Could abortion become a wedge issue in North Carolina—the South’s last semi-swing state—in 2016? That’s question raised by a New York Times piece published Sunday about an anti-abortion law that took effect on Jan. 1. The new measure requires doctors who perform abortions after the 16th week of pregnancy to send an ultrasound of the fetus to the State Department of Health and Human Services. The state says that demanding the ultrasounds, which can be used to determine “probable gestational age,” is a legitimate way to make sure that clinics are complying with the cutoff for legal abortion in North Carolina: 20 weeks, with exceptions for medical emergencies. Opponents argue that the law’s real objective is to intimidate doctors, and that it puts women’s medical records at risk, since the health department has suffered recent data breaches.
The debate is heated, but it’s not really new. State-level Republicans across the country have passed hundreds of stringent anti-abortion laws since 2010 without suffering a discernible backlash, and North Carolina Republicans didn’t sacrifice their hold on their own state when they infamously snuck abortion provisions into a motorcycle safety bill in 2013. Plus, Louisiana and Oklahoma have already instituted this kind of ultrasound requirement. So why does the Times piece emphasize that the bill may become a weapon in the hands of the Democratic party as it tries to unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and carry North Carolina in the presidential race? Hillary Clinton has already called the bill “outrageous,” but is there any reason to think that enough voters will care?
“When a race is really, really close, something like this could matter,” says Pope McCorkle III, a longtime political consultant in North Carolina who now teaches public policy at Duke. And “really, really close” describes the political scene in North Carolina, where the Tea Party’s control of the legislature has fed a vocal progressive movement and its famed “Moral Mondays” protests. The abortion issue could be potent—but only if Democrats can find the right way to package it. McCorkle predicts that the law’s status as a wedge issue will depend on the extent to which Democrats can convince voters that they don’t want a state agency “looking over shoulders, and censoring and penalizing doctors.”
Clinton and other national Democrats have their eyes on North Carolina in part because McCrory, who ran as a moderate in 2012, is vulnerable to criticism that he’s been steamrolled by his hard-right legislature. McCrory also pledged as a candidate that he wouldn’t enact new abortion restrictions—a promise that the new law flagrantly breaks. Marc Farinella, a professor at the University of Chicago who was the North Carolina State Director for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, thinks that McCrory’s rightward drift, coupled with the extremism on display in the GOP primary, means that “the narrative that’s going on at the state level in North Carolina to many voters seems consistent with the narrative at the federal level. … I think this could matter up and down the ticket.”
Farinella suggests that the ultrasound law—which also institutes a 72-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions, the longest in the country—may be uniquely poised to backfire on conservatives. He points out that Democrats could use it not just to mobilize progressives but also to reach undecided voters who are wary of government overreach. “I think the Republicans, in pursuing this, were focusing on their own ideological agenda, and will wind up really alienating a lot of people who were not necessarily already positioned to vote against them,” Farinella says.
Not all of the state’s political wonks agree. Andrew Taylor of North Carolina State University says that abortion will remain “a fundraising issue and a base issue more than anything else” in 2016—one that both Republicans and Democrats can use to rile a relatively small share of voters. Kenneth Fernandez, a pollster at Elon University, throws a little cold water on the “government overreach” angle, pointing out that “both Republicans and Democrats tend to be inconsistent in their perceptions of the role of government.” People who are anti-abortion—or even undecided but uncomfortable—usually look the other way when state policy infringes on women’s rights. Certainly, Republicans have instituted a whole buffet of laws that meddle in the ways doctors treat patients, from requiring abortion providers to show women ultrasounds of fetuses to forcing them to counsel women that abortions can raise the risk of breast cancer (an idea that scientists have thoroughly debunked).
Still, Fernandez isn’t ready to rule out the idea that abortion could be a factor in North Carolina in 2016. The Republican Party expects the law “to go under most voters’ radar,” he says, but “it will be interesting to see if opponents can ring the alarm bell and say, ‘This is different than anything we’ve seen in recent history, and this is wrong.’ ” North Carolina voters remain more moderate than their Louisiana and Oklahoma counterparts. Maybe, when it comes to abortion politics in the South, it’s still possible for Republicans to go too far.