Abortion debate sparks women’s activism and jumps to the head of 2020 campaign agenda

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg attends a rally at the Supreme Court protesting laws in Alabama and other states that restrict access to abortion on May 21 in Washington.
(Olivier Douliery / TNS)

After Alabama’s governor signed a near-total ban on abortion into law last week, a surge of women interested in running for office contacted Emily’s List, a women’s political group. The Virginia Democratic Party saw a surge in contributions. VoteRunLead, a group that trains female candidates, saw enrollment for an upcoming weekend course abruptly almost double.

With abortion policy returning to the center of national attention, women are back in the spotlight as a central force in Democratic politics. The party’s 2020 presidential candidates have responded quickly, scrambling to promote abortion rights policies in campaigns that had mostly been giving priority to economic issues.

Women — as candidates, voters and activists — were a pivotal element of Democrats’ success in the 2018 midterm election. Their energy has been diffused in the enormous field of Democratic presidential candidates. But now many Democratic women are joining together for the abortion fight that has emerged in recent weeks.

“We’re seeing another surge of an already pretty engaged universe of women,” said Stephanie Schriock, president of Emily’s List, which she noted was contacted by 76 women in a single day amid debate over the Alabama law. “It’s changing the positioning of the Democratic Party.”


Her group joined a coalition of activists to stage demonstrations across the country last week to protest a spate of restrictive abortion laws passed by Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and other states.

The intensifying abortion debate also carries political risks for Democrats. Republicans have stepped up their efforts to portray abortion rights advocates as extremists. Reacting to recent laws in Virginia and New York that expanded abortion rights, Republicans have taken to branding Democrats as a “party of death,” “baby killers” and perpetrators of “infanticide.”

President Trump has denounced Democratic abortion rights measures on Twitter, at rallies and even in his State of the Union address, when he inaccurately claimed that the New York law would “allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments from birth.”

But many Republicans worry that with national attention now focused on conservative state laws that could lead to wholesale elimination of abortion rights, the balance of political risk has shifted against their side.


Voter backlash, they fear, could hit where the GOP is particularly weak heading into 2020. Republicans have struggled mightily to stanch the hemorrhaging of support from female voters, especially upscale white suburban women, who have provided crucial swing votes. Efforts to ban abortion — without allowing exceptions even for rape and incest, such as in Alabama — could alienate some women who generally oppose abortion, Republicans fear.

“Most people agree the Alabama law went too far, even if you are pro-life,” said Sarah Chamberlain, president of the centrist Republican Main Street Partnership, who has been conducting focus groups with suburban women to see how the party could appeal to them.

“I do not want the Alabama law as the topic of conversation” in the 2020 election, she said.

Trump moved quickly to distance himself from the Alabama law by announcing via Twitter that he believes there should be exceptions for rape or incest. Other Republicans agreed, fearing that the omission of those exceptions invited political backlash on par with what hit 2012 GOP Senate candidate Todd Akin after he made controversial comments about rape victims and abortion.


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Ralph Reed, chairman of the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition, said the intensifying focus on abortion will stoke both parties’ activist bases in 2020, with each side portraying the other as dangerously extreme.

“Both sides will feel they face an existential crisis if they lose the election,” said Reed. “But what the Democratic nominee is likely to promise will be far more extreme than anything Trump advocates.”

Democrats, on the other hand, believe that new antiabortion laws have made the threat to abortion rights more tangible, and may help rouse a younger generation of voters who have not worried about abortion rights because they have always been protected by the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade.


“This has been a massive awakening among people who weren’t passionate about [abortion rights] because they took it for granted,” said Marianne Williamson, an author and spiritual lecturer who is one of six Democratic women running for president in 2020. “A sleeping giant of fierce women’s power is being awakened.”

An early test of how abortion politics is changing could come in 2019 during off-year elections in the Virginia Legislature, where Republicans are defending a one-seat majority in both chambers. Antiabortion forces are strong in Virginia, and Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam earlier this year came under heavy fire for supporting a bill that relaxed restrictions on late-term abortions.

But Virginia Democrats are poised to strike back. After a Republican state legislator recently said he did not regard Georgia’s new ban on abortions after six weeks as too extreme, he came under attack by the Virginia Democratic Party and several legislative candidates.

“When you see something that extreme, you say, ‘It can’t happen in Virginia,’” said Susan Swecker, Virginia Democratic Party chairwoman. “But then a Republican says something as extreme as that — it revs everyone up.”


The focus on abortion comes at a time when Trump and the GOP are still deep in a political hole with women — deeper than in 2016. Exit polls found that Democrat Hillary Clinton beat Trump among women by 54% to 41%.

In the 2018 midterm election, Democrats outpolled Republicans among women by a 59%-to-40% margin. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found 60% of women disapproved of the job Trump was doing. Even among women without a college education — strong Trump supporters in 2016 — his approval rating barely breaks even.

Trump’s record on abortion has been one of his great success stories among his evangelical supporters. He has added more than 100 federal judges and tipped the balance of the Supreme Court to a firmly conservative majority, cemented with the confirmation of Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh in 2018.

Now, as conservative legislatures are passing abortion laws that conflict with Roe vs. Wade, their supporters are hoping they will bring the issue before a Supreme Court that could curb or overturn the landmark ruling. The court, however, so far has not shown much eagerness to make a wholesale change in the law.


Polls find that about two-thirds of Americans want to keep Roe vs. Wade in place. Women are not monolithically supportive of abortion rights — the Alabama governor who signed the law is a woman — but Democratic women feel especially strongly about it. In a recent poll by YouGov for the Huffington Post, 63% of female Democratic voters said abortion would be very important to their presidential vote next year; one-third of male Democratic voters said abortion was important.

Abortion rights have long been something of a litmus test for Democratic presidential candidates. Ever since the 1973 Roe decision, no major Democratic presidential candidate has run on an antiabortion agenda.

Now Democratic leaders are under pressure to hew to a strict line on abortion rights. One sign: The head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Cheri Bustos of Illinois, last week canceled a planned appearance at a fundraiser for one of the few antiabortion Democrats in the House, Illinois Rep. Daniel Lipinski, who is facing a primary challenge from a woman who is for abortion rights.

Responding to the spate of antiabortion state laws, all the major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have moved quickly to put the issue front and center.


Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who has put heavy emphasis on women’s issues from the outset of her campaign, traveled to Georgia to be the first presidential candidate to appear with abortion rights protesters after the governor signed the state’s ban on abortions after six weeks.

Almost all the candidates, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Cory Booker of New Jersey, have called for federal legislation to codify abortion rights. Several have pledged to appoint only judges that support the Roe decision. Sens. Bernie San-ders of Vermont and Kamala Harris of California asked their supporters to make contributions to national and Alabama abortion rights groups.

When abortion rights advocates held demonstrations across the country last week to protest antiabortion state laws, several 2020 candidates, including Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., stopped by the rally in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington.

But the front-runner in polling for the party’s nomination is not the most consistent ally for abortion rights advocates. Former Vice President Joe Biden, a practicing Catholic, compiled a mixed voting record on the issue during his 36 years as a U.S. senator from Delaware: He supported the right to choose abortion, but also backed a federal ban on certain late-term abortions and a law known as the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of federal funds to pay for the procedure. But Biden has since moved closer to the abortion-rights party line.


Amid the current debate, a campaign spokesman put out Biden’s strongest statement yet: “Vice President Biden firmly believes that Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land and should not be overturned.... Biden believes that codifying Roe through legislation must be pursued.”

And when a South Carolina voter approached him recently at a campaign event and asked whether he would commit to abolishing the Hyde Amendment, Biden said, “Yes ... it can’t stay.”

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