Democrats must find their voice on abortion rights

Sarahbeth Maney/The New York Times via AP, Pool

Americans tuning in to President Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday could be forgiven for thinking that Democrats have decisively won the cultural war over abortion rights. In a speech that clocked in at just over an hour, Biden studiously avoided using the word “abortion” a single time. His only reference to abortion rights came in passing.

“The constitutional right affirmed by Roe v. Wade, standing precedent for half a century, is under attack as never before,” Biden said. “If we want to go forward, not backward, we must protect access to health care. Preserve a woman’s right to choose.” 

What constitutional right affirmed by Roe v. Wade? A woman’s right to choose what? In too many situations, the “right to choose” has become a phrase without an ending — the final, crucial word omitted to satisfy political strategists who believe the Republican myth that even uttering the word “abortion” will spell electoral doom. 

The State of the Union was Biden’s biggest opportunity to reset that received wisdom – and rally the Democratic base – by condemning fully and clearly the GOP’s scorched-earth war on women.

The situation is acute. On one side, the Supreme Court is likely to hand down a decision on Texas’s restrictive new abortion law later this year that legal experts argue would effectively end abortion rights as we know them. On the other, Senate Democrats fell short this week in their effort to codify abortion protections into law. There has never been a more urgent time to mobilize the nearly 60 percent of Americans – and one third of Republicans – who support legal abortion.

Republicans have good reason to try and dissuade Democrats from making abortion a major issue in the upcoming midterm elections: a Hart Research survey of Americans in 11 states found that when elections focus on abortion, voters support Democrats over Republicans by 71 points. And in the suburbs that decided the 2016 and 2020 presidential contests, voters are deeply wary of an America without Roe v. Wade. If Republicans lose those suburban voters because they chose to burn down abortion rights, their electoral victory path practically disappears.

“We need to stop equating people’s discomfort with talking about sex, sexuality, gender identity, abortion – all of these things – pregnancy, with the political opinions or where the country is at,” We Testify Executive Director Renee Bracey Sherman told TIME’s Abigail Abrams. Bracey Sherman is right; for all the GOP’s doomsaying about the political suicide of mentioning abortion, the Republican position is out of step with the majority of the nation and even with a growing number of self-identified conservatives. There’s a reason House Republican hopefuls have been eager to talk about anything but abortion.

“For every other issue, he painted a picture of what he’ll do to rebuild America, from electric-car charging stations and high-speed internet,” Bracey Sherman said of Biden. “But he refuses to build back better for abortion.”

Biden and Democrats shouldn’t relegate the historic fight over abortion rights to an afterthought. It should instead be the centerpiece of an ambitious Democratic effort to build a new political coalition that realigns suburbs out of the GOP’s orbit. For a party badly in need of unity after a year that saw surprisingly public displays of intra-party hostility, making the midterms a referendum on abortion offers a path forward that energizes base voters and party activists across racial, ethnic, age and class lines. In addition to being the morally right thing to do, shaking up the electoral map is smart politics and one of the few ways Democrats can hope to escape a bludgeoning in November.

It’s clear from Biden’s remarks that he understands Roe is under direct assault, and any Democratic approach must be about more than just politics. Around the nation, but especially in Texas, women are facing an unprecedented stripping of their fundamental legal rights. They pleaded to their elected officials, but to no avail. They took their case all the way to a Supreme Court that took the extraordinarily unusual step of allowing Texas’s draconian law to remain in effect while the court considered the case. 

Democrats should not be ashamed to make abortion a major issue. For millions of women across the country, it is the major issue. An unexpected or unwanted pregnancy in a post-Roe America will determine many other factors in their lives. It’s time Democrats found their voice and unified once again to protect abortion rights in America.

Max Burns is a Democratic strategist and founder of Third Degree Strategies, a progressive communications firm. Follow him on Twitter @themaxburns.

Tags Abortion in the United States Abortion-rights movements Biden Human rights in the United States Joe Biden Roe v. Wade State of the Union address United States anti-abortion movement

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