Democrats must go bold on abortion
Two months ago this week, the Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade, its 1973 abortion decision. That decision ended the constitutional right to abortion and rolled back nearly half a century of reproductive freedom in American law. If it feels like the court made its fateful decision a lifetime ago, that’s because Republicans across the country have been working with alarming speed to dismantle what few abortion protections remain.
It took just 60 days for Republican-controlled state legislatures to ban abortion in 18 states, and anti-choice legislation is growing like kudzu through our state governments. Idaho and Tennessee both recently banned most abortions, helped by pre-existing “trigger” laws put into place before the court’s decision. Almost a third of the country now lacks access to fundamental reproductive freedom.
Meanwhile, Democrats are riding their own wave: Surveys suggest abortion is rising in importance as a voting issue, and the Democratic Party is poised to benefit at the polls. If Democrats want to translate the base’s enthusiasm into real votes, they’ll need to show voters the horrifying reality of Republicans’ post-Roe America.
They’ll also need to send a jolt to the White House, where a commission established last year to prepare for America’s post-Roe future has failed to generate much enthusiasm — or much measurable output. Last month, the newly-energized Congressional Progressive Caucus produced a list of 10 executive orders it hopes Biden will enact to shore up both abortion rights and Democrats’ credibility as abortion defenders. If Biden has seen that list, it hasn’t spurred him to take fresh action.
The situation in the states is dire. Idaho’s abortion ban makes it so difficult for medical professionals to legally comply with that a federal judge implied it likely violates federal law. States with already sky-high maternal mortality, including Louisiana (58.1 deaths per 100,000 births) and Georgia (48.4 per 100,000), are enacting laws that not only ban abortion but functionally ban some forms of contraception as well. Louisiana’s draconian law is currently tied up in the courts, leading to a statewide rush on products like the Plan B emergency contraceptive.
Those already sobering numbers are set to rise as more states enact sweeping bans on abortion and contraception. Researchers at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Behavioral Science expect strict bans to send maternal death rates soaring as much as 24 percent. That isn’t just from lack of abortion access, but from the creation of what experts call “maternity care deserts” created when family planning clinics close — taking their health care services with them. Seven million American women already live in maternity deserts, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
Democrats cannot afford to be silent on abortion. Fortunately for them, when Democrats get loud about abortion, they tap into a powerful current of anti-Republican sentiment that cuts across party lines. That’s what Americans saw in New York, where Democratic House hopeful Pat Ryan won an upset victory in New York’s 18th Congressional District by making abortion a centerpiece of his campaign. Ryan defied the GOP-created political myth that talking about abortion is political suicide for Democrats. By forcing his opponent to defend Republicans’ extreme abortion position, Ryan kept Republican Marc Molinaro in a constant defensive crouch.
Ryan did something bold: He actually read the polling data. A new survey from nonprofit newsroom South Dakota News Watch found that a near-supermajority (57 percent) of South Dakotans oppose a full ban on abortion. South Dakota is hardly a socialist paradise (voters there supported Donald Trump by a 2-to-1 margin in 2020), but its voters highlight just how many conservatives also believe in keeping the government out of people’s reproductive choices.
That trend is best observed in the House special elections that have taken place since the court’s decision to overrule Roe. Democrats in Nebraska’s 1st District cut a 15-point GOP advantage to just 5 points. In Minnesota’s 1st District, the Republican advantage fell from +10 to +4. That’s a huge red flag for GOP lawmakers.
From Ryan’s big win in New York to voters in Kansas rejecting Republican-backed efforts to strip away the state’s abortion protections, Democrats are proving that the American electorate is ready for a real discussion about reproductive freedom. But those grassroots local efforts are no match for the national resources pumped into the anti-choice movement by deep-pocketed, Republican-aligned interests. That kind of effort requires a true national response, and that call to action can only come from the White House.
Biden is riding high after a string of signature legislative victories, and that optimism has Democrats more confident in their political hopes than at any other time in Biden’s presidency. Now is the time to boldly and unapologetically center abortion rights and reproductive freedom as a unifying issue for the Democratic Party.
If Biden and congressional Democrats want to ride the wave of pro-choice enthusiasm into November, they’ll need to step more visibly into the fray and start leading the crowd.
Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns