Abortion Wins Elections for Democrats. What Should Advocates Demand in Return?

Abortion Wins Elections for Democrats. What Should Advocates Demand in Return?

Abortion Wins Elections for Democrats. What Should Advocates Demand in Return?

How can this popularity translate into political power for a movement that is not accustomed to making bold demands of its political leaders?


If abortion were a 2024 presidential candidate, it would wipe the floor with Donald Trump. On November 7, abortion helped Democrats take back the Virginia House, keep the Kentucky governorship, and secure a Pennsylvania Supreme Court seat. In Ohio, 57 percent of voters approved enshrining abortion access in the state Constitution; it was the seventh time abortion has faced a direct vote since Dobbs and the seventh time it’s won.

Abortion wins. Abortion rights activists have known this. Voters have often chosen to defend abortion when they get a direct vote, including in red states. What’s changed is that Democrats have finally started treating abortion like an issue they can win on—and in the wake of Dobbs, they’re doing just that.

“Abortion Rights Fuel Big Democratic Wins, and Hopes for 2024,” a New York Times headline read, three days after a Times poll showed Biden losing to Trump in five of six swing states.

This newfound popularity is surreal for abortion rights activists.

“It’s completely disorienting,” Angela Vasquez-Giroux, vice president of communications and research at Reproductive Freedom for All, formerly known as NARAL, told me. “I imagine it’s like if you were a sprinter trying to set a world record and you get the wind at your back.”

“We’ve been such an under-resourced, kind of ignored movement for so long, it feels like we were beamed into a future where suddenly conditions were different,” Vasquez-Giroux added.

So how does this popularity translate into political power for a movement that has spent decades defending Roe and is not accustomed to making bold demands of its political leaders? Abortion rights activists, especially those who want more than just a restoration of Roe’s protections, are reckoning with how to demand more of Democrats, and expect more of voters. Voters, as the resounding election results show, are “lightyears ahead of where we expected,” Vasquez-Giroux said. “We knew there would be some advancement, but there was just no way that anyone could have predicted it would have gone this far this fast.” So what will the abortion rights movement do with Democrats relying on their endorsement and outraged voters ready to act? Reproductive justice groups like URGE say that the answer should be: Go big. That means not only advancing policies that go beyond Roe to make abortion accessible for everyone. It means supporting policies that help the low-income people of color who are suffering most from Dobbs, even as Democrats reap the decision’s political rewards.

“We have to continue to remind people—and get the commitment—that Roe is the floor,” Kimberly Inez McGuire, URGE’s executive director, told me. “If after this groundswell of public support, if all we get is the status quo ante, we have failed.”

McGuire defended the successful ballot initiative in Ohio, which added protections for healthcare services like contraception, but was otherwise a restoration of Roe. The initiative allows the legislature to ban abortion after fetal viability unless the pregnant person’s health is at risk, adopting the Roe framework of allowing post-viability bans. But Republican officials had essentially ignored the compromise, issuing a convoluted summary of the initiative that referred to the “unborn child,” and running ads like one featuring Governor Mike DeWine and his wife that claimed the initiative would allow abortion “at any time during a pregnancy.”

For some abortion-rights advocates, the fact that Republicans used this misleading messaging shows that a Roe-style compromise on fetal viability was futile. “There was no reason viability language needed to be in the amendment,” the Abortion Fund of Ohio, which was part of the ballot initiative coalition, posted on social media late on election night after the results were in.

In Virginia, voters sent a clear rebuke to Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin, who spent $7.7 million in PAC money and $500,000 of his own cash asking voters to give him a GOP “trifecta” in the state that would enable him, among other things, to pass a 15-week abortion ban. Youngkin had adopted the Susan B. Anthony List’s strategy of trying to dress up such a ban as a “reasonable limit.” Instead, Virginia Democrats now hold both chambers of the legislature for the first time since 2021. That year, they blew the chance to codify Roe, at least in part because some lawmakers didn’t want to change their vacation plans, The New York Times reported.

Now Democrats in the state have another chance. Virginia state Senator Jennifer Boysko told me she plans to introduce a bill to put a constitutional amendment enshrining abortion rights before voters, a multiyear process. She said her bill would mirror the state’s current policy, which bans third-trimester abortions unless a doctor consults with two other physicians who agree the pregnancy would impair the health of the person carrying it. Did the resounding success of abortion in the recent election suggest she might go even bolder, beyond the status quo?

“It’s possible that we will be able to do it,” Boysko told me, noting that she would like to pursue removing abortion from the state’s criminal code. “We tend to work with consensus, so I need to have conversations with my colleagues to see…how expansive we can make this. I certainly would not want to present something and then not have it pass.”

State lawmakers like Boysko are often more adept at discussing abortion that national leaders like, say, President Biden, who, three days after the first anniversary of Dobbs, told a crowd of wealthy donors that he is “not big on abortion.” The sad fact is that Democrats, who are struggling to reach voters on a range of issues, are pinning their hopes for 2024 on a strategy that the Republicans created.

“Politically, I mean, [Republicans] really gave the gift that has kept on giving by overturning Roe,” Randi Gregory, vice president of political and legislative affairs at the National Institute for Reproductive Health, told me. “They’ve done the best strategy for Democrats—better than what they could have done for themselves—by overturning Roe.”

What price can abortion rights supporters demand from Democrats in return? Gregory said the answer must include not just expansive policies on abortion that—in the words of NIRH’s late president, Andrea Miller—“leave no one behind.” Voters need policies that meet the broader definition of reproductive justice by addressing healthcare, jobs, and inequality.

“You can’t keep asking people to come out and vote and be galvanized and then you don’t show them the results of that,” Gregory said. “We’re not single-issue voters. This is not the only issue that affects our life.”

Abortion rights groups, especially well-known ones like Planned Parenthood and Reproductive Freedom for All, have a powerful point of leverage in their political endorsements. With a clear difference between most Republicans and Democrats on abortion, these groups have historically tended to prioritize endorsing pro-choice Democrats that they believe will win, even if they tend to lean right on other reproductive justice priorities. Perhaps it’s no surprise, for example, that all but three of the 22 Democrats who sided with Republicans in voting to censure Representative Rashida Tlaib on election night were endorsed by Planned Parenthood Action Fund in 2022. Now, with public support at their back, some advocates say these groups could start demanding more from politicians, on abortions and a host of progressive priorities.

“Endorsements are big for politicians,” Gretchen Sisson, a sociologist, reproductive rights advocate, and political donor, told me. “Especially right now, [Democrats are] going to have to have Planned Parenthood’s endorsement. So make the endorsements of abortion rights organizations means something.”

Right now, these endorsements tend to mean that a candidate supports codifying Roe and is likely to win. Rather than push President “Not Big on Abortion” Biden, for example, Reproductive Freedom for All has already endorsed him for 2024. In September 2022, the group endorsed Alaska Representative Mary Peltola, just a few weeks after she gave a convoluted answer on abortion on a podcast, saying she would “codify Roe” but would support a 16-week ban, which she believed was already the limit in “most states.” To be fair, her predecessor was an anti-abortion Republican and her challengers for the seat included Sarah Palin.

But with endorsements from abortion rights groups more coveted than ever before, should the groups be more willing to take risks with leveraging these endorsements? What if the 22 Democrats who voted to censure Tlaib—the House’s only Palestinian American and one of its staunchest defenders of abortion rights — had to consider whether they might offend Reproductive Freedom for All, which rightly considers Tlaib one of its “champions”? One of the few issues that can rival the popularity of abortion right now is the resounding call for a cease-fire in Gaza. A poll by the Arab American Institute showed that 66 percent of voters, including 80 percent of Democrats, want Biden to call for one. The crisis in Palestine has proven to be yet another issue where the public is far ahead of politicians

Some reproductive justice activists are connecting the dots between their commitments and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The abortion fund ARC-Southeast issued a series of posts on Instagram arguing that Palestine is a reproductive justice issue. The reproductive justice group We Testify has condemned “the ongoing genocide of Palestinians in Gaza,” and abortion funds Holler Health Justice and Abortion Fund of Ohio have issued statements of solidarity with Palestine grounded in reproductive justice values. Planned Parenthood issued a far more toned-down expression of this sentiment from CEO Alexis McGill Johnson on October 16 titled “Everyone Deserves to Be Seen,” that read, “Many across our community are reeling from Hamas’ horrific attack on Israeli civilians and the humanitarian crisis continuing to unfold in Gaza with the escalation of war.” Without naming Israel’s role in killing civilians in Gaza, McGill Johnson called for “a world where we can all be free and be seen.”

The International Federation of Planned Parenthood, the global federation of family planning providers of which Planned Parenthood is a member, has called for an “immediate ceasefire.”

“In recognition of the disproportionate impact of this latest escalation of violence on those in Gaza due to Israel’s blockade and ongoing occupation, we call for unhindered humanitarian assistance and aid flows to all parts of Gaza,” IPPF said on its website, noting that an Israeli air strike on an adjacent building had destroyed the only health center run by the organization’s member association in Palestine, and that an estimated 19,000 pregnant women are among the 1.1 million residents forced to flee northern Gaza under Israel’s evacuation order.

It’s not out of the question for groups like Reproductive Freedom for All to evaluate candidates based on more than just abortion.

“When it comes to our endorsements, we have put our weight behind issues that extend beyond abortion rights and access,” the group’s communications director, Ally Boguhn, told me in an e-mail. “In January 2021, we announced we would not endorse or support any senator who refused to find a path forward on the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act. This decision meant that Sen. Kyrsten Sinema was ineligible for our endorsement, and we recently endorsed Rep. Ruben Gallego to replace her in the U.S. Senate.”

It’s a quantum leap between the decision to ditch Sinema and the kind of fantasy I’ve been indulging lately where abortion rights groups rally behind Tlaib when she faces censure. But Democrats across the country are being pulled to victory on abortion’s coattails. It’s not a stretch to say abortion rights activists should start demanding more in return.

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