It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this year’s elections for the future of abortion in America. The results could eventually determine whether Roe v. Wade is overturned by the Supreme Court or codified by Congress.
Normally, stakes that high would make abortion a primary focus of the 2020 campaign. But normally, the country would not be experiencing a pandemic, a recession and a civil rights movement all at once. On Night 1 of the Democratic National Convention, the sum total of the attention abortion received was the second it took Kamala Harris to say “reproductive justice” in a video montage.
There is no playbook for this: If you are an activist whose life’s work hinges on the attention and decisions of an overwhelmed electorate, what do you do?
Groups on both sides of the abortion debate are collectively investing more than $150 million in more than a dozen states. But for a window into the process, just look to Texas: a potential presidential battleground with a closely watched Senate campaign, competitive House races, a state legislature whose lower chamber might flip, and a long history of being at the center of abortion politics.
It was Texas that brought Roe v. Wade to the Supreme Court. It was a Texas state senator, Wendy Davis, who gained national attention for filibustering anti-abortion legislation; Davis is now running in Texas’ 21st Congressional District. Early in the pandemic, Texas joined Ohio in temporarily banning abortion as a nonessential procedure.
Now, what Texas shows is how profoundly the two sides’ strategies have diverged.
Anti-abortion groups are sticking to an approach that has worked before. They believe the issue of abortion can secure Republican victories despite a cratering economy — which typically hurts the party in power — and disapproval of how President Donald Trump has handled the coronavirus and the protests over systemic racism.
“Texas has an abundance of pro-life voters, and our goal is to get them excited about the pro-life candidates on the ballot and turn them out to vote,” said Joe Pojman, the executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life. “Voters who are concerned about the life issue are not going to be deterred because of natural disasters or the economy.”
Abortion-rights organizations, by contrast, are presenting the issue as one piece of a large puzzle. While pressing candidates to support abortion rights unflinchingly, they are also emphasizing that abortion restrictions, the virus, the recession and police violence disproportionately affect the same groups: poor people and people of color.
“Abortion is included in those conversations,” said Valerie Peterson, a Texas-based board member of the National Network of Abortion Funds. The term pro-life, she argued, could also apply to “people that are coming down with coronavirus, and whether or not we are going to create policy or institute things so that we can help save lives.”
For years, opponents of abortion focused on incremental measures like waiting periods, ultrasound requirements and clinic regulations. But after Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the Supreme Court, creating a potential majority to overturn Roe v. Wade, states moved to ban abortion after six or eight weeks’ gestation. If Trump appoints another justice, an anti-Roe majority would be almost certain.
In response, abortion-rights supporters coalesced around codifying Roe legislatively, which could keep abortion legal in the event of a Supreme Court reversal. If Democrats win the presidency and Congress, this would be a real possibility.
Facing these highest of stakes, the sides have chosen different approaches.
Democrats have largely abandoned the “safe, legal and rare” framing, arguing that there is no need to be defensive when most Americans support abortion rights. A Pew Research Center study last year found that 70% supported Roe v. Wade.
At the same time, Republicans have set the terms of the debate in ways favorable to their position, including with a heavy focus on abortions late in pregnancy. For instance, the Susan B. Anthony List, a prominent anti-abortion group, is focusing its messaging on procedures after 20 weeks’ gestation, which account for around 1% of abortions and often involve health crises or serious fetal abnormalities.
That focus is at the center of anti-abortion groups’ broader argument: that Democrats have become “extremists” in a way that should horrify even voters who support legal abortion in some circumstances.
“The modern Democratic Party supports abortion on demand up until the moment of birth,” said Mallory Quigley, an SBA List spokeswoman.
Kimberlyn Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Texas Right to Life, said that in conversations with the group’s canvassers, Texans often expressed anger about expansions of abortion rights in states like New York, which passed a law last year allowing third-trimester abortions if the woman’s life or health is in danger or if the fetus is not viable.
“Voters also noticed how none of the presidential candidates in the Democratic primary differed in their views on abortion — how none of them placed any limits on the practice whatsoever,” Schwartz said. (At least two candidates supported restrictions in the third trimester, but most didn’t.) “It was as if they were all trying to ‘out-abortion’ each other.”
What anti-abortion groups see as electorally destructive, abortion-rights groups see as a way to reframe the debate.
“Progressives have fallen into this pattern where they think the politically safe thing to do is not to talk about abortion,” said Aimee Arrambide, the executive director of NARAL’s Texas chapter. “We think that the best way to turn the tide on this issue is to be bold about our values, center those who are harmed by restrictions, and to take back the narrative.”Several groups, like We Testify and Patient Forward, have emerged to publicize the experiences of people who have had abortions. There is some evidence that this might increase support for abortion rights, but the body of research is small.
Peterson, who had an abortion after her 16-week prenatal scans showed that her fetus had a fatal brain malformation, now works in Texas with We Testify and its parent organization, the National Network of Abortion Funds.
She said she had gotten involved after she requested time off work to travel to Florida for her abortion — which she couldn’t easily get under Texas’ laws — and her boss, who was vocally anti-abortion, responded with unexpected understanding.
“For a person who is that far right, who believed at that time that abortion was only OK in a case of rape or incest or health of the mother, to see now there was this other piece that he had never even known about or considered — to me, that was confirmation that yes, I need to speak out,” Peterson said. “I decided that I wasn’t going to speak out as a Jane Doe, I was going to speak out as myself, because people need to see that I am a human being.”
Single-issue voting, or not
Where the abortion-rights strategy differs most from the anti-abortion strategy is in its rejection of single-issue framing, and its argument instead that abortion is intertwined with health policy, the economy, racial justice and other issues.
This approach — an embrace of principles women of color have long promoted — was evident in Democratic presidential candidates’ opposition to the Hyde Amendment, which blocks most Medicaid coverage of abortion and disproportionately affects people of color; Joe Biden, the presumptive nominee, renounced the amendment after supporting it his entire career. The current crises accelerated the shift.
Some activists said that, far from struggling to draw attention to abortion over the coronavirus or police violence, they saw an opportunity to convince voters of connections.
Recent events “have really allowed reproductive justice advocates to make the connection to our shared struggle,” said Destiny Lopez, co-director of the All* Above All Action Fund, which opposes the Hyde Amendment and released a joint platform with two workers’ rights groups, Jobs With Justice and the One Fair Wage Action Fund. “There is a sense that we must align our movements if we are actually going to win this November, because we’re all fighting for the same constituencies.”
The question is whether that approach can compete with the power of single-issue voters.
“Even if a swing voter has an inclination to vote for a pro-abortion Democrat based on their support for other issues,” said Quigley, the SBA List spokeswoman, “when we educate them about the contrast that exists between the two sides and the two candidates on abortion in particular, the contrast is so glaring that we can get them to vote for a pro-life candidate.”
The infrastructure gap
Anti-abortion groups have an advantage in electoral infrastructure, having spent decades building an apparatus that communicates candidates’ abortion stances to like-minded voters and brings those voters to the polls en masse.
The relationship is simple: “When we encourage people to vote for pro-life candidates,” said Carol Tobias, president of the National Right to Life Committee, “they trust what we say, and they vote for those candidates.”
Abortion-rights groups have gotten stronger but have not eliminated the gap.
Anti-abortion voters “have been targeted and amplified and supported through vast investments of infrastructure for 30 years,” said Heidi Sieck, co-founder of #VoteProChoice, which is producing a voter guide with endorsements as far down the ballot as school board members and railroad commissioners. “I am jealous of that infrastructure.”
Sieck said she was seeing less complacency among abortion-rights supporters, and more candidates seeking endorsements from groups like hers. But #VoteProChoice is only 4 years old, and even long-established groups have not always prioritized get-out-the-vote work: Until this year, Arrambide said, NARAL’s Texas chapter had not had a significant electoral program since 2008.
“The life issue is really a top priority for many of these people,” said Jalee Arnone, the SBA List field director in Texas’ 24th Congressional District, where anti-abortion groups are supporting Beth Van Duyne, a Republican, and abortion-rights groups are supporting Candace Valenzuela, a Democrat. “I don’t know how else to tell you that it’s just a priority over the other things that are going on.”
Kelley Robinson, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said she did not think it made sense to view abortion in isolation.
“It’s great to have a constitutional right to abortion care,” Robinson said. “However, if you don’t have access — if you don’t have paid sick days, if you don’t have health insurance, if historical discrimination has made you wary of providers — those are things that we’ve got to break down in order for people to truly have autonomy over their bodies.”