Yesterday, voters in Kansas defeated a measure that would have allowed the state to criminalize abortion. As far as I’m concerned, this should never have been up for a vote in the first place, because fundamental rights shouldn’t be beholden to the will of the majority. But here we are, and given that fundamental rights were up for a vote whether I like it or not, I am thrilled that the outcome was such a decisive defeat of an anti-abortion measure, and such a crushing blow to the anti-abortion movement.
Kansas is a massive pro-choice victory, and both a surprise and a relief. Not because I thought abortion rights couldn’t win on the ballot—abortion rights are overwhelmingly popular—but because the anti-abortion side is motivated, active, and playing dirty. In Kansas, a conservative group sent out mass text messages reading, “Women in KS are losing their choice on reproductive rights. Voting YES on the Amendment will give women a choice. Vote YES to protect women’s health.”
A “yes” vote, though, was actually a vote against reproductive rights—and a vote for allowing abortion to be criminalized.
Pro-choice and anti-abortion groups alike spent millions of dollars in Kansas. The local Catholic diocese alone donated roughly three million dollars to the effort to force women into childbearing—money that could have paid for a whole lot of diapers, meals for hungry kids, and rent for struggling moms.
Despite these anti-abortion dirty tricks and disgusting misallocation of resources (from entities that enjoy federal tax exemptions, no less), the pro-choice side won a resounding victory, defeating the measure by nearly 20 points in a conservative, Trump-voting state. That happened in large part because a huge number of pro-choice voters, most of them women, showed up in unprecedented numbers.
Pro-choice voters, and women, in particular, are hyper-engaged on this issue, and they are angry and they are scared and they want to do something.
Democrats should harness that power in the midterms.
The truth is that abortion rights are widely popular, even among conservative voters, and pro-choice voters are currently very, very fired up. Close to 40 percent of Republican voters say that they are less likely to vote for a candidate who wants to ban abortion, which tracks with earlier polling showing that roughly the same proportion of Republican voters believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And 60 percent of Republicans say that the decision to end a pregnancy should be up to a woman and her doctor—just 15 percent say that they want the state to make the decision for her. Among voters generally, 61 percent say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while just 37 percent think it should be illegal in all or most cases.
That 37 percent minority has, unfortunately, captured the Republican Party and has hugely disproportionate political power. In fact, the only group in the United States that shows a very strong preference for outlawing abortion is white Evangelicals. Not even a majority of Catholics, nor a majority of non-white Evangelicals, want to see abortion broadly banned.
And I suspect that support for abortion rights only grows stronger and more salient when voters begin to understand what abortion bans do. We’re already seeing some phenomenal and deeply disturbing reporting of what happens to pregnant women and girls when abortion is outlawed: the now widely-reported story of a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who had to travel to Indiana because her home state would have forced her into the dangers of childbearing as a child herself, and the right-wing denialism and then attacks on the doctor who helped her; the dozens of women who showed up to the hospital miscarrying wanted pregnancies, but were refused a full range of options, and were instead sent home—some with fetal parts prolapsing into their vaginas—to wait until they developed serious infections or started hemorrhaging and had to be admitted to the ICU; the women who have been so badly injured by their pregnancies and the lack of an ability to end them that they wound up having to have hysterectomies or other serious, unwanted, and permanently fertility-altering procedures; the women with ectopic pregnancies who were not treated immediately despite the serious threat to their health and lives; the women who received terrible news about the health of their wanted pregnancies but are nonetheless, right now, being forced to carry those pregnancies to term and give birth to a baby that is going to live a short, painful life.
Abortion bans are moral disasters. The result of these bans shocks the conscience of any decent person. That’s part of why we saw Kansas go the way it did.
It’s also why Democrats need to run on abortion rights.
Since it became clear that the Supreme Court was going to overturn Roe v. Wade, I’ve been wondering why we haven’t heard Democrats make abortion rights their number one issue. The polling has long been clear that voters, including moderates and Republicans, did not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. And once the Court did overturn Roe, the stories that came out in the aftermath have been so horrifying that I suspect even a lot of folks who casually identify as pro-life do not approve of what they’re reading, and are perhaps reconsidering the wisdom of getting the state involved in reproductive decision-making. Keeping the state out of people’s most intimate choices is also an argument that resonates with a particular kind of Republican voter—not a busybody white Evangelical misogynist, but the kind of small-government libertarian you often meet in the American west, or the kind of “socially liberal but fiscally conservative” voter (almost always a man) who is a fixture of the urban northeast (and with whom every single New York City woman has gone on at least one unfortunate date, but Democrats don’t need to say that).
Laws criminalizing abortion also don’t just criminalize elective abortion; they make every pregnancy more dangerous, a reality that is just beginning to dawn on the American public. While polling about abortion rights creates a sense of distance for people who believe they would never have an abortion or believe abortion is morally wrong, the outcome of abortion bans makes clear that the kind of pregnancy complications that necessitate abortion do not discriminate according to religion or partisan politics. Even if you believe you would never have an elective abortion and believe abortion is morally wrong, you may need an abortion if you have an incomplete miscarriage that is causing you to go septic; even if you believe you would never have an elective abortion and believe abortion is morally wrong, you may want your daughter to have the option if she is raped; even if you believe you would never have an elective abortion and believe abortion is morally wrong, you may want to end a wanted pregnancy if you get the news that it is doomed and that carrying to term could threaten your life, or means birthing a child whose life will be unnecessarily painful and short.
Pro-choicers were saying all of this before the Court overturned Roe, but it was easy to dismiss us as Chicken Littles or exaggerators. Now, a handful of extremely brave women are speaking out about the care they did not receive in anti-abortion states. And voters are having to look at their faces and hear what they went through. Some are imagining, “that could be me”—or that could be my wife or friend or daughter or sister.
This is a powerful moment.
Stories of women suffering are not going to convince hardcore abortion opponents who frankly don’t care about the human wreckage they leave behind. But the brutal reality of anti-abortion laws can certainly persuade a lot of folks who, though uncomfortable with or even opposed to abortion, do not want the government in their OB-GYN exam room, and don’t want anti-abortion ideologues or Catholic priests deciding what kind of care they get when they show up to the emergency room. And the brutal reality of anti-abortion laws is definitely energizing to female voters, Democratic voters, and anyone who cares about women’s rights and health.
If a successful election is part turnout and part persuasion, it’s hard to think of a more galvanizing and potentially vote-moving issue than abortion rights.
And yet Democrats have been surprisingly quiet on abortion. Some Democrats have spoken out about abortion, particularly soon after the Court’s ruling. But it’s not an issue that has led the midterms; it has not been trumpeted by every candidate and every leading Democrat, non-stop, in the starkest of terms.
I suspect that’s because of a long-false political conclusion that abortion is controversial and deeply polarizing, and an assumption that voters are squeamish about the procedure. It is true that voters have all kinds of views on when and under what circumstances abortion should be legal. But moderate Democrats, in particular, have concluded that abortion is simply too squicky of an issue to touch—that even moderate Democratic voters will be turned off by a solidly pro-choice Democratic Party, and by politicians who use words like “abortion.”
All signs indicate that’s not true. And the results in Kansas are the equivalent of a Times Square billboard.
This is what Democrats need to do: get loud on abortion and other reproductive and privacy rights. Tell voters that Republicans in Congress just overwhelmingly voted against securing abortion rights for all Americans. Tell voters that Republicans in Congress just overwhelmingly voted against securing rights to same-sex and interracial marriage. Tell and re-tell the stories of women and girls injured by abortion bans, and what that means for their lives, their health, and their families. Tell and re-tell the stories of doctors who are fearful for their patients and also fearful of going to prison if they treat those patients appropriately (as much as the anti-abortion movement demonizes so-called “abortionists,” most Americans do not believe that your average ER doctor or OB-GYN is an evil baby-killer). Emphasize the cruelty of these abortion bans. Emphasize that Democrats are the party that wants to keep government out of your hospital room and out of your bedroom—that believes each and every person should have the right to make the most intimate decisions of one’s life without the government telling them what to do, and risking their lives in the process.
Abortion is a winning issue. Democrats should run on it.
Jill Filipovic is a Brooklyn-based journalist, lawyer, and author.