Protecting reproductive freedom is a winning issue with the American public. So why are we in the midst of an all-out assault on it?

In political conversations about abortion in the U.S., one critical fact is far too consistently ignored: The overwhelming majority of Americans support—and always have supported—maintaining the legal right to abortion. Right now that support is at an all-time high of 77%. But in 1972, a year before Roe v. Wade, more than two thirds of even Republicans agreed that abortion was a private matter between a woman and her doctor. Protecting reproductive freedom is a winning issue with the American public. So why are we in the midst of an all-out assault on reproductive freedom?

Republican voters, like almost all people, want to believe that their chosen course is the moral one. At the same time, most people choose not to argue morality with others, believing it is a personal code, not a political one. The reticence to argue is especially acute when it comes to issues of abortion. Any individual decision to end a pregnancy involves so many different factors and circumstances that it inherently lives in the complicated gray zone of the mind. The right has always defined this as black-and-white, when, like most things in life, people are just making the best decisions they can for themselves at the time.

Forcing an overly simplistic view of the issues surrounding abortion rights and, more broadly, of reproductive freedom also benefits the GOP brand. They demand the moral high ground without ever reckoning with the breadth of moral issues—from racial and economic inequality to climate change and more—that impact their privilege in society. They channel their frustration at a changing culture, or at perceived threats to traditional privilege or masculinity, into a crusade that feels not just morally justifiable, but morally superior.

Wrapping themselves in ostensibly Christian virtue also means that they’re often given the benefit of the doubt in all aspects of public discourse. No matter the attack, the default assumption of those around them is benevolent intent because they present as being driven by an unimpeachable and divinely inspired set of principles. They are often not asked about or held accountable for policies they propose, much less those that spring from their infrastructures and founding philosophy. They can ignore children in cages, promote self-serving tax policy, or deny health care to millions of Americans during a global pandemic simply by dog-whistling “abortion.”

As forces on the right moved from focusing on maintaining segregationist policies to attacking the potential Equal Rights Amendment to the protections of Roe v. Wade to the security offered by policies like the Affordable Care Act, it effectively used its facade of morality to stay perpetually on the offensive. Focused solely on maintaining power through winning and obstructing progress, they never developed a plan for governing. The movement’s proposals were too often not subject to scrutiny, because who could question someone’s deeply held religious or moral beliefs?

Try to ask a Republican to defend the abortion bans that moved through conservative states in 2019. Ask how exactly they enforce such a ban. Ask how potential violations would be investigated. Serious questions about the consequences of implementing their own policies often result in platitudes, promises, or dodges. Republicans don’t have a governing philosophy around the issue itself and have not been effectively forced to reckon with the damage their poorly conceived ideological bills would wreak. Then ask what they’re doing to combat America’s maternal mortality problem. Ask how they will help women who need to support their children. Ask about the uninsured kids, the lack of access to education, to food security, and to job opportunity.

In recent focus groups, we’ve found that when people are asked to think through current antichoice policy proposals—how they work, who they would impact, and what measures would be necessary to enforce them—those people become increasingly opposed to those policies and the harsh realities they would impose. That holds true even for many people who initially supported much of the “pro-life” ideology.

We have focused on how the manipulative strategy of the radical right and GOP has been used to politicized the issue of abortion for their larger political gain. However, the effects don’t stop there. They’ve consistently used similar techniques to undermine steps toward racial equality, LGBTQ equality, economic justice, and so much more. And they’ve been able to level those attacks despite overwhelming public support for more progressive policy in each and every one of those areas. What we’re looking at is a wide-reaching effort to attack democracy and insulate white male privilege from a changing society.

The issue of reproductive freedom may be best understood as a canary in a coal mine, though not the only one. Systematic attacks on reproductive freedom are one of the classic hallmarks of democratic backsliding. Advocates for reproductive freedom, health, rights, and justice have spent the last several decades combatting the elements of creeping authoritarianism—from disinformation and propaganda, to the ongoing efforts to undermine trust in science and medicine, to a relentless barrage of attacks on institutions designed to protect individual liberty or free and fair elections.

The radical right has never had popular support, but with the help of their relentless disinformation campaigns and a network of powerful institutions at their disposal, popular support can be overwhelmed. With the Supreme Court now under their control, they’re stronger than ever.

We still live in a democracy, and popular opinion still matters. But we are being held back on engaging on the critical issue of reproductive freedom by a fear of leaning in and taking a bold and public stance. That fear began in an era where white men led both parties and even the most progressive political leaders considered so-called women’s issues a sideshow, but it has been proactively nurtured by the radical right. Our progressive political leadership is more diverse than ever, women and pregnant people have made their demands known, and policies that center the lived experiences of women and families are in line with what the vast majority of Americans want. The polling unquestionably demonstrates that protecting reproductive freedom is a core American value.

The underlying reality remains the same. Consistent research has shown that more than 7 in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion. Only 9% of voters believe abortion should be rendered completely illegal, now the mainstream GOP position. Even among self-identified Republicans, support for a full abortion ban is as low as 20%. Backlash to the draconian positions of the antichoice right are now too visible to ignore. From the uprisings around the Kavanaugh nomination to the marches protesting the abortion bans of 2019 to the electoral outcomes since 2016, the evidence of overreach on the right is apparent.

Political flash points like the Women’s March or the backlash to Georgia’s and Alabama’s draconian abortion bans show that, when the public is able to see through the radical right’s shallow “moral” facade and understand the cruelty their proposals would impose, the public recoils. There’s no reason Democratic leaders shouldn’t lean in.

The manipulative strategy that has driven the radical right for so many decades only works when left uncontested. Countering those strategies requires a serious investment in better, bolder messaging; proactive efforts to fight disinformation both online and offline; long-term planning and coordination across the progressive coalition; a focus on the courts; and a more realistic political analysis that understands the ways the right has manipulated race and gender to activate their audiences and project their power.

They depend on our silence and our fragmentation—2020 is the year to change this.