US midterm elections: Democrats bet political future on abortion issue

Thousands of women across the country will protest this weekend to demand reproductive rights

The area around the US Capitol has seen many protests. This weekend it is likely to be filled with women who believe the United States is coming to a defining point on the future of abortion across the country.

On Saturday organisers hope that at about 11am thousands of women will begin convening in a nearby park, as well as in other cities, to demand reproductive rights.

The timing may be coincidental but organisers say that for women it is now “the 11th hour” in their fight to maintain abortion services.

It is now more than three months since the US supreme court eradicated the federal right for a woman to have a termination, leaving it up to politicians to decide what the rules should be in future.

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This weekend it will be exactly a month until elections, which the organisers of the “women’s march” and “women’s wave” demonstrations believe may be the final opportunity to shape the political system before the political system shapes the abortion landscape for years to come.

Pollsters and political scientists say the threat to abortion rights has galvanised women in advance of the midterm elections.

The head of the women’s march, Rachel O’Leary Carmona, says the attacks on abortion rights have unified women despite their ideological and political views, and many considered the proposed restrictions were going too far.

However, it remains to be seen if this wave of enthusiasm will be sustained until polling day and, if so, be sufficient to elect politicians who will protect abortion rights.

The issue of abortion has been a touchstone of conservative values for many on the right for generations.

Republicans at local, state and national level have planned and schemed for years to chip away at, and eventually to try overturn, the 1973 supreme court ruling in the Roe v Wade case which found there was a constitutional right to a termination.

Republican-controlled legislatures passed a series of measures aimed at restricting abortion access while hoping there would eventually be sufficient votes on the nine-member supreme court to abolish the Roe v Wade precedent.

Ultimately last June, in a case based on abortion legislation introduced in Mississippi, the court found that Roe v Wade had been egregiously wrong and should be set aside.

Politically, US president Joe Biden’s Democratic Party has essentially bet its political future on the issue of protecting abortion rights.

Democratic strategists believe women’s anger at the eradication of Roe v Wade will be strong enough to counter the political headwinds they face in a country dealing with increasing food and fuel prices.

James Walsh of the department of politics at the University of Colorado in Denver says all the polling data in recent weeks has indicated a shift towards the Democrats, driven largely by the supreme court decision on abortion as well as recent legislative successes of the Biden administration.

He says the supreme court, in what is known as the “Dobbs case” on abortion, has generated great anger in parts of the country.

He says there is now “an idea that women will go to the polls in large numbers”.

Walsh’s assessment is supported by the on-the-ground findings of the League of Women Voters (LWV), an organisation which for a century has been encouraging people to register to vote.

Jeanette Senecal, senior director of mission impact for the LWV, says there’s “so much at stake this election, especially around women’s reproductive rights and abortion, which has caused an uptick in interest in the midterm elections”.

“We are seeing an increasing number of women registering to vote and an increased interest in state and local races. Women voters will be the deciding factor this fall and they are not just registering to vote, but they are also leading the charge in making sure voters are prepared to flex their power to shape the future of our country.”

Walsh says that a few months ago there was a general consensus that the Democrats would lose control of both the house of representatives and the senate in the elections.

However, he says there is now an expectation that the Democrats may hold the senate and possibly even the house of representatives, depending on the size and strength of the backlash in the wake of the abortion case.

The Dobbs ruling essentially left it up to politicians in individual states to decide on what, if any, abortion services would be provided in their jurisdictions.

As a strategy, Democrats have seized on moves by Republican-controlled state legislatures to ban or severely restrict access to terminations. They have also focused on promises by some Republicans to go further and introduce new rules governing terminations at national level, which would apply even in liberal states.

The Associated Press said late last month, based on figures generated by the research firm AdImpact, that Democrats had already spent more than $124 million on television commercials referencing abortion.

Some of the advertisements dramatise what Democrats maintain could happen in the post-Roe world of Republican abortion bans and restrictions, with doctors and nurses being led away in handcuffs by police.

Earlier this week both Biden and vice-president Kamala Harris warned voters of threats not just to abortion but also potentially to other social rights such as contraception should Republicans take control of congress.

Biden said it was no surprise to see “extremist laws pop up around the country that are having a ripple effect far beyond the health rights of a pregnant woman”.

He also said that under some of the Republican laws, doctors could be turned into criminals for treating a patient.

“In Arizona, they had a law on the books in 1864. That is 1864, before, during the Civil War. And it went into effect again a week and a half ago. And just two days after it went into effect, a young 14-year-old girl who has been suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and osteoporosis initially couldn’t get a refill for her prescription, the drug she’d been taking for years to deal with her two diseases, because concerns that that very prescription could be used to terminate a pregnancy in violation of a law in that state.”

The crucial issue for both Republicans and Democrats is whether concern and anger regarding abortion will last until polling day and determine how people vote.

Recent elections appear to show the strength of feeling on the issue was carrying over into the polling booths.

In strongly Republican Kansas, an amendment to remove abortion protections from the state’s constitution was roundly defeated in a vote in August.

Separately, a Democratic candidate won a special election in the Hudson Valley in New York in a campaign which he essentially turned into a referendum on abortion. On the other hand, a Gallup poll in September showed just 4 per cent believed abortion was the biggest issue facing the country.

The stakes are enormous. Biden is not on the ballot next month. However, if the Democrats’ bet on abortion being a trump card falls flat, a Republican congress could stymie the president’s agenda for the remaining two years of his term.

Some Republicans have already warned the president could face efforts to impeach him next year if they win control of the house of representatives.

But will the supreme court ruling reshape the US electorate in such a manner that could see Democrats overcome the drag of a presidency, which is lagging with approval rates in the low 40s in the polls, to retain control of congress?

Carmona says Republican politicians have overplayed their hand “and completely underestimated the unifying factor of this [the issue of abortion] for women across ideology”.

She says even people with whom she has profound political disagreements have rejected the path on abortion adopted by Republicans.

She says some of these would quietly oppose these developments as having gone “too far”.

“I think that there are a lot of things that have happened at the same time that are coming together to create an environment where there is a new passion, a new interest, a new drive among women to take future into our own hands.”

She says the past five years have been extremely difficult for women but there were silver linings.

“We know how to connect with each other across place, race and difference and build power and mobilise; to create large coalitions that do not depend or rely on complete agreements in terms of where we are going.”

“Women see how late the hour is. How hard it is for generations of women who grew up hearing [abortion] is a constitutional right and then have it taken from [them].”

“I think the Dobbs decision ushered in what will be considered in the future a new era of American politics and women are uniquely positioned at this moment as a group that are highly mobilised already and politicised by the Dobbs decision.”

Republicans are keenly aware of the potential power of the abortion issue. The party is instead seeking to concentrate attention in many areas on issues such as crime, which it believes could generate better political dividends.

However, abortion as an issue keeps coming to the fore.

This week the Republican candidate running for the US senate in Georgia, Herschel Walker, who is strongly opposed to abortion, faced huge controversy amid reports that he paid a former girlfriend to have a termination.

Walker, a retired football star who has been backed by former president Donald Trump, has rejected the claims — which were supported by a receipt from the abortion clinic, a “get well” card from the candidate and an image of a personal check signed by him — as a “flat out lie”.

Walker was backed by the Republican Party establishment. This in turn has led to claims by Democrats that Republicans, who were publicly anti-abortion, were prepared to overlook the allegations that Walker had funded a termination on the purely political grounds that it was more important for the party to win the crucial senate seat in Georgia.

Republicans are seeking to portray Democrats, in particular Harris, as promoting “abortion extremism”.

In a statement this week the Republican National Committee said: “In 34 days Democrats will learn for themselves just how unpopular their radical agenda of unlimited, gender-selective, taxpayer-funded abortion on-demand really is.”