Women to fight lat­est abor­tion laws


Wash­ing­ton — Af­ter Alabama’s gover­nor signed a near-to­tal ban on abor­tion into law May 15, a surge of women in­ter­ested in run­ning for of­fice con­tacted EMILY’s List, a po­lit­i­cal group that sup­ports abor­tion rights. The Vir­ginia Demo­cratic Party saw a spike 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 elec­tions. 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 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 Don­ald 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.”

Voter back­lash

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.

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 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.

Ralph Reed, chair­man of the con­ser­va­tive Faith and Free­dom Coali­tion, said the in­ten­si­fy­ing fo­cus on abor­tion will stoke both par­ties’ ac­tivist base 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 anti-abor­tion 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 been pro­tected for decades 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 the six women run­ning for pres­i­dent in 2020. “A sleep­ing gi­ant of fierce, women’s power is be­ing awak­ened.”

Early test

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. Anti-abor­tion 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 per­cent to 41 per­cent.

In the 2018 midterms, Democrats out­polled Repub­li­cans among women by a 59 per­cent to 40 per­cent mar­gin. The lat­est Wall Street Jour­nal/NBC News poll found 60 per­cent 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 against Roe vs. Wade. A con­ser­va­tive ma­jor­ity was 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, has so far not shown much ea­ger­ness to make such 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. A re­cent poll by YouGov for the Huff­in­g­ton Post found that 63 per­cent of fe­male Demo­cratic vot­ers said abor­tion would be very im­por­tant to their pres­i­den­tial vote next year; just one third of male Demo­cratic vot­ers say abor­tion is im­por­tant.

Un­der pres­sure

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 anti-abor­tion 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 very few anti-abor­tion Democrats in the House, Illi­nois Rep. Dan Lipinski, who is fac­ing a pri­mary chal­lenge from a woman who is for abor­tion rights.

Re­spond­ing to the spate of anti-abor­tion 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 San­ders of Ver­mont and Sen. 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 anti-abor­tion 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.

“We’re see­ing an­other surge of an al­ready pretty en­gaged uni­verse of women. It’s chang­ing the po­si­tion­ing of the Demo­cratic Party.” STEPHANIE SCHRI­OCK, PRES­I­DENT OF EMILY’S LIST

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