How the Politics of Abortion Are Poised to Intensify
By Jeremy W. Peters
With the Supreme Court now looking likely to weaken or overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, activists and both political parties are bracing for a new battle over one of the country’s longest-running cultural divides.
State lawmakers, not Supreme Court justices, would largely hold the decision-making power over abortion and determine the ease or difficulty of obtaining one. Many legislators would be forced to argue over the most intimate details of transvaginal sonograms, conception and when exactly life begins. Newer issues, like fights over telemedicine and abortion pills, could gain fresh political momentum, as patients seek out ways to circumvent restrictions by managing their own abortions.
In the aftermath of the oral arguments at the Supreme Court on Wednesday in the Mississippi case, both sides appeared to agree on at least one thing.
“This could be an important point, a seismic shift in the politics of this issue,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, which supports anti-abortion candidates and campaigns against abortion rights supporters in races across the country.
A decision by the Supreme Court is likely to come in June or July, months before the midterm elections that will determine control of Congress and the future of President Biden’s agenda.
The outcome the justices signaled during questioning on Wednesday — a curtailing of the constitutional protections for abortion established under Roe v. Wade, if not an outright dismantling of that standard — would spur a reckoning for abortion rights advocates.
Democrats are worried that they may soon face a more urgent state-by-state fight to preserve as many protections as they can, and they are planning new drives to take control of statehouses. Many believe they were already on the defensive, given the conservative majority on the Supreme Court and the flood of restrictions that have passed in state legislatures. Some activists said winning back those rights would most likely require a decades-long campaign.
“We have to begin to help people to understand what it is going to take to win back this issue,” said Destiny Lopez, a co-president of All* Above All, an abortion rights group. “We are in for another long fight. God help me if it’s another 50 years. At minimum, it’s another 15, 20 years.”
For opponents of abortion, a win at the Supreme Court would be the fulfillment of decades of work to curb abortion rights from statehouses to the White House. Activists said that while there would be plenty to push for on a policy level — restricting access to abortion-inducing medication online, funding more services for women who face unwanted pregnancies — they also acknowledged that a degree of complacency could set in.
“There are going to be those who claim victory and walk away,” said Tom McClusky, president of March for Life Action, which lobbies against abortion. “Most donors want to fund a fight. They want to fund warriors, not Samaritans.”
But Mr. McClusky added that he and other activists still see their cause as a long-term struggle to change public perceptions about abortion.
“We want to build a culture where abortion is unthinkable,” he said. “So even if by some miracle next spring Roe is overturned, there is still going to be a ton of work to do.”
In interviews, activists on both sides said they envisioned fights that would look very different depending on the state.
In California, New York and other overwhelmingly Democratic states, abortion rights supporters are expected to push for expanding access to abortion, leveraging new technologies like telehealth, improving insurance coverage of the procedure and creating new funds to cover costs for women traveling out of state. But in places like Alabama, conservatives are expected to push for new legislation and policies aimed at closing any loopholes that would still make abortion possible while also strengthening support for women who face an unexpected pregnancy.
Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, one of the most prominent abortion rights organizations, said her group hoped to move the Democratic Party into a more aggressive position, starting with plans to intensify the pressure on Congress and political candidates to support a bill to enshrine abortion rights into federal law. Such a measure passed the House in September but stands little chance of becoming law under current legislative rules.
They also plan to use the issue as a cudgel in the midterm elections, arguing that a bigger Democratic majority in Congress is needed to protect access to the procedure and seat judges who are not hostile to abortion rights.
“Everything is on the table after this — constitutional amendments, ballot initiatives, expanding the court,” Ms. Timmaraju said. “For so long we’ve been on the receiving end of these fights. We’ve been triaging, triaging and triaging, and now we have to take a step back and think what is the long-term agenda.”
Some Democrats and supporters of abortion rights would most likely step up their pressure on Mr. Biden, who has a long and complicated record on the topic and hasn’t yet spoken the word abortion as president, according to activists who track the issue.
But other abortion rights activists argue that their movement’s focus on the federal level has led them to the cusp of a defeat they fear is already well underway. Some worry that the disconnect over what will likely remain legal in blue states and be banned in red states could make it hard to galvanize liberals, who tend to be concentrated in states where abortion access will be guaranteed.
Many activists want to place more focus on flipping state legislatures, arguing that they should model their effort on the work of the social conservatives on the other side of the issue. Those conservative efforts reached new heights this year, when states enacted 106 abortion restrictions, the highest number of restrictions passed since Roe was decided in 1973, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a liberal group that tracks women’s reproductive health legislation.