Democrats Should Make Abortion a Cornerstone Issue

Democrats Should Make Abortion a Cornerstone Issue

Democrats Should Make Abortion a Cornerstone Issue

As the Republican Party keeps radicalizing, Democrats need to elevate reproductive freedom.


Ballot initiatives are the best electoral bellwether for where the abortion fight stands in the United States in the post-Dobbs era. There were ballot initiatives in six states in 2022 and they revealed a remarkable consensus that cut across the usual regional divides: The pro-choice side won not just in blue states like Vermont and California but also in purple states like Michigan—and even in very red states like Montana, Kansas, and Kentucky. In an otherwise polarized country, abortion has become the opposite of a wedge issue. It doesn’t matter if voters are Black or white, women or men, Democrats or Republicans, college-educated or high school dropouts: Overwhelming majorities of most major demographics support a woman’s right to control her own fertility as previously enshrined under Roe v. Wade. When given a chance to vote for it, they will vote for reproductive freedom.

No knows this fact better than Republican politicians, now running scared after a wave of election losses and underperformance due to the new salience of abortion. On Thursday, Politico reported that the GOP was splintering on the abortion issue, with some leaders in the Senate like minority whip John Thune of South Dakota pushing for a national ban after 15 weeks, while fellow Republicans like Senator John Cornyn of Texas argue that the party should leave the issue to the states and avoid taking a national stance. Politico notes:

Complicating Republicans’ decision-making, polls and election results over the past year show an electorate mostly moving away from the GOP on abortion, even in red states like Kansas. Yet the party’s base and anti-abortion rights lobby is not backing away from the debate. Republicans acknowledge that abortion is costing them votes in some races, but their tactical disagreements over what to do about it are tough to settle without a clear leader to follow.

The Cornyn position will be hard to maintain as anti-choice activists, emboldened by Dobbs, continue to push for a nationwide ban, sometimes with the help of right-wing judges like Matthew Kacsmaryk, whose decision rescinding FDA approval for the abortion pill mifepristone was temporarily stayed by the Supreme Court late Friday night but will eventually be settled by judicial review. There’s every reason to think that other reactionary judges and Republican district attorneys will try to take advantage of the novel argument Kacsmaryk introduced repurposing the Comstock Act to limit abortion pills. The anti-abortion movement has a life independent of the Republican Party’s electoral strategy, even as it retains a strong foothold inside the GOP. The wave of ever-more- restrictive laws in red states is proof enough that this movement will continue to try to press its maximalist agenda of a total nationwide abortion ban.

Beyond the anti-choice movement, the nature of the Republican coalition means the abortion fight will continue. There’s simply no way to win the presidential nomination for the GOP without being anti-abortion. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed a six-week abortion ban in a clear bid to garner the anti-abortion vote inside the GOP as he gears up for a run in the presidential primaries.

Continuing losses in ballot initiatives are pushing the GOP not to abandon or temper its efforts but to push harder to limit the power of voters to decide the abortion issue. The New York Times reported on Sunday that, “with abortion rights groups pushing for similar citizen-led ballot initiatives in at least six other states, Republican-controlled legislatures and anti-abortion groups are trying to stay one step ahead by making it harder to pass the measures—or to get them on the ballot at all.” In Ohio, Republicans are trying to change the rules so that a supermajority of 60 percent will be needed to win on ballot initiatives. North Dakota is also seeing a push to prevent abortion policy from being shaped by ballot initiative.

The Republican position has become a mixture of internal division, desperation, and radicalization. They know that they can’t win on the ballot, so they are going on the offense against the rules of democracy, placing their hopes instead on the GOP’s stranglehold on the courts.

Democrats, however, face their own divisions on abortion. In a wide-ranging survey in New York, Rebecca Traister noted that the party is torn “between a calcified leadership that remains ambivalent about making abortion access truly central to a Democratic rhetorical and policy framework, and frustrated politicians who see the fight for reproductive autonomy as both a moral and strategic linchpin.” The main example of “calcified leadership” is Joe Biden, accurately described by Traister as “a Catholic boy from Scranton, first sworn into the Senate weeks before Roe was decided in 1973, who spent the early decades of his career as an opponent of abortion rights.” Over time, Biden has moved into line with his party’s position on abortion—but only half-heartedly and reluctantly. “Calcified leadership” can also be seen in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the health problems of the octogenarian Dianne Feinstein have kneecapped Democratic efforts to rebalance the courts.

As opposed to this “calcified leadership,” Traister points to younger politicians like Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer who are pushing to make abortion a cornerstone issue.

Abortion doesn’t exist in isolation, but is tied to many other issues Democrats care about: the need to rescue the courts from reactionary rule, the defense of democracy against an increasingly autocratic GOP that is willing to govern by minority rule, the vision of a more egalitarian country where women are free and equal citizens. But to use abortion as a cornerstone issue, the Democrats first need to advance their own internal reform. The party’s gerontocracy that is reluctant to fight needs to step aside—or get pushed.

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