The New York Times’ daily newsletter The Morning has a reported 17 million subscribers. Its writer, David Leonhardt, is a celebrated business journalist and columnist who won a Pulitzer in 2011 for his economic columns and was a founding editor of the Upshot, the Times’ section dedicated to an “analytical approach to news.”
As one of those 17 million newsletter subscribers, I know that Leonhardt loves charts and numbers and cutting through the noise on various topics. But on abortion access, he is prone to flattening both the context and the stakes of the ongoing legal battles. Unsurprisingly, anti-abortion activists are eating it up, to the extent that Leonhardt’s arguments are now being used in Supreme Court amicus briefs to defend Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban and paint it as “broadly popular.”
For context, in May, SCOTUS announced it would hear a case involving the Mississippi ban—a case that could overturn Roe v. Wade—and Leonhardt wrote “a guide to public opinion” on abortion. He cited Gallup and Pew tracking polls showing that most Americans support Roe but also favor restrictions in the second trimester (weeks 14 to 26 of pregnancy) that the decision doesn’t permit. He wrote:
Roe, for example, allows only limited restrictions on abortion during the second trimester, mostly involving a mother’s health. But less than 30 percent of Americans say that abortion should “generally be legal” in the second trimester, according to Gallup. Many people also oppose abortion in specific circumstances — because a fetus has Down syndrome, for example — even during the first trimester.
Gender equality Pollster Tresa Undem pointed out the flaws in the ways these questions were asked and noted other data shows that people want access to be protected or expanded, don’t want new restrictions and certainly don’t want lawmakers or the Supreme Court deciding when people can have abortions.
Mallory Quigley, the VP of communications for the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List, raved about Leonhardt’s polling breakdown, calling it “impressive, honest reporting [and] analysis.”
Two anti-abortion law professors cited Leonhardt’s May newsletter in a brief to the Supreme Court as evidence that the Mississippi 15-week ban “appears to be broadly popular.”
The Mississippi Supreme Court case is drawing closer (arguments are on December 1), and the Court will now hear a separate challenge to Texas’ 6-week ban on November 1. And so Leonhardt returned to the subject of abortion in Wednesday’s newsletter, with the subject line “The Mushy Middle.”
He writes that “most Americans believe that abortion should generally be legal early in pregnancies and restricted later,” citing his previous oversimplification of the polls, and argues that if the Supreme Court guts Roe this term, as it’s widely expected to do, it would further polarize states’ abortion laws in ways that are out of step with public opinion—bans in red states and few restrictions in blue states. He then suggests that we consider looking to Europe for a solution to this problem:
Is there any place with a legal framework that more closely matches Americans’ complicated views on abortion? There is: Europe.
“Most of its nations offer broad access to abortions before 12 weeks or so, and it gets harder to get one after that,” Jon Shields, a government professor at Claremont McKenna College, has written for Times Opinion. Those laws, Shields argued, offered a potential template for an American compromise on the issue, balancing a woman’s right to control her body and a fetus’s right to live.
Just let states ban abortion after 12 weeks—isn’t that a tidy little fix for this “vexing” and complicated issue? But Leonhardt conveniently overlooks the fact that, among other differences in people’s ability to get healthcare, the majority of European countries have universal health insurance that pays for abortions.
It’s a point that the Times’ own Supreme Court reporter, Adam Liptak, made in a story earlier this month on the pitfalls of comparing US abortion laws to those in other countries. While 12 weeks is a commonly named legal limit in much of the world, Liptak reported on the insurance piece and broad health exceptions after 12 weeks, which together make the procedure much more accessible than in the US. Somehow I doubt that Leonhardt is advocating that the US adopt Medicare for All with coverage of abortions.
As if on cue, Kristan Hawkins, the president of Students for Life, shared and quoted from yesterday’s newsletter, saying: “We’re here to change hearts and minds of the ‘mushy middle.’”
Leonhardt’s reading of flawed polling has the effect of wrongly painting pro-choice advocates, and Democrats more broadly, as being out of step with most Americans’ views on abortion. In a newsletter read by millions, he is carrying water for the idea that upholding abortion bans at 15 or even 12 weeks is simply a reasonable compromise, which ignores the lives and families that will be devastated by the inability to legally control their reproduction.