So it turns out women do care about their right to control their own bodies. Who’d have guessed? In the run-up to the midterms, we heard a lot about how abortion had “peaked too soon”—a friend even suggested that the Supreme Court deliberately released the Dobbs decision in June precisely to give voters enough time to forget about it. Um, no. Too many people thought women couldn’t keep the loss of their reproductive freedom in their pretty little heads for more than a month or so when milk prices are so high. Democrats were criticized by everyone from David Brooks to Bernie Sanders for—finally!—making abortion their banner issue. If only the party had done so for the past 30 years!
I won’t lie: I was worried, too. Doomscrolling will do that to you, and following polls and reading a dozen hot takes before breakfast predicting catastrophe if Dems focused on abortion. It was the old story of men telling women to calm down—the same thing they’ve been doing for years whenever feminists warned that reproductive rights were at risk. There was so much gloom and panic among Democrats, you could start to think it was just a fever dream that Kansans rejected an anti-choice amendment to their state Constitution by an 18 percent margin in August, after predictions that it would just squeak by.
Here’s what actually happened. On November 8, with a rush of new voter registrations and a high turnout, five states chose reproductive rights, women’s health, and freedom. In California, 66 percent of voters passed Proposition 1, enshrining abortion and contraception rights in the state Constitution. In Vermont, voters went one better, locking down in their Constitution the rights to abortion, contraception, sterilization, and decision-making around pregnancy. In Michigan, voters won constitutional protections for abortion, contraception, and pregnancy and childbirth decisions.
Most surprising, in cherry-red Kentucky, where post-Roe trigger laws currently ban most abortions, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have explicitly denied protection for abortion, and in even cherrier-redder Montana, where Republicans control the governorship and both houses of the state legislature, voters rejected a deceptively worded “born alive” law that could have given doctors who provided palliative care to infants with fatal fetal anomalies a $50,000 fine and 20 years in prison.
Far from sinking Democrats’ hopes with their pesky uterine concerns, in many states pro-choice voters helped Democrats on to victories. As I write, we don’t yet have hard-and-fast numbers on who turned out and why, but it’s safe to say that abortion measures helped to bring plenty of women and young people to the polls. As a result, Gretchen Whitmer defeated Tudor Dixon, who claimed that giving birth after rape could be “healing” for a 14-year-old, and remains the governor of Michigan; Dems now control both houses of the formerly Republican state legislature. Pennsylvanians chose John Fetterman and Josh Shapiro over the anti-choice Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano. In the New Hampshire Senate race, Maggie Hassan beat ultra-Trumper Don Bolduc, who made the fatal mistake of telling her she should just “get over it” about the Dobbs decision.
Dobbs is proving to be something of a political embarrassment to Republicans, emboldening anti-abortion extremists and pushing to the fore an issue where they are in the minority. It has also concentrated the minds of middle-of-the-road people on what losing abortion rights actually means. It’s one thing to have qualms—to worry that there’s “too much abortion” and that women are too casual about it. It’s quite another to learn that abortion bans are forcing doctors to risk lives by refusing to treat incomplete miscarriages or to end pregnancies for 11-year-old girls who have been raped.
According to a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, support for abortion rights has surged since Dobbs: 66 percent of Americans now support all or almost all abortion, the highest since 1995—among women it’s 74 percent. Moreover, ABC News reports that “in the 14 states that have ceased nearly all abortion services, 63 percent now support legal abortion, up 20 points since April.” Reality bites.
I don’t want to oversell Democratic success in the election. We avoided the predicted collapse—for the last four first-term midterms, the party holding the White House has lost an average of 37 seats—but it could happen next time. President Biden is still unpopular, Republicans still control all branches of at least 23 state governments, and they may end up controlling the House of Representatives come January. The weakness of the state Democratic parties—looking at you, New York!—is a huge problem, and it would be a shame if whoever decides these things took the midterms as proof that it doesn’t matter: just parachute in every two years, pour on the TV ads, and hire more fancy consultants.
We need to think, too, about why the media so confidently predicted a red wave in the first place. Why did they buy the claim that abortion—and preserving democracy—didn’t matter and that inflation, crime, and immigration would be decisive? There are surely lots of reasons: the conventional thinking about the way midterms usually go, fear of being accused of liberal bias, and the plain fact that most media companies are owned by corporate interests who stand to benefit from pro-corporate Republican policies. Democrats seem prone by nature to pessimism, even when our opponents are incompetent weirdos.
For now, though, the lesson I’m taking is this: Abortion rights are popular, and Democrats should act that way. As Maya Rupert of the Center for Reproductive Rights put it to me in a phone call, “We have to let go of the idea that abortion is a uniquely divisive issue that people shouldn’t talk about.”
My friend Heather Booth is a progressive Democratic activist and was a member of the Jane Collective, which performed illegal abortions in pre-Roe Chicago; she’s been on the front lines for decades. Months ago, she told me, “If we organize, we will win.” Being a bit of a gloomster, I was privately skeptical. But Heather was right. Let’s not forget that as we move toward 2024 and doom clouds hover again.