How Pro-Lifers Can Win the Florida Contest

Published April 7, 2024

National Review

Florida’s vote on a pro-abortion-rights constitutional amendment this November will be crucial for the pro-life movement. Reeling from a string of losses at the ballot box since the Dobbs decision, the movement badly needs a win to prevent some Republican politicians from jumping ship. Pro-lifers can win Florida’s contest, but they will have to make arguments many won’t like.

The Dobbs decision to overrule Roe v. Wade rightly returned abortion laws to the people and their elected representatives. The problem for pro-lifers is that people largely support a right to abortion during the early stages of pregnancy. Polls regularly show overwhelming support for keeping abortion legal in all or most cases. One recent poll even showed a slim plurality opposed to a national 16-week abortion ban. Pro-lifers therefore lose elections that are understood to be referenda on the basic question of abortion access.

That’s why pro-abortion-rights activists always phrase their agenda as the restoration of Roe. They know that’s their strongest point, and keeping the public discussion focused on core abortion access means they have the best chance at winning.

Public support for their views weakens, however, the further the debate goes beyond that basic question. Polls show that even many pro-abortion-rights Americans quail at the idea of permitting abortions in the later stages of pregnancy. An AP-NORC poll from last year showed that, while Americans narrowly supported abortion rights at the 15th week of pregnancy, nearly 70 percent opposed permitting an abortion in or after the 24th week. The closer an unborn child is to viability, the likelier Americans are to agree that it has a right to life.

This gives pro-lifers the wedge they need to defeat the Florida initiative. Like Roe, whose core ruling is largely misunderstood, it would permit abortions up until fetal viability. Since that occurs between the 20th and 24th week of pregnancy, it follows that the measure would permit abortions at a time when a strong majority of Americans don’t want them to occur.

Pro-lifers must therefore concentrate all of their efforts on persuading the Floridians who would approve of abortions at 15 weeks but oppose them at 24 weeks to vote no. They cannot do that if they use the traditional pro-life rhetoric that calls attention to the dignity of human life at all stages of development. Those voters already have heard that argument and disagree with pro-lifers.

The “no” campaign should instead focus solely on the initiative’s excesses: on the fact that it would allow unborn children with fully formed brains, hearts, and lungs to be killed. The center of American — and likely Floridian — public opinion does not want that to happen.

Making this the debate’s focal point would require restraint. A television ad, for example, featuring a woman who openly supports abortion rights in the first trimester but believes this amendment goes too far could be a game-changer. But that would entail pro-life forces promoting a message they like built on a premise they reject. That would be very hard to swallow.

The alternative, however, would be far worse. Florida is widely viewed as a great example of a state that has moved sharply to the right in recent years. If abortion-rights advocates there can obtain the 60 percent support they need to pass a constitutional amendment, already wavering Republicans will start to see pro-lifers as an anchor around their ankles. They will start to find ways to triangulate on the issue in ways pro-lifers won’t like. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that the political future of the pro-life movement is what’s actually on the ballot.

Politicians want to be on the winning side of most issues. Abortion is no exception, no matter how strongly and deeply pro-lifers believe in the justness of their cause. They’ve spent decades patiently building support for the pro-life position within the Republican Party, support that has led directly to the appointment of the justices who overruled Roe. Once that support begins to fade, it would be very difficult to win it back.

Pro-lifers are aided by the fact that they will be urging a “no” vote. Decades of ballot-initiative history show that people will vote no if they have doubts. They don’t need to be persuaded by the “no” campaign’s implicit position. They only need to be persuaded that the change the measure’s proponents want is risky or uncertain.

Winning this battle would start to turn the public debate in pro-lifers’ favor. No observer expects this measure to fail by a strong majority. But even if it fails narrowly rather than outright, waverers will begin to believe that they can be safe in supporting pro-life views. That must be the pro-life movement’s short-term objective.

Australian conservatives won a ballot-initiative battle last year, in which they had started well behind, with the slogan, “If you don’t know, vote no.” Replicating that campaign in the abortion context is the only goal pro-lifers should pursue. If they do, they can not only win today; they can lay the necessary ground for winning the most important battles in the years to come.

Henry Olsen, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, studies and provides commentary on American politics. His work focuses on how America’s political order is being upended by populist challenges, from the left and the right. He also studies populism’s impact in other democracies in the developed world.

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