WASHINGTON — Progressive leaders are staring down what they consider the biggest emergency for abortion rights in half a century — and they fear that both Democratic voters and elected officials are failing to appreciate the threat of a world without Roe v. Wade.
The ripple effects of an anticipated Supreme Court ruling scaling back or eliminating the right to an abortion would go beyond the most conservative parts of the country and also hit the blue states that have already become havens for people fleeing a host of new restrictive laws.
Since Texas’ near total abortion ban took effect in September, for example, thousands of people have traveled to neighboring states as well as places as far away as California, Illinois and Washington D.C. to have an abortion, overwhelming clinics and delaying timely care for people in those areas.
“People look at Texas and Mississippi and think: ‘I’m sitting pretty in my blue state. That’s their problem,’” said Kristin Ford, the vice president of communications and research at NARAL. “But when you have a wave of people coming across state lines, that’s going to strain the health care system in your state. Our fates are intertwined.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) told reporters on a Thursday call that with nearby Idaho and Montana likely to ban or severely restrict abortion access should Roe be overturned, clinics in her state are bracing for a wave of new patients that could stretch limited resources.
“The more crowded it gets and the more people are in line, the harder it is for local people to get an appointment and get the care they need,” she said, warning that blue states should not become complacent.“This erosion of a woman’s ability to get the health care she needs can come to any state at any time merely by a political whim.”
While a handful of Democratic states have recently advanced measures that protect abortion rights, many of those efforts have been watered down, abortion-rights advocates complain, and lack the adequate financial support that will be needed should half the country lose access to the procedure.
In Virginia, Democrats didn’t heed calls from activists to use their final months in the majority to call a special session and codify Roe into state law; they now find themselves out of power.
In Vermont, voters will decide this fall whether to add language to the state constitution saying that “personal reproductive autonomy… shall not be denied or infringed.” But the amendment includes the caveat “unless justified by a compelling state interest achieved by the least restrictive means,” leaving room for future state officials to argue some abortion bans are justified.
And while a bill just signed in New Jersey would protect abortion rights should the Supreme Court eliminate Roe v. Wade, the legislation was significantly weakened from its original version — dropping several provisions that would have guaranteed insurance coverage for the procedure and other financial supports.
Progressives searching for a bright spot note California, where the attorney general recently told law enforcement not to prosecute people who miscarry or have abortions. A feticide law on the books in the state, aimed mainly at those who harm pregnant individuals, has as recently as 2019 been used to prosecute people who lost a pregnancy due to drug use.
There are also several bills now moving in the legislature that would cover the abortion costs of uninsured people, provide funding for clinics to hire more staff and shield Californians from legal liability if they help people from another state obtain the procedure.
Meanwhile, as the country prepares to observe what may be the last anniversary of Roe v. Wade this weekend — with massive anti-abortion rights rallies planned in D.C. and in several state capitols — conservative legislatures are coming back into session and rushing to enact a host of sweeping new restrictions and near-total abortion bans.
“This is the moment the pro-life movement has worked tirelessly to bring about,” said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony List, one of the leading speakers at Saturday’s anti-abortion March for Life. “Our greatest opportunity to enact ambitious laws that save millions of lives.”
At least 20 states have introduced, or plan to introduce, bills modeled on Texas’ abortion law that blocks the procedure six weeks into a pregnancy and delegates enforcement to private individuals. Several states are also pursuing new curbs on abortion pills, bans on some forms of surgical abortion, bans on abortions sought for a particular reason such as a Down syndrome diagnosis, and more.
“Our opponents are throwing every piece of spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks,” Destiny Lopez, the co-president of All* Above All, told POLITICO. “Why aren’t we doing the same? At this point, we have nothing to lose. We’ve lost so much already — nearly everything.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised in October that the chamber would vote “soon” on a bill that would block states from imposing new abortion restrictions. But a vote has not yet been scheduled. Schumer’s office did not respond to POLITICO’s questions on when the bill will come to the floor.
“To see nothing happening in a time of crisis has been incredibly hard,” said Elizabeth Nash, the Associate Director of State Issues at the pro-abortion rights Guttmacher Institute. “We need to see a response soon. We’re seeing what’s already happening in Texas. We’re seeing the potential for other bans. People will be leaving to access care in more supportive states and those states need to step up.”
Abortion-rights activists are also frustrated with President Joe Biden, who has taken some executive actions to improve access but has been hesitant to use the bully pulpit to bring more attention to the issue.
“We need leaders to talk about this issue in a full-throated way,” said Lopez. “We need the president to say the word ‘abortion’ and acknowledge what people in this country are already facing and are about to face.”
In response, the White House pointed to their record rolling back Trump administration restrictions on abortion and bringing a lawsuit against Texas’ ban, among other actions. An administration official also noted the several instances that Biden has used the word “abortion” in statements and social media posts, telling POLITICO: “We also know there is more work to be done, and President Biden and Vice President Harris will continue to stand up and speak out about a woman’s right to choose, and to ensuring all individuals have access to the health care they need.”
There are several factors working against the pro-abortion rights side in the current fight — creating a Sisyphean battle that Ford compared to rolling a boulder uphill.
Anti-abortion rights groups have a clear electoral advantage at the state level. Republicans control more than half the country’s governorships and nearly two-thirds of state legislatures. And even in many blue states, individual counties and cities controlled by conservatives are pursuing abortion restrictions — creating a never-ending game of Whack-a-Mole for abortion rights groups fighting the new laws.
“States that are more abortion-friendly are not immune from these fights, even if there’s a mentality of ‘it can’t happen here,’” one Planned Parenthood official not authorized to speak publicly told POLITICO.
A December Morning Consult poll of 2,000 registered voters found that most believe Roe v. Wade should not be overturned and that abortion should remain legal in “most or all cases.” But the survey also found the public to be uninformed or misinformed about the stakes and likely outcome of the pending Supreme Court ruling on Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban.
Nearly half — 44 percent — of those surveyed said they had heard “not much” or “nothing at all” about the case, while nearly two-thirds either said they didn’t know how likely the court was to overturn Roe or said the court isn’t likely to overturn the precedent.
Even many who realize the Supreme Court is poised to curtail if not completely eliminate Roe don’t think it will impact them, activists said — making it difficult to drum up sufficient political pressure on Democratic officials, and leaving it to volunteers and grassroots organizations to take up the slack.
In Michigan, for example, where Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer faces a difficult reelection race this year, Planned Parenthood and the ACLU are gathering signatures to get an abortion rights initiative on the November ballot. Should Roe be overturned, abortion would be illegal in Michigan because of a 1931 law that’s still on the books.
And across the country, local abortion funds are working to raise millions to help people with low incomes pay for the travel, housing, child care and medical costs of obtaining an abortion in another state.
“The governments in many states have abdicated their responsibility, so it’s become a public-private issue,” Lopez said.
Anticipating a Supreme Court ruling favorable to abortion opponents later this year, GOP lawmakers are pushing forward measures in Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Kentucky and other red states that could drive millions of people to either cross state lines for an abortion or end a pregnancy illegally.
Countering this push, abortion rights advocates said, will require hammering home the stakes of the pending Supreme Court decision for people no matter where they live and mobilizing them to put pressure on state and federal officials.
“I wish people understood that while this case is technically about Mississippi’s 15-week ban, it’s really about every state in the country,” said Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center. “The fight in Mississippi is the fight in Colorado, Maine, Michigan and everywhere else in the country.”