With the US supreme court seemingly poised to exploit its conservative supermajority to undermine or overturn the landmark Roe v Wade decision, Democrats are vowing to make abortion a defining issue of next year’s midterm elections.
As the justices weigh whether to uphold a Mississippi law banning most abortions after 15 weeks, far earlier than Roe allows, and a request by the state that they explicitly overturn the historic 1973 ruling, Democrats and allies have promised a fight.
They are kindling what they hope will be a political reckoning over abortion, nearly half a century after the supreme court recognized the procedure as a constitutional right in the US.
“It’s earth-shattering,” said Jenny Lawson, the vice-president of organizing and engagement campaigns for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “The court’s actions are going to change the way people think about reproductive freedom and how essential it is. It will be a driving force of the election, undoubtedly.”
During oral arguments before the court on Wednesday, the six conservative justices signaled they were comfortable with Mississippi’s abortion law, despite the precedent established by Roe in 1973, and affirmed in a 1992 decision, that women have a right to end their pregnancy until the point of fetal viability, generally considered to be at about 23 or 24 weeks.
That Mississippi law has been blocked by lower courts and the state appealed to the highest bench over Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which pits the state health chief against the last abortion clinic in the southern state.
Several justices also appeared willing to overturn Roe entirely, allowing states to govern the procedure, although the signals were less strong on that pivotal point.
A decision is expected at the end of the court’s term, in June or July, arriving in the heat of the 2022 political campaign season.
While the issue of abortion has traditionally been a more powerful motivator for Republican and evangelical voters, Democrats say there are signs the political debate is shifting in their favor as the latest and fundamental threat to abortion rights comes into clearer focus.
Already facing daunting odds next year, given Joe Biden’s sinking poll numbers, Republican gerrymandering, and a poor showing in last month’s off-year elections, Democrats were searching for a new approach to reset the political dynamics.
They are hopeful that an intense focus on abortion will not only rally their base but win back suburban swing voters who have shifted toward the Republican party since Donald Trump’s exit from the White House.
“Elected officials should be unapologetic about championing and protecting abortion access,” Lawson said. “There’s nothing to spin. The threat is so real and there’s no state in the nation where banning abortion is popular.”
After the oral arguments, Democrats and party officials signaled they were prepared to use abortion as a cudgel against Republicans in battleground states like Nevada, Florida, Arizona and Wisconsin.
In a statement, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of Senate Democrats, said abortion access would be a “defining issue” of next year’s elections.
“Abortion rights are hanging in the balance at the supreme court, and the threat to Roe is very real,” Senator Patty Murray of Washington, the No 3 Senate Democrat, said in a floor speech on Wednesday.
“Why? Because for decades, extreme Republicans have attacked abortion rights from every angle and they are continuing their non-stop efforts to build a country where patients are forced to remain pregnant and carry their pregnancies to term against their will.”
Republicans see political advantages as well, after a decades-long conservative campaign to push the federal judiciary to the right, with the ultimate goal of overruling Roe.
“Today is our day,” congressman Steve Scalise of Louisiana, the No 2 House Republican, told supporters outside the supreme court in Washington DC, on Wednesday. “This is what we’ve been working for.”
If the court overrules Roe, 21 states have currently unenforceable laws on the books that would ban or severely restricts abortion access almost immediately.
Already, Republican-controlled states are considering copycat legislation of a Texas law that effectively bans abortions after six weeks and makes no exceptions for rape or incest. The supreme court let the law stand while the justices consider its constitutionality.
Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster from consulting firm ALG Research who recently surveyed battleground state voters on abortion, said it could be a potent issue for Democrats.
But to be successful, she said Democrats must “connect the dots” for voters who support Roe but don’t perceive the threat to abortion access as real or imminent.
She encouraged them to highlight “punitive measures,” like the Texas abortion law, as a way to brand Republicans as extreme on the issue.
“Awareness of the Texas law is very, very high,” she said. “But for a lot of these voters, they don’t necessarily believe that it’s going to happen where they live. They don’t necessarily know the Republicans are trying to do this across the country.”
Emphasizing Republicans’ efforts to curtail abortions would also undermine their economic message, Murphy said.
“They’re not going to fix the economy or bring down costs. They’re going to ban abortion,” she said, boiling down the argument for Democrats. “That’s what they want to do and that’s what their priorities are.”
Democratic strategists believe Republicans face a “dog who caught the car” conundrum over abortion. For decades, Republicans have energized their conservatives with promises to ban abortion. But now the political landscape has shifted and Democrats say Republicans will have to defend their anti-abortion views in a way they didn’t when the threat was theoretical.
“Republicans are between a rock and a hard place here,” said Chris Hayden, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor and a Democratic candidate for the state’s open Senate seat, called on Senate Democrats to abolish the filibuster and pass the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would codify abortion rights.