Civil and Human Rights

Abortion: Democrats and Republicans whip up voters on extreme state laws

Some Republicans think their party has gone too far in Alabama, Missouri and elsewhere. Democrats see their chance

As Democrats and Republicans look to galvanize their base ahead of the 2020 election, a slew of state laws barring access to abortion have thrust the issue into the national spotlight and set up a potential court battle that could hold consequences for an entire generation.

Top Republicans have distanced themselves from a law in Alabama that effectively outlaws abortion and includes no exceptions for victims of rape or incest. But the governor of Missouri signed a similar bill into law on Friday. It bans abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy and also has no rape or incest exemptions.

Democrats have placed the issue squarely at the center of their agenda, in hope of widening the gender gap between the parties and energizing progressive voters around reproductive rights.

With the new laws facing legal challenges that could ultimately land in the supreme court, social issues and the judiciary loom heavily in a campaign season that has so far has centered on the economy and the character of President Donald Trump.

“The last few days of unprecedented energy against abortion bans sent a signal that women everywhere are watching all of this with eyes wide open,” said Amanda Thayer, deputy national communications director of Naral Pro-Choice America, a group on the front line of the fight.

“This anti-choice movement is Trump’s anti-choice movement, and it’s clear that the radical fringe is winning any internal argument about how far to push.”

For Republicans, the Alabama and Missouri abortion laws reopened debate over the party’s position on abortion and the extent to which conservatives wish to limit access.

Trump appeared to suggest the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature had gone too far, tweeting: “I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions – Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother – the same position taken by Ronald Reagan”.

Those sentiments were echoed by Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy, the top Republican leaders in Congress.

But Republicans lost the women’s vote by 19% in November’s midterm elections, enabling Democrats to take the House and flip several state legislatures. Two-thirds of women younger than 30 cast their ballots for Democrats. Independent women voted for Democratic House candidates by 56% to 39%.

Accordingly, Democrats have rallied pro-choice activists with an eye on boosting turnout among women as they seek to limit Trump to a single term and make new gains in Congress and the states.

Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination have forcefully condemned the laws in Alabama, Missouri and elsewhere, raising the specter of a challenge to Roe v Wade, the 1973 supreme court ruling that legalized abortion in the US.

New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand said she would impose a rare litmus test on supreme court appointments, vowing to only nominate justices who would commit to upholding Roe v Wade. New Jersey senator Cory Booker said he would establish a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom. California senator Kamala Harris has raised more than $160,000 for pro-choice groups.

According to the Pew Research Center, public opinion in favor of legal abortion has remained steady over two decades. Republicans have focused messaging efforts on late-term abortions, which are unpopular with the public but account for roughly 1.3% of all abortions in the US.

Bill Kristol, a conservative commentator who has served in multiple Republican administrations, said the party had long focused on being “pro-saving more children, not punishing mothers or women in general”.

“That incremental, cautious approach has worked both substantively and politically,” Kristol said. “I think intelligent, pro-life leaders and advocates are really appalled by what’s happening in Alabama and elsewhere.

“It undoes a lot of hard work to try to make the pro-life case in a way that’s sympathetic. They’ve just made abortion look like an extremist position and an uncaring position.”

 ‘The right to choose is unquestionably at risk’

 Attempts by Democrats to brand Republicans as “extreme” on abortion are reminiscent of the 2012 presidential election, when incendiary rhetoric at the state level rose to the national discourse – with devastating consequences for the GOP.

Attempting to explain his opposition to any abortion exceptions, Todd Akin, the Republican candidate for Senate in Missouri, infamously declared that it was rare for a woman to become pregnant through “legitimate rape”. Prominent Republicans including nominee Mitt Romney called on Akin to quit. But his comments damaged the party’s standing among voters and even inspired the party to conduct training sessions on how to talk to women.

“How we talk about these issues is really important,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who advised Florida senator Marco Rubio in his run for the 2016 presidential nomination. “Being insensitive to women who are considering an abortion or to women who have had abortions is the wrong approach.”

Controversy over the laws in Alabama and Missouri has thus far had less to do with rhetoric than the intended goal of such laws: forcing the supreme court to revisit the issue.

Democrats, who have long struggled to mobilize voters around matters concerning the federal judiciary, are publicly sounding the alarm over the prospects of the supreme court overturning Roe v Wade. That has been made more likely, they argue, by Trump’s two appointments to the bench, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, conservatives who have shifted the court to the right.

While some legal experts have cast doubt over whether the supreme court would ever overturn Roe v Wade in its entirety, others argue that the conservative justices will chip away at abortion rights to the point where it will become nearly impossible to access in certain parts of the country.

“The right to choose an abortion is unquestionably at risk with the new conservative majority on the supreme court,” said Elizabeth Wydra, president of the progressive-leaning Constitutional Accountability Center.

“Just because the threat to the right to choose might come through a series of rulings chipping away at the reproductive rights rather than a flat out reversal of Roe, doesn’t make the threat any less serious.

“It is possible to limit access to abortion or burden the right to choose to such an extent that the abortion right exists more in theory than practice.”