain of potentially dramatic reductions in access to abortion services, an area in which public opinion provides much less support.

We regularly ask a long-standing abortion question that has been asked in many other contexts and on a multitude of surveys across academic, public and private polls. Respondents are asked, "What is your opinion on the availability of abortions?" The key word in this context is "availability." They are then given four options: that "by law, abortion should never be permitted," that "the law should permit abortion only in the case of rape, incest or when the women's life is in danger," that "the law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman's life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established" or that "by law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice."

According to our most recent polling on this question, a plurality of Texas voters, 36 percent, think that a woman should be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice. But more important for the context of SB 5 and the arguments being levied against it for drastically decreasing access, only 16 percent of respondents believe that abortion should never be permitted - a number consistent with national findings using the same question wording.

Taken together, these polling numbers convey broad support for some specific restrictions focusing on procedures. We don't find more than token support for drastically reducing or eliminating access. In June 2013, 79 percent of Texans indicated that abortion should be available to a woman under varying circumstances. As for Davis' core constituency, 59 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of liberals think that it should always be legal and available. As for the GOP: 20 percent of female Republicans think that abortion should always be legal, compared with 11 percent of male Republicans. But maybe more important for future electoral fortunes, there exists a 19-point gap among female and male independents regarding the opinion that abortion should always be available, 41 percent to 22 percent; and one of the most supportive groups of all is suburban women, 45 percent of whom think the procedure should always be legal.

Much of the attention this week has been on the short-term effects - Davis' rising star, the embarrassment of the Senate devolving into chaos, the attempts to frame the whole event as an instance of "mob rule," the sense of triumph among the activists who helped force the errors on the Senate floor at the crucial moment and so much else that arose from the five-star political theater Tuesday night. These factors notwithstanding, in the near term, the derailing of SB 5 will likely be rendered a pyrrhic victory in the second special session.

In the longer run, the key question is whether the symbolism of Tuesday's events will have an impact on the state of Republican hegemony in Texas by stirring up a more potent political alternative. Polling numbers show that the anti-SB 5 mobilization expressed attitudes and feelings rooted in a wide swath of public opinion. Whatever one thinks of their manners in the Senate gallery, the orange-shirted guests were a group of engaged Texans echoing the sentiments of many others, as we know from both the UT/TT polling and the viral response on Twitter and other media.

Whether Tuesday's events mark a watershed or merely another episode in Texas' colorful political history will depend on whether a meaningful political alternative to the Texas GOP can capitalize on the symbolic significance of Tuesday's history-making events and their foundation in public opinion on abortion. This may sound a little conventional, but it's not out of the question that the symbolism of derailing SB 5, however fleeting the victory, might be the kind of old-school political event that contributes to making Texas politics less a Republican bailiwick and more of a battleground.

This column was originally published in The Texas Tribune

Joshua Blank and Jim Henson are opinion contributors for The Texas Tribune.

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