The fight to make reproductive rights the centerpiece of the Democratic Party’s 2024 agenda.
This article was originally published by The CUT.
By Rebecca Traister, writer-at-large for New York Magazine and the Cut
The question,” New York representative Shirley Chisholm declared in 1969, “is not: can we justify abortions, but can we justify compulsory pregnancy?”
The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, Chisholm had recently been named the first honorary co-president of NARAL. She was both frank and morally assured in the remarks she delivered to the Republican Task Force on Earth Resources and Population, asking pointedly, “What is more immoral, granting an abortion or forcing a young girl … to assume the responsibilities of an adult while she is still a child?”
Chisholm was speaking during the last period in this country’s history in which American lawmakers were facing the open and urgent question of how to expand access to abortion care via legislative means, though at the time it was not clear which party was going to lead the charge. Chisholm’s 1969 remarks survive in part because they so impressed the chair of the committee, Texas representative George H.W. Bush, that he made the unusual move of entering them into the Congressional Record, explaining that they “deserve widespread attention.”
Two years earlier, California governor Ronald Reagan had signed one of the country’s most liberal abortion laws, permitting “therapeutic” abortions in cases of rape, incest, and threat to the life of the mother. In 1970, New York decriminalized the procedure for any reason prior to the 24th week of pregnancy, and activists won similar victories in Washington, Alaska, and Hawaii with support from both sides of the aisle. That same year, the first bill to legalize abortion federally was introduced to the Senate by Oregon Republican Bob Packwood, a man who would fight vociferously for abortion access until he resigned in 1995 amid allegations of serial sexual assault and harassment.
Though Packwood’s Senate bill went nowhere, it was emblematic of an era of partisan realignment and social upheaval in which the civil-rights movements of the mid-20th century had created unprecedented political possibilities. By 1972, Chisholm was making a historic run for the presidency, and the issue of abortion came to a head at the Democratic Convention in Miami, where the newly formed National Women’s Political Caucus was not supporting her but instead hoping to win concessions on abortion from the man who was to be the nominee, South Dakota senator George McGovern.
Nora Ephron, then a journalist covering the convention for Esquire, reported that the proposed abortion plank “produced the most emotional floor fight of the convention.” McGovern refused to support legalization, a stance he viewed as perilous to his candidacy, but women’s-caucus leaders believed they had at least extracted an assurance from him that he would reject anti-abortion rhetoric.
California representative Barbara Lee, who attended the convention as a Chisholm delegate, remembered asking these feminist activists, “You guys believe this man?” Lee’s skepticism proved warranted. At the last minute, McGovern’s campaign invited an opponent of abortion rights to give a seconding speech from the floor.
Gloria Steinem, a founding member of the caucus, was furious. By the end of that bad night, she was tearfully yelling at McGovern’s campaign manager, Gary Hart, “You promised us you would not take the low road, you bastards.” The next day, she raged to Ephron while walking down a Miami street: “I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends.” In the fall of 2022, Steinem would recall to me, in more sanguine terms, “McGovern was a good guy, but he was nowhere on women’s issues. We were trying to educate him, but he just didn’t get it.”
The Australian feminist Germaine Greer, writing about the convention for Harper’s, felt McGovern had made not just a moral mistake but a strategic one. “If the ‘abortion’ plank had been adopted as part of the party platform,” she wrote, “thousands of people with energy and experience would have campaigned for McGovern in a positive and intense way, just as they had done in the primaries; they might lose, but they would lose honorably.” McGovern lost in a landslide.
Then, less than three months after his defeat by Richard Nixon, the Supreme Court handed down a surprise decision legalizing abortion. Overnight, the legislative push became moot; the Court had settled the issue, saving members of both parties from the daunting and complex process of figuring out how to guarantee abortion access on state and federal levels. During the decades that Roe v. Wade held, the parties became rigidly divided on the topic, with Republicans converting or purging their pro-choice moderates and Democrats forcing most of their anti-abortion hard-liners to get on the side of abortion rights.
For decades, Democrats touted a commitment to “choice,” largely in reference to their efforts to cultivate an abortion-friendly judiciary and, when in executive power, the veto. Meanwhile, Republicans worked every anti-abortion angle, building spidery networks of local and state anti-abortion legislators, creating a judicial pipeline through the Federalist Society, and getting fat on the language of faith and family values. The right dreamed up ever more imaginative TRAP laws that shut down clinics based on building-code requirements related to hallway width. The GOP enforced waiting periods and circulated literature making fictionalized claims about links between cancer and abortion. Republicans used the House floor as a stage to vote again and again to defund Planned Parenthood — understanding that, even as they lost, they sent a dramatic public message to the very people most motivated to organize for them.
When the Supreme Court, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, overturned Roe last year, it not only inflicted grievous harm but ensured that the job of protecting abortion rights and access must once again be undertaken legislatively. It’s different work than it was in 1972: Medication abortion, data-tracking technology, and hyperpolarization have all altered the terrain. But even if that were not the case, Democrats would have no useful road map for this moment, no muscle memory. Because, in fact, the party has simply not applied much legislative muscle to this task before.
But Dobbs also catalyzed a revolution in the politics of abortion. And now it’s not just some loud activists and marginalized lady pols telling Democrats to move quickly and assertively to figure out how to make abortion available again across the country: It’s voters. Voters who just saved the Democratic Party during a midterm year in which inflation and gas prices should have meant a drubbing for the incumbent president’s party but instead resulted in a historic success for Democrats, who retained control of all their state legislatures, flipped Republican chambers in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and, at the federal level, gained a Senate seat and kept House losses to the single digits.
Multiple factors, including a slate of ghoulish right-wing candidates, helped Democrats, but there is no question that abortion was the preeminent issue for voters. “Democrats should have gotten wiped out,” said the pollster Tom Bonier. “But they overperformed. When you look at where they overperformed, it’s in places where choice was most present in the election, either literally on the ballot, like Michigan and Kentucky, or effectively in terms of the perceived stakes and the extent to which the candidates were talking about abortion, like Pennsylvania.”
“I don’t think Democrats have fully processed that this country is now 10 to 15 percent more pro-choice than it was before Dobbs in state after state and national data,” said pollster Celinda Lake.
The Democrats, in other words, are the bewildered dog that has caught the bus. A motivated base has turned to them for leadership on abortion while they are staring down a Republican House majority, a Senate filibuster, and an obdurate Supreme Court. Upon hearing that I was writing about their party’s plan to tackle abortion post-Dobbs, more than one Democratic staffer, and at least one elected official, silently mouthed to me, “There is no plan.”
What Democrats have is incentive: One of their most urgent policy issues has just shown itself to be their most politically effective. And they are undergoing a generational turnover that has already started to reshape the party and its approach to the battle — a dawning, in the midst of cataclysm, of a new era of political possibility.
t the state level, the face of a new approach to abortion politics is indisputably Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer. “If you look at what happened across the country, there was no more profound outcome than in the state of Michigan,” Whitmer told me two days before her State of the State address in January. “We won all the constitutional offices; we flipped both chambers of our legislature for the first time in 40 years. It’s only happened four times in 130 years in the state.”
Democrats’ success was owed in large part to the presence on the ballot of Prop 3, a citizen-driven constitutional amendment that protected abortion rights in the state. Whitmer and her fellow Michigan Democrats were unique in that they had been running on abortion before Dobbs and continued to do so even when, in the months before the November elections, Democratic leaders and strategists cautioned them to ratchet it down a notch. Their gamble paid off: According to Bonier, the gender gap in Michigan in favor of Democrats was even higher than it had been in 2018, when it had hit a historic peak. And Whitmer — or “Big Gretch,” as she was appreciatively nicknamed by Detroit rapper Gmac Cash in 2020 — was at the forefront of channeling that raw support into an agenda. “I was so associated with the issue I don’t know how you pull it apart” from other aspects of the platform, she said.
Big Gretch, 51, has Ava Gardner bone structure, a flat midwestern cadence, and a fondness for athletic metaphor (before politics, she had planned to go into sports broadcasting). She is widely referred to as a possible future presidential contender. And she is selling abortion as both a practical, voter-friendly issue and an inalienable human right at the center of a galaxy of related concerns.
At the Michigan State of the State, she did not treat abortion as Democrats often do, as if it’s slightly icky and private, damp and sad. She did not cordon it off in its own dolorous corner separate from all the rousing stuff about creating a mighty Michigan economy. Rather, she led with it, weaving it into a business-forward spiel called “Make It in Michigan,” suggesting that prioritizing abortion rights and LGBTQ+ protections would help bring businesses and expertise back to her former manufacturing state. States with anti-abortion and anti-trans laws, she told her audience, “are losing talent and investment because bigotry is bad for business.” Then she went ahead and cast these issues as universal family values. “Every parent,” Whitmer said, “Republican, Democrat, or independent, wants our kids to stay in Michigan. Let’s give them reasons to stay; let’s … protect fundamental freedoms.”
The speech was aggressive to the point of being in-your-face competitive, like a football game except about civil rights (“I want anyone living in a state that wants to control your body or deny your existence to know that Michigan has a place for you … I’m looking at you, Ohio and Indiana!”). It was a little discombobulating for anyone who has grown up in a world in which politicians — even those who cared about protecting abortion rights and access — simply did not speak this way. Whitmer’s commitment to reproductive freedom was integrated into everything we have come to recognize as political meat and potatoes (the creation of a pre-K program and affordable college options, for example), and she spoke with the winking assuredness of a politician on the winning side.
Spending time with Michigan’s newly elected governing majority is a little like landing on a planet where no white men are in charge. When Whitmer stood at the dais, she was flanked by Joe Tate, the first Black Speaker of the Michigan House; Winnie Brinks, the first female majority leader; and Garlin Gilchrist, entering his second term alongside Whitmer as the state’s first Black lieutenant governor. Michigan’s attorney general is Dana Nessel, the first openly gay person elected to statewide office there, and the secretary of state is Jocelyn Benson.
This group’s version of Democratic politics feels different from what has come before. That’s not because it’s left-leaning, exactly; when Whitmer first ran for governor in 2018, she was the moderate in the Democratic primary. The day after her speech, she told me, “I think 80 percent of what I said last night was not partisan, not ideological. It was economic development, skills training, and infrastructure.” It’s a fascinating experiment: What if you wrested away issues that Democrats have long ceded as fundamentally feminized, fringe, radical, or dangerous and presented them as unapologetic centerpieces of a forward-looking, morally robust economic agenda?
This experiment was born in a recent historical moment that has gone underappreciated in the political press: the galvanization of all kinds of voters, but especially women, in response to the presidency of Donald Trump. Often mocked as being part of the pussy-hat-wearing hashtag resistance, a new generation of politicians and voters is in the midst of correcting one of the Democratic Party’s signature failures of the Roe era: its lack of investment in state government.
Since the mid-’80s, anti-abortion Republicans have run for unsexy offices on school boards and city councils, building the army of legislators who soon controlled courts and voter rolls, who made punitive state laws and gerrymandered districts in order to keep their majorities — all while the Democratic Party was distracted by the shiny objects of the presidency and the Senate. For decades, Democrats in state races have been wildly outspent by their opponents. But Hillary Clinton’s loss spurred a mass awakening that swept through the 2018 elections and gave Democrats the biggest midterm victory since the Ford administration, putting a historic new class of candidates in office.
Mallory McMorrow was an industrial designer who had worked for Hot Wheels and Gawker before moving to Royal Oak, Michigan, in 2015. In the week after Trump’s victory, she was sent the viral video of fifth-graders chanting “Build that wall” at a Latina student. It was from Royal Oak Elementary, the polling place where she’d cast her vote for Clinton. “I Googled, ‘How to run for office,’” she told me, and she was not alone. “There was one city in my district where you could vote a woman ticket all the way down to county commissioner, which was very cool.” McMorrow flipped her state-senate district in 2018; she is now majority whip and the star of a viral video of her own: Her vigorous 2022 rebuttal to a senate colleague who had accused her of “grooming” school-children has been watched by 16 million people. “Our class, we’re never going to forget the 2016 cycle,” McMorrow told me.
Laurie Pohutsky, a microbiologist working at start-ups in Ann Arbor, was 28 when Clinton lost to Trump. “There were things that became clear to me post-2016,” she told me, sitting in her office at the State Capitol, which is decorated with old Ms. magazine covers and action figures of Clinton, AOC, and Elizabeth Warren. She went to the Women’s March in Washington and heard a speaker exhort those gathered there to run for school board, city council, anything that might be a good fit. “I remember this feeling of dread just washing over me,” Pohutsky said, “because I was like, I know that I am going to end up doing this, but it sounds impossible.” Pohutsky flipped her gerrymandered House district from red to blue on a campaign that led with reproductive rights and state single-payer health care.
2018 was the year that Whitmer, who had served in the state legislature, was first elected governor. It was the year that Nessel and Benson came to office. (Nessel’s campaign, launched at the height of Me Too, featured an ad that opened, “When you’re choosing Michigan’s next attorney general, ask yourself this: Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting? Is it the candidate who doesn’t have a penis?”) It was the year that Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib, Elissa Slotkin, and Haley Stevens were elected to the House of Representatives. The Democratic power structure in Michigan is overwhelmingly the class of 2018.
“Gretchen and Jocelyn and Dana were elected, and we went from one Democratic woman in the state senate to eight,” said State Senator Erika Geiss. Geiss, who is 52, was born in Brooklyn. Her grandparents, she said, had been close friends of Shirley Chisholm’s. “I guess I must have been breathing all this in,” she said with a laugh. As a state representative in 2017, Geiss took a hard look at a 1931 law criminalizing abortion that was still on the books and could spring back to life if Roe fell. She thought it might be a good idea to repeal it.
“There was pushback” from others in her party, Geiss said, “because the belief was ‘You don’t want to remind them that it exists.’” The messaging gap, she said, originated with “higher-ups” who felt that after Roe, “‘We don’t have to deal with this now.’ The conversation stopped.” And with it, any attempt to craft a coherent worldview that might encompass other political necessities. “Child care never happened,” said Geiss. “The Equal Rights Amendment still hasn’t happened. There are all these things attached to the issue of abortion, and we got lazy.” This willful lassitude, she said, was part of a broad Democratic blindness to the right-wing anti-abortion project and the ways in which state laws were rendering Roe ever less protective for millions. “TRAP laws, mandatory waiting periods, requiring ultrasounds — it’s been so insidious,” she said.
After getting elected to the state senate in 2018, Geiss reintroduced her bill to repeal the 1931 law, partnering with Pohutsky in the House. They were told by the Legislative Service Bureau that, if they were serious, they’d need to take a close look at everything the 1931 bill touched.
That included rules rooted in so-called Comstock regulations, conceived in the 1870s, that made it illegal to circulate material deemed “obscene, lewd or lascivious”; in Michigan, the remnants of Comstock applied to language not only about abortion and contraception but relief from menstrual cramps and hot flashes. There were economic fines placed on schools and universities that mentioned abortion — a startling genre of free-speech restriction reigniting around the country.
By 2022, with the conservative-led Supreme Court strongly signaling that Roe was a goner, the 1931 law was on everyone’s radar, and Whitmer made the unusual choice to file a lawsuit asking her state’s Supreme Court to find it unconstitutional. The lawsuit was far from a sure bet. When I asked her at the time whether she was anxious about taking a risk on an issue Democrats had historically treated gingerly, she told me, “The scariest thing is not taking action.”
Preemptive legal maneuvering by Whitmer and Nessel meant that after Dobbs, the 1931 law, which would have made advertising abortion services a misdemeanor and providing one a felony, did not take hold. This had tangible consequences for the human beings who live in Michigan: There was not a single 24-hour period between Dobbs and the November election during which you could not get abortion care in the state.
In the aftermath of Dobbs, activists on the ground immediately started gathering signatures for a ballot amendment. Bonier recalled that he landed in Michigan within days of the ruling: “I got out of a car in this little town and had someone walk up right away to ask if I would sign the petition. They were organized, and they were ready.”
Prop 3 gathered a historic 750,000-plus signatures, far more than enough to put it on the midterm ballot. Yet as the election approached, consultants, opinion columnists, and Democratic Party insiders were telling Michigan Democrats to stop leaning so heavily into abortion and instead focus on economics. Gilchrist said, “It was ridiculous. Reporters would ask us, ‘What do you think is more important to people? Abortion or things being expensive?’ It’s like, Do you have children? I have three. They’re expensive.”
“I don’t have a poker face, so you could see immediately that I was irritated by those questions,” Whitmer concurred. “If you don’t think abortion is an economic issue, you probably don’t have a uterus. I said that at one point, and my communications staff was like, ‘Oh God.’”
Prop 3 won by 13 points, enshrining a broadly defined right to “reproductive freedom” in the state’s constitution. The referendum did a shade better than Whitmer, who beat Tudor Dixon — an anti-abortion zealot who argued that a forced pregnancy in the case of rape would entail “healing through that baby” — by 11 points.
But among the many lessons of the past 50 years is that stopping at a single victory is a mistake. Geiss acknowledged that there is no model for how to make expansive abortion protections legislatively. “We have to build it,” she said. One of the first steps is cleaning out all the corners and crevices into where abortion criminalization has crept over the years. “We need to go through with a fine-tooth comb and figure out all the other places it touches and repeal those: all of those things that stymie access to abortion and the ability of childbearing people to safely get to a provider or have access to medication abortion,” she said.
“Any right that is conferred by basis of substantive due processes is now very much at risk,” said Whitmer. “That’s why it’s not just getting the abortion zombie laws off the books; it’s any law that penalizes same-sex relationships, marital privacy, contraception. All of these things could very well fall, depending on when the Supreme Court’s got these cases teed up. We’re taking a fresh look at everything that’s been codified, whether it’s in practice or enforced or not.”
That they have a plan and a mandate does not mean Democratic leadership in Michigan has an easy path ahead. Less than three weeks after Whitmer’s State of the State, a shooter killed three people and wounded five on Michigan State’s campus. Whitmer pressed forward with plans to enact universal background checks and red-flag laws. Like abortion protections, these are measures supported by clear majorities of voters, but also like abortion laws, spending political capital on them often provokes extremist responses, a nontheoretical reality in Michigan, where Whitmer was the subject of a violent kidnapping plot in 2020 and armed protesters breached the State Capitol months before the January 6 insurrection. In 2021, the Michigan state chair of the Republican Party referred to Whitmer, Nessel, and Benson as “three witches” who should be “burning at the stake.” Everyone is keenly aware of the high-wire act they are performing. Pohutsky has a tattoo on the inside of her wrist that reads DON’T LOOK DOWN.
More mundanely, Whitmer and her colleagues are aware of the evanescence of their authority. “We can’t make the mistake that predecessors did,” Whitmer told me, “that just because we’ve made an advancement that it’s the new floor.” Majorities change. Leaders move on. Whitmer says she’s working with an eye toward what happens when “you get a different legislature and governor, that they don’t try to bring that back to life again.”
Perhaps this too is a generational shift, the awareness of the fallibility of our governing institutions, which means making the most of the time in power and preparing for what follows. “We amended the constitution of Michigan; we are safe for now,” said Whitmer. “But if there’s a national ban, we’re back in the soup. We’ve got to make sure people understand that this fight is not over. It is happening state by state right now, but it’s going to continue to be a national fight. People in solidly blue states who think, Abortion is safe in my town or in my state? It’s not.”
What is happening in Michigan — an empowered Democratic-controlled government, a mechanism for changing the state constitution via direct referendum, a leadership class committed to adopting abortion rights as a central plank of its agenda — obviously cannot be replicated everywhere, which leaves millions of people in red states in particular without access to abortion care.
These elements are also notably missing in Washington, D.C., where the onus is on federal lawmakers to protect and expand abortion care in a terrifying post-Roe world. Democrats must remain on top of the onslaught of draconian restrictions in the wake of Dobbs, enforce every regulatory option through the executive branch, and give the appearance to voters of fighting fiercely while working in the minority in the House, against an insuperable filibuster in the Senate and in the shadow of a judiciary shaped by Trump. And they must do it all within the context of a federal party structure in which — unlike Michigan — the next generation is most assuredly not yet in charge.
It is chaos. Mayhem in the face of mayhem, all part of the anti-abortion right’s goal of confusing and stupefying the opposition. If Michigan felt like a different political planet, Washington offered bumpy reentry to the gravitational limitations of Earth.
Central to the tensions in Washington is the fact that Joe Biden, the president tasked with leading his party into this potentially era-defining battle, is a Catholic boy from Scranton, first sworn into the Senate weeks before Roe was decided in 1973, who spent the early decades of his career as an opponent of abortion rights. He was one of several Democratic senators who helped pass the Hyde Amendment, which has since the 1970s banned federal insurance programs from paying for abortion, making the procedure essentially inaccessible to poor women. Biden has worked mightily to evolve on the issue, becoming more solidly pro-choice than many could have imagined. Though he was caught flat-footed by Dobbs, he has since empowered people in his administration to make fighting back a full-time job. “The administration has shifted a lot,” said Deirdre Schifeling, political director at the ACLU, who has worked at Planned Parenthood and in the Biden administration. “It used to be hard to get a lot of focus on repro inside the administration, but after Dobbs, that’s really changed.” Jennifer Klein, co-chair of the White House’s Gender Policy Council, said there are people in the White House who are “waking up every day thinking about this.”
It also remains clear that Biden doesn’t really care to talk a lot about abortion, let alone hold it up as a central value. In February, he gave his finest State of the Union — pugilistic and playful and bold — in which he somehow managed to choke out only four bland sentences about abortion 5,200 words into a 7,200-word speech.
Maybe Biden’s lack of performed enthusiasm doesn’t matter. “It just matters what he does,” said Schifeling. “And he has given the green light for the administration to do whatever they can actually legally do to facilitate access.”
Perhaps most consequentially, Biden has played catch-up with the Republicans on filling the judiciary, appointing more judges in the federal courts than any president since John Kennedy. The White House has also taken meaningful action on abortion access itself, most notably in January, when Biden’s FDA ordered that mifepristone — a form of medication abortion — be sold at retail pharmacies. In December, the Department of Justice cleared postal workers to deliver medication abortion through the mail, even to abortion-restricted states. In a reversal of its previous policy, the Department of Veterans Affairs now provides abortion counseling and some abortions. The administration’s current priority is fighting a lawsuit brought in Texas, to be decided by virulently anti-abortion judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, which is trying to force mifepristone off shelves based on the farcical claim that the medication wasn’t tested rigorously enough before its approval 23 years ago.
In mid-March, Biden put out the third budget in a row that did not include the Hyde Amendment (though the budget will not pass the Republican-controlled House without it). This came after years of pressure from activists and progressive Democrats, including Barbara Lee. “We negotiated that,” Lee told me of the long struggle to excise Hyde from the budget. “His people were squeamish, but we got it done.”
Lee is sympathetic to the president’s position. “It was difficult for him, but he has moved on it,” she said. In 2021, after she publicly told her own story of having had an abortion as a teen, Biden phoned her. “We talked about him being a Catholic, me being raised a Catholic,” she said. “It takes time. To have him say he supports repealing Hyde? Look, this man … he didn’t quite understand. I’m not defending him, I’m just telling what I know.”
Yet there remains a significant disconnect between a party that just won on this issue and a president who is constitutionally incapable of giving it the warm, expressive embrace the moment calls for, of showing voters that he understands the post-Dobbs landscape to be a legal perversion, a four-alarm public-health emergency, a chilling rollback of human rights, and even — in mercenary terms — a tremendously rich political opportunity. The pollster Tresa Undem found that Dobbs had the biggest impact on women of reproductive age (18 to 44), an integral part of the Democratic base. “Few policy events have such a profound personal impact,” she said, emphasizing that abortion is a visceral, energizing, potent electoral force. It thus carries a danger for Democrats: For young voters — some of whom went to the polls for the first time because of Dobbs — a perceived lack of commitment from the people they voted for “may demotivate them” for future elections, Undem said.I AM SO SICK OF PEOPLE TALKING ABOUT A 30-YEAR PLAN FOR ABORTION. I WANT TO HAVE A TWO-YEAR PLAN FOR ABORTION.
Perhaps the administration’s loudest voice on abortion belongs to Vice-President Kamala Harris. When she was competing against Biden in the 2020 presidential primary, Harris proposed that states wishing to pass restrictions on reproductive-health care come before the Justice Department for review and approval. It was a pre-clearance approach that would have never made it through the filibuster and would surely have been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, as in Shelby County v. Holder, another pre-clearance proposition. But it was inventive and bellicose, the kind of flex that seems a more natural match for this moment than Biden’s labored evolution. Even before Dobbs, in the wake of Texas’s 2021 SB8 bounty-hunting abortion ban, Harris had convened abortion providers at the White House, likely the first such gathering in history.
Sources inside and outside the administration told me that Harris, who campaigned energetically on abortion through the fall of 2022, regularly pushes the White House to exhaustively explore every legal avenue and has met with more than 200 state and local leaders on the topic, which one administration source credits with reaffirming her sense that abortion remains a top priority for Democratic voters on the ground.
Over the phone, Harris described to me how “blatantly paternalistic and offensive to the autonomy of women” the post-Dobbs reality is for millions. “As a former prosecutor who specialized in violence against women and children, knowing what it means for women who have endured a violation of their body, depriving women of their autonomy and dignity? All these issues cut to the core of so much of the work I’ve done my entire career,” she said. When I asked whether the conventional wisdom in Washington last fall that abortion might not motivate voters gave her pause, she replied, “My perspective was … well, not a polite word that I would speak. That’s how I felt.”
Harris is at ease, in a way her boss simply is not, with casting abortion as “an attribute of democracy,” as she put it to me, one linked to other moral and patriotic obligations. On the 50th anniversary of Roe in January, Harris delivered a speech in Tallahassee, Florida, two miles from Governor Ron DeSantis’s mansion, in which she connected abortion rights to the promises made in the Declaration of Independence: “These rights were not bestowed on us. They belong to us. As Americans.” In oblique reference to DeSantis, she told me, “These extremist so-called leaders, what gall they have to talk about the vanguard of freedom when they continue to take away the right to reproductive freedom.”
The tension between a calcified leadership that remains ambivalent about making abortion access truly central to a Democratic rhetorical and policy framework, and frustrated politicians who see the fight for reproductive autonomy as both a moral and strategic linchpin, is evident in the White House’s relationship to Democrats in Congress.
Although Democrats may not have a plan, there is no shortage of ideas. In February, Texas representative Lizzie Fletcher introduced a bill that would protect patients’ constitutional right to cross state lines to obtain abortion care. Senator Tina Smith and Representative Cori Bush have reintroduced their bill to protect access to medication abortion. Smith is also thinking about codifying legal access to contraception ahead of any potential rollback of the Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut.
And Senator Elizabeth Warren regularly pelts the administration with public calls to exercise more executive authority by, among other things, invoking the PREP Act (an emergency health law that would enable providers in blue states to dispense medication abortion to women in red states); ensuring that health information and data cannot be shared with law enforcement; and instructing federal agencies to explore the possibility of financing travel, child care, and vouchers to those who need to travel for abortion care.
Some of these proposals are the subject of intense behind-the-scenes examination at the White House, which has rejected or expressed skepticism about several of the showiest notions — including the PREP Act — on the grounds that they might ultimately create more danger for patients than they would alleviate, by inviting legal challenges in conservative courts that could leave patients with less access to care than they have now, as in the Texas case currently in front of Kacsmaryk. “The other side is trying to do everything they can to limit access, almost precisely because this is where most women are trying to get abortions post-Dobbs and because of the success that we have had in increasing access to mifepristone,” said Klein.
Figuring out the balance of risk, reward, and consequence is daunting. “It’s a tremendous amount of pressure because there are a lot of solutions that sound really nice,” said Klein. “But my job is, was, and will continue to be to evaluate everything and figure out whether it’s legally viable and whether it would actually work to help people, or if in the long run it would do more harm than good.”
But caution has its drawbacks: After all, the alternative can’t be to let Republicans run rampant. Warren emphasized that “dozens of lawmakers, legal experts, and advocates have put forward legal and impactful ideas for executive actions to protect abortion access” and applauded the president for having “already adopted and implemented many of them.” She went on, “With the health and welfare of millions of women in jeopardy, he should continue to act boldly and use every tool at his disposal to the fullest extent possible.” In the more pointed words of one congressional aide, “Democrats need to spend time demonstrating that we’re willing to fight like hell to protect women’s rights and less time coming up with reasons not to act.”
Especially now that it is clear the triumph of Dobbs did not break the stride of powerful factions on the anti-abortion right. In Kansas, which voted overwhelmingly to protect abortion rights last summer, a Republican lawmaker has suggested that individual cities might criminalize it. The Florida legislature is taking up a six-week abortion ban, a move that would cut off access to millions of patients in the American South. In South Carolina, some Republicans have sought to classify abortion as homicide. In response to threats from right-wing attorneys general, Walgreens announced it was preemptively deciding not to stock mifepristone in certain states, including some where abortion remains legal. Texas wants to rescind tax breaks for companies that pay for their employees’ abortion care, and one man’s lawsuit against his ex-wife’s friends for helping her get an abortion may create a model for criminal prosecution. In Nebraska, a teenager and her mother being criminally tried for getting abortion care are facing data evidence that was handed over by Facebook.
This omnidirectional storm invites some kind of unified response from congressional Democrats, but the caucus has not historically been capable of asserting itself on the issue. “Before Dobbs, we just hadn’t had all Democrats voting to protect abortion,” said Pramila Jayapal, head of the Progressive Caucus. “It has not been a clear winner to the party. Often when we raised abortion, it would be pitted in some way against economic issues.”
Between 1989 and 2007, Democrats had opportunities to pass versions of the Freedom of Choice Act, which would essentially have codified Roe. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised that his first act as president would be to sign the bill, but it could never garner enough support — even when he had a supermajority — to hit his desk. In 2009, Obama said pushing the legislation through was simply “not my highest legislative priority.” In 2013, California representative Judy Chu first introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act, a different attempt to legislatively enshrine abortion protections; it died in committee in four consecutive Congresses, passing the House only in the fall of 2021, just before oral arguments in Dobbs. In 2015, when Lee first introduced the EACH Act, which would have effectively overturned Hyde, it had 70 original co-sponsors; when she reintroduced it in January, there were 168.
“It helped a lot when we started diversifying our members of Congress and we got younger and more women of color in,” Jayapal said. “They are not yet in leadership, but this generation are movement organizers in a way that perhaps the current generation of power isn’t used to seeing.”
“These members aren’t going to put up with this old-school stuff,” Lee said, noting that Massachusetts representative Ayanna Pressley and New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez were among those who pushed the Rules Committee to remove Hyde from the appropriations bill, where it had long been a legislative rider, to enable members to vote against it. Pressley told me that at the House Democratic Issues Conference in March, she hosted a session dedicated to abortion rights and access, scheduled at
8 a.m. at the end of what she called “a brutal week.” The session had some of “the most robust attendance” of any at the conference, she said. “And people were engaged. They understood that not only are these policies a matter of life and death but that, also, they are popular.”
The unpopularity of abortion restrictions, especially the attacks on medication abortion, has dramatically changed the politics on the issue. Celinda Lake has recently done polling on how the anti-abortion right’s recent attacks are going over. “The biggest surprise,” she said, “was that it didn’t matter if you were in a legal or an illegal or a hostile state; it didn’t matter if you were a Democrat or a Republican or an independent. The unanimity of opposition to restriction of access to medication abortion was stunning and almost equal across all states. You would have thought it would have differed a lot between California and Mississippi, but it didn’t.” Polling like Lake’s, Schifeling argued, “opens up a whole world of support that we can leverage to change the conversation and put the extremist lawmakers, with their ever more extreme backdoor bans, on the back foot.” On some level, Republicans understand this. It’s why Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s majority has not yet passed a federal abortion ban out of the House. But Republicans are facing their own quandary: They must find a way to satisfy a ravening anti-abortion base.
The political opportunity is so great, and the polling so clear, that a few Democrats I spoke with see a path to legalization through Congress — not generations down the line but in a second Biden term.
“We need a clean bill to meet the moment, a right to abortion and birth control. We need to get rid of Comstock once and for all,” one person who has worked with the administration told me. “Then Democrats need to win back a trifecta; they should be able to win back the House in a presidential cycle, hold the Senate, reelect the president, then pass a right to abortion and contraception in 2025. I am so sick of people talking about a 30-year plan for abortion. I want to have a two-year plan for abortion.”
Is such a scenario possible? Even if reclaiming the House in a presidential-election year is doable — there are seats ripe for picking in blue states like New York and California — Senate Democrats face what political scientists and poll nerds call an “unfavorable” electoral map in 2024, defending far more seats than they can reasonably expect to pick up. It is possible that the map is so rigid, and polarization so entrenched, that Democrats can never get to the right number of votes. But the past two midterm contests have broken or exceeded historical assumptions. Abortion may not be just a winning issue but a model-exploding one. “We won big-time on abortion,” Lee said. “And let me tell you, before the election, there was a lot of sentiment: ‘Don’t talk about abortion. Don’t make it central to the agenda.’ But afterward, everyone was like, ‘Thank you very much.’”
This strategy means acknowledging the popularity of a fight for abortion access and the unpopularity of the right’s extreme incursions into pharmacies and mailboxes. It means replacing stalwart supporters of the filibuster like Kyrsten Sinema and electing enough Democrats to disempower Joe Manchin, a red-state Democrat the party has relied on as much as it has reviled. With every Senate seat gained in 2024, 2026, and beyond, “we’re one step closer to being able to get rid of the filibuster, which is when the key turns in the lock,” Warren told me.
Adjacent to the filibuster is Court reform. And though few would say so on the record, some policy-makers cannot discuss abortion protections without looking toward an inevitable conflict. They say there’s no working around judicial roadblocks, only ramming straight into them. Would an abortion law “tee up a challenge from the Supreme Court?” said the person who has worked with the administration. “Yes, there will likely be an inflection point in terms of the legitimacy of the Supreme Court.” While the administration is a very long way from talking about anything like Court reform, Harris was willing to go after the Court itself. “My role models are Thurgood Marshall, Charles Hamilton Houston, Constance Baker Motley,” she told me, “who all understood the responsibility of the highest court in our land to ensure fundamental freedoms. The Supreme Court took a right that had been recognized from the people of America; it was so foundational and fundamental.”
Perhaps it is time for Democrats to begin to use the theater of Congress as aggressively as Republicans have done. “When the Supreme Court forces women to have pregnancies that in some cases are dooming them to potential death?” asked Representative Jimmy Gomez of California, founder of the new Congressional Dads Caucus. “That should piss people off. Sometimes I don’t feel that outrage.” Another person who has worked at a senior level in both federal electoral and advocacy capacities wondered, “Why aren’t they reintroducing WHPA every damn week? I realize they’re not in the majority, but do it as a caucus vote! Make something up!” There was a plan to kick off Women’s History Month by reintroducing the WHPA in the House, but it was held up by procedural delays; according to a congressional source, it will happen before March is over. A version was reintroduced in the Senate on March 8. Meanwhile, Biden spent the month cementing his reelection bid’s focus on protecting Medicare, surely important and more comfortable terrain for him than abortion but definitely not the issue that won his party the midterms.
One lesson from Michigan is to make the connections between abortion and health care, child care, economic opportunity, affordable education, and democracy itself. When I described how Whitmer is linking abortion access to pre-K and featuring it as a centerpiece of a pro-business agenda, Warren got excited. “It just takes the fight straight up the middle,” she said.
And as Lake said, many Democratic leaders have still not grasped “what a strong frame this is in terms of freedom.” Tina Smith of Minnesota told me, “There was this weird idea that voters can only have one thing in their head at a time.” Campaigning in her state in the fall, she said, “I saw so clearly that voters understood the infringement on personal decision-making, connecting that with the other thing that these crazy radical Republicans are doing, which is trying to undermine the democracy. In the minds of the voters in Minnesota, it came together.”
“The challenge Democrats have had,” Bonier said, “is in drawing the charge of extremism to anyone but Trump. And what happened with Dobbs is that it not only had the impact as an issue by itself but it actually made voters look at arguments about Republican extremism and democracy denial and January 6 in a way that suddenly resonated for them.”
As more states attempt to put abortion measures on their ballots and Republicans do everything possible to keep this from happening, the connection between abortion and democracy could grow ever stronger. This year, lawmakers in Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Missouri, North Dakota, and Oklahoma have debated bills meant to undermine citizen-led ballot initiatives. Wisconsin Republicans rejected Democratic governor Tony Evers’s proposal that voters cast ballots on abortion in that state’s crucial April 4 election, which will determine control of the State Supreme Court. And in Ohio, where citizens are already collecting signatures for a constitutional ballot measure, some Republicans are pushing to make the electoral threshold for constitutional amendments 60 percent.
To truly reframe the issue moving forward might mean moving away from one old frame: Roe itself. Activists have long argued that it should never have been the ceiling but the floor. Now that it’s gone, those mourning its demise can strive to build a more expansive, less vulnerable model dependent not on legally precarious notions of privacy, and not tied to gestational age in a way that permits restriction, and not as exposed to limitations that hurt the poor most. Whatever comes next, multiple Democrats suggested to me, should not be modeled on Roe or try to recapitulate it. “We have a chance to imagine something much more fundamental to women’s futures and rights than we’ve ever had before,” Jayapal said.
In her 1969 speech, Shirley Chisholm cited a poll showing that 64 percent of respondents were in favor of abortion decisions being made between a woman and her doctor. After Roe, survey after survey turned up a nation irrevocably divided on the issue: 50-50 for and against. It got embedded in the very psyche of the Democratic Party that abortion was a lightning rod and that to come too close to it was to risk electrocution.
Only in the past decade has a new and more diverse generation of pollsters begun asking questions about abortion differently. As Undem has explained, when surveys asked first whether respondents personally supported abortion and then whether they believed the government should be making decisions about it, it became clear that 60 to 75 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal. In other words, it took more than 50 years to get back to where Chisholm said we were in 1969.
Chisholm also saw the links between gender, racial, and economic inequity. “The poor rely most heavily on the contraceptive methods which have the highest incidence of failure,” she said. And just four years after the nine male Supreme Court justices who made birth control legal in Griswold v. Connecticut had not been able to bring themselves to actually utter the names of any contraceptive methods, Chisholm rattled them off: “withdrawal, rhythm, douche, suppositories, foam as opposed to the Pill, the diaphragm, coil.”
Chisholm was trying to normalize reproductive health; she was acknowledging the quotidian human experience of people with the capacity for pregnancy. When abortion is integrated into our lives, when it is not placed into its own special and highly charged category, when it is based on real stories of real people, a subtle shift occurs, as if we’re cocking our heads to see a photograph in a different way.
Back in Michigan, Erika Geiss posited to me that one reason her party had long struggled to lead on abortion rights was that “people came up with stupid names for everything having to do with sexuality, reproduction, women’s health, periods” and that this unwillingness to use precise language stemmed from a failure to take certain bodies seriously. Indeed, 11 years ago, a Michigan legislator was kicked off the floor for saying the word vagina during an abortion debate.
In Michigan and Washington, I noticed how frequently elected officials spoke on the record to me about periods, menopause, the nauseating pain of IUD insertion. Whitmer and I compared notes about being women old enough not to have ever used period-tracking apps. Nessel has told the story of an early meeting of executive leadership in 2019 at which she’d gotten her period unexpectedly; when she asked if anyone had a tampon, Whitmer replied, “Madame Attorney General, everyone here has a tampon.” At a federal level, many of the most active legislators have told stories of their own abortions and experiences of sexual assault. Jimmy Gomez remembered that as a kid, “we were so poor that we would gather change to go to the gas station and buy my sisters’ feminine products out of the machines.”
It changes the tenor of debate when a legislative body is populated by the kinds of bodies that have historically been legislated against. “The reason why we’ve championed the need for more representative government was not for contrived moments of ‘Kumbaya’ or greater visual diversity in the photos,” said Pressley. “It’s because of how it shows up in our policy-making.”
Elected officials at the forefront of this fight, like Whitmer and Jayapal and Lee and Pressley, are asking us to conceptualize abortion as part of the complex but ultimately ordinary warp and weft of everyday life. What if business development necessarily entailed abortion protections? What if family values meant families being able to make choices about how and when they form and having access to the health care they need? What if the protection of democracy were very clearly tied to access to reproductive care?
Perhaps this sounds like a stoned conversation in a dorm room, but then again, the kind of strategizing the right has done since the late-20th century has also sounded like a stoned conversation in a dorm room. What if we said the clinic hallways had to be a certain width, dudes? What if we force doctors to tell patients there’s a link between breast cancer and abortion? What if we behaved like second-trimester fetuses had the chubby cheeks of 6-month-olds?
For some Democrats, the project ahead may mean casting abortion as a draw for employers, businesses, and students deciding where to attend schools. For others, abortion may land smack in the middle of a series of health-care priorities that should support Americans from birth to death. For still others, it is one of the many civil rights that generations of Americans fought for, part of the inclusive vision of the American promise that Republicans are eager to tear up. In every case, Democrats should present abortion as simply and plainly integral to an American ideal, a promise made without apology but also without fetishization.
In the same years that availability of abortion in the United States has decreased, battles for greater access in other nations have succeeded. Abortion has been decriminalized in Mexico, Argentina, and Colombia as part of Latin America’s
so-called Green Wave, in which protesters have made green bandannas their symbol, a color choice that stemmed in part, as one Argentine activist told the Washington Post, from the conviction that “the term ‘life’ should return to us.” In 2018, Irish voters elected to make the procedure legal there, and in 2021 the Constitutional Court decriminalized it in South Korea.
Lawmakers and activists around the world have focused not simply on privacy or individual decision-making (a matter between a woman and her doctor, as Democrats often said in the days of Roe) but on abortion as a human right strongly tied to democracy reform, resistance to authoritarianism, and violence against women. In Colombia, reproductive-rights proponents pointed to the cruel absurdity of regulating abortion through the criminal code, an argument that will be ever more relevant in the U.S. as states move to charge both abortion providers and seekers with crimes. In nations where restrictions remain tight, advocates have pushed to recognize those who help patients get abortions as human-rights defenders, ensuring them legal representation.
Creative strategies and political practices that the Democratic Party failed to develop over the past 50 years have blossomed elsewhere. The most successful of them have been holistic, connecting the dots between health care, good governance, maternal mortality, workforce participation, climate justice, economic inequality, and criminal-justice reform.
Catalina Martínez Coral, regional director at the Center for Reproductive Rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, wrote last year after the victory in Colombia, “It wasn’t enough to change our laws. How people thought and talked about abortion had to evolve too.” However long it may take to undo the damage of Dobbs and the decades of erosion that preceded it, the longer and deeper project — of revising not just the way we legislate but the way we think — will remain.
This is one of the most important post-Roe lessons. It was never pass-fail or win-lose. There should never have been a pause in thinking, fighting, arguing, debating, being creative. Democrats are now late to this project. Yet it is also early. As Barbara Lee told me, “If you are in this thing just for a minute? Good-bye. You just have to figure out how to keep at it.”
Buttons by Emily Oberman and Laura Berglund, Renee Freiha, Samantha Infante, Mira Khandpur, Anastasia Kharchenko, Katherine Killeffer, Kaycie Lyn Matsukado, Elizabeth McMann, Mira Steinzor, Meredith Zerby: Pentagram.