Steve Chapman: The grave threats to abortion rights are sparking a backlash

Steve Chapman: The grave threats to abortion rights are sparking a backlash

There was a time when you had to really pay attention to know when Democrats were talking about abortion. They avoided the word as if it were a live grenade. Instead, they extolled the importance of the “right to choose” or “a woman’s choice,” leaving the object of the choice deliberately vague.

As with explosives, the fear was of being blown up — in this case, at the polls. Republicans were more than happy to use the word to motivate their voters, vowing to outlaw “abortion on demand,” “abortion as birth control” and “partial-birth abortion.” They did their best to coat the term in slime.

But things have changed. Nowadays, Democrats are not reticent about what they are defending. And Republicans are not quite so forthright.

“A vote for Donald Trump is a vote to ban abortion across the country,” said Julie Chavez Rodriguez, Joe Biden’s campaign manager. Vice President Kamala Harris warned that “if Donald Trump has his way, he’ll gut abortion care in every state across the country.” In January, Gov. J.B. Pritzker took part in a discussion sponsored by the Chicago Abortion Fund and declared that “abortion access is health care.”

Many Republicans suddenly prefer to talk about anything else.

Trump, meanwhile, is straining to muddle the issue. That isn’t easy for someone who appointed three of the justices who buried Roe v. Wade and favors a national ban. “We’re going to come up with a time — and maybe we could bring the country together on that issue,” he said recently. “The number of weeks now, people are agreeing on 15. … And it’ll come out to something that’s very reasonable.” But a 15-week ban is still a ban.

What brought about this change was the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision enshrining the right to abortion. Since then, public opinion has shifted in favor of reproductive freedom.

A Pew Research Center poll last year found that 53% of Americans think medication abortion should be legal in their state, with only 22% saying it should not be.

Voters in seven states, including red ones such as Kansas and Ohio, have had the chance to vote on ballot initiatives involving abortion rights — and abortion rights have won every time.

Florida, which Trump carried twice, could be next. On Monday, the state Supreme Court issued a decision that will allow a ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy — while approving a November referendum on a constitutional amendment protecting abortion rights. A poll last year found that 62% of Florida voters would vote “yes” — enough to meet the 60% required to pass. In any case, the proposal could energize enough pro-abortion rights voters to give Biden a victory in Florida.

The prospect of a Trump presidency should motivate those who support abortion rights to get to the polls this fall. But Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota and Democratic Rep. Cori Bush of Missouri have raised a related issue that should help expose how far out of step the GOP is with popular sentiment.

They propose repealing the notorious Comstock Act — an 1873 law making it a crime to mail anything intended for “the prevention of conception or procuring of abortion.” If it remains on the books and Trump wins, Smith noted, he could use this “zombie law to severely ratchet back abortion access in America without congressional action.”

At the moment, abortion medications are legally available nationwide. For nearly a century, the Comstock Act has been a dead letter, with courts and Congress agreeing that it does not apply to products meant for legal use.

But anti-abortion rights groups want to revive the harshest application of the law. The right-wing Heritage Foundation says if Trump regains the presidency, the Justice Department should use the Comstock Act to stop the distribution of abortion pills — which account for more than half of all abortions.

Jonathan Mitchell, a lawyer who helped craft Texas’ 2021 ban on abortion and has represented Trump before the Supreme Court, told The New York Times, “We don’t need a federal ban when we have Comstock on the books.”

Even he, however, is not oblivious to political reality. When it comes to the Comstock Act, Mitchell said, “I think the pro-life groups should keep their mouths shut as much as possible until the election.”

A concerted campaign to repeal the Comstock Act would force Republicans — including Trump — into a painful choice: Defend this retrograde statute, thus antagonizing pro-abortion rights voters, or break with the anti-abortion rights groups that they have long pandered to, at the risk of infuriating the GOP base.

For a long time, many Americans who put the highest value on the bodily autonomy of women could sleep through Republican attacks on abortion rights. Now that the talk has turned into a severe and imminent threat, they are waking up.

Steve Chapman was a member of the Tribune Editorial Board from 1981 to 2021. His columns, exclusive to the Tribune, appear the first Thursday of every month. He can be reached at

Submit a letter to the editor, of no more than 400 words, by emailing To review our criteria, click here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *