Whatever It Takes, Democrats Must Defend Abortion Rights

Whatever It Takes, Democrats Must Defend Abortion Rights

Whatever It Takes, Democrats Must Defend Abortion Rights

Voters did their part by electing Democrats in 2020. It’s past time these elected leaders did theirs.


With the unprecedented leak of the US Supreme Court’s draft opinion affirmatively revoking abortion rights, the theoretical discussion of what the end of Roe v. Wade could look like became real for more people Monday. Though it’s only a draft, it is clear that after decades of legislative and court battles, marches, rallies, and vigils, the legal right to have an abortion in the United States is likely to end this summer.

The Democrats, for now, still have control of the White House, the Senate, and the US House of Representatives. So they can and should use the time they have left to defend abortion rights, loudly and without equivocation—as they already do in the party’s platform.

To be sure, this moment could have been prevented—during countless election cycles and by prioritizing court appointments when Democrats had a majority and listening to reproductive health, rights, and justice leaders who warned of the likelihood of this scenario for years.

Anti-abortion legislators and advocates have not exactly been quiet about their intentions. Since Roe v. Wade legalized the right to abortion in the United States in 1973, state lawmakers have enacted 1,336 abortion restrictions, 44 percent of which in the last decade alone. At the federal level, after years of unsuccessful attempts by anti-choice lawmakers to pass a ban on abortions in the second and third trimesters, President George W. Bush signed a later abortion ban without exception for the health of the mother in 2003. Reproductive rights and justice advocates responded with the 2004 March for Women’s Lives. It was one of my first major actions post-college to organize fellow young people to attend the march, the largest on the National Mall up until the 2017 Women’s March.

As a Black woman and a daughter of immigrants, I understood how a lack of bodily autonomy could affect a person’s life. Both of my grandmothers had to drop out of high school because their society expected them to get married and have children as teenagers. And they had multiple children because no birth control was available. I charted a career in Democratic politics—prompted by these issues and more—to support reproductive rights and justice movement work and became fluent in many aspects of reproductive health care.

Over time, I witnessed not only the legislation the anti-choice movement championed but also its willingness to enable extremists who would shoot up, set fire to, or bomb clinics. I too raised concerns—exhorting people to care about elections because no one should have their right to bodily autonomy trampled. We were like Cassandra, the Trojan priestess who foresaw the fall of her kingdom and tried to warn her family, but her warnings were ignored. At best, activists were dismissed for how much we didn’t understand politics, and at worst we received an eye roll and a mutter about our “overreaction.” Now, here we all are staring at the brink of disaster and open season on our fundamental human rights. But that doesn’t mean the work ends.

The thing is, a majority of Americans (61 percent) continue to say that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And the majority of those folks vote with the Democratic Party. About eight in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (82 percent) say abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Seven in 10 have said they do not want the Supreme Court to completely overturn Roe v. Wade. And the sentiment of Democratic voters and activists is reflected in the Democratic Party platform, which affirms the right to abortion.

Party leaders, then, need to take immediate, bold action on abortion rights. For starters, President Joe Biden could use an executive order to expand access to abortion through the FDA. Medication abortion, which is regulated by the federal agency, makes it possible for those who can’t get to a clinic, or choose not to, to access an abortion at home. In the US Senate, Democrats can muster support to change the filibuster and codify abortion rights through the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act. Joe Manchin is a no—but Senator Lisa Murkowski has said that she does not support overturning Roe, and maybe Senator Susan Collins can drop her faux outrage over Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett’s comments on Roe as settled law and actually support its codification.

There are many pro-choice Democratic candidates already taking this seriously in the 2022 election, but it needs to be the case with every Democratic candidate who says they are pro-choice. Candidates for office should make it clear on campaign materials and in public forums where they stand on abortion access. For example, 2022 Georgia Lt. Governor candidate Renitta Shannon had to be physically removed from the floor of the legislature as she attempted to block an abortion ban in her capacity as a state legislator.

Campaigns should also support the fight for abortion rights by asking their supporters to back organizations like abortion funds across the country, which do the work to ensure people can pay for and get to their appointments. Candidates—and Democrats in office—should also do the bare minimum of saying the word “abortion.” Too many of them do this weird linguistic dance to avoid saying the word, and it’s getting to be absurd. It implicitly validates the right-wing frame that abortion is something shameful, adding to the stigma that hurts those they say they support the most.

Democratic-majority state legislatures should pass legislation protecting the right to abortion—codifying the right in state law or constitutions. New York did exactly that in 2019 with the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, and, more recently, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Democratic leaders in the state legislature said they would propose a constitutional amendment, which voters would approve, to protect abortion access.

If you live in a state where the GOP has control, like my home state of Virginia, Democrats can continue to block anti-abortion legislation, and they can advocate for the passage of state legislation protecting abortion access, even if Republican lawmakers shut it down more than once. There are more people who support access to abortion care in the United States than those who want to ban it; our voices need to be heard, and we deserve to know where lawmakers stand in times of conflict.

There are some who would say that being extra loud about your support for abortion is getting away from the key concerns of voters like the economy and inflation. Well, pregnancy and parenting are often economic decisions, and one of the top reasons many choose not to have a child is the expenses involved in caring for one. We’re in year three of a pandemic, and with exorbitant student loans, a weaker social safety net, and rising food and gas costs, is it any wonder the birthrate in the United States keeps dropping?

There is much on the line, not just abortion access but also LGBTQ+ rights, voting rights, and our democracy as we know it. Democratic officials and leaders cannot afford to be anything less than unequivocally clear about how they will be the party that fights for abortion access. Volunteers, activists, and donors did their part by electing or supporting Democrats in 2020. It’s past time for elected officials to do theirs.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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