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How State Abortion Laws Could Cost Republicans the 2020 Election

Mark Dent

Since Friday, when Missouri passed a bill strictly limiting abortion, Lauren Gepford, the state Democratic Party’s executive director, has witnessed protesters rallying all over the state. She has heard of people expressing new interest in running for office. She has even talked to her grandmother, whose boyfriend, a Republican, finds the new measure to be “outrageous.”

“It’s a realization that Missouri is just as extreme as other states like Alabama and some other southern states,” Gepford said. “And that’s hit some folks pretty hard.”

The outcry in Missouri illustrates the possible long-term effects of the strict abortion laws designed to challenge Roe v. Wade that have also been passed by legislatures in Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. While conservative anti-abortion rights advocates have won this spring, they risk building support on the left for key races in 2020, especially if the Supreme Court hears an argument regarding one of the bills in time for the election.

“It would galvanize the pro-choice people more than it would the pro-life,” said Ian Shapiro, a Yale political science professor and author of Abortion: The Supreme Court Decisions, 1965-2007. “Pro-life is going to vote the way they’re going to vote anyway.”

Though abortion has long been a divisive issue, it has rarely driven pro-abortion rights voters to the polls en masse, in part because of cautious planning by abortion opponents. For decades, abortion opponents mostly followed the lead of the litigation departments of major groups, such as the Susan B. Anthony List or Americans United for Life. Their goals were incremental gains that chipped away at Roe and didn’t provoke the majority of Americans who support the ruling.

But state legislators and grassroots activists this year have not been waiting for coordinated campaigns by national groups. They have seen the potential for change with the Supreme Court appointments of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch and aimed farther. Alabama banned all abortions except for in instances where a woman’s life is at stake. Like Missouri, Ohio, Mississippi, and Georgia banned them after the time a fetal heartbeat is detected, at about five to eight weeks into the pregnancy.

“These bans are so draconian they may be rousing opposition detrimental to the litigation campaign and political strategy of the anti-abortion advocates who are encouraging the Court to dismantle Roe, by steps, in ways less likely to mobilize the electorate,” said Reva B. Siegel, a Yale law professor and editor of the new book Reproductive Rights and Justice Stories.

On Wednesday, dozens of protests were scheduled nationwide as part of a #StopTheBan movement. Donations to Planned Parenthood have surged. Rebecca Katz, a progressive Democratic strategist and founder of New Deal Strategies, said the abortion laws will inspire Democrats to place a greater emphasis than in the past on winning state legislature seats and lead to presidential candidates making abortion a major issue.

Candidates Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren have already said they would protect abortion from state restrictions—and even an overturn of Roe by the Supreme Court—by seeking to have Congress pass a law legalizing abortion. In 2007, a federal law that banned partial birth abortion was deemed Constitutional by the Supreme Court, setting a precedent for Congress to get involved in regulating abortion.

Democratic presidential candidates ran on a promise to legalize abortion through Congress in 1992, when many people expected the Supreme Court to overturn Roe in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. But the Supreme Court upheld Roe months before the general election.

“In effect what that did was take the wind out of the sails of people who wanted Congress to act,” Shapiro said. “Then abortion turned out not to be a 1992 election issue.”

To avoid affecting the 2020 election, Shapiro said the opposite may happen. Rather than hear a case about abortion like in 1992, Chief Justice John Roberts will likely dissuade the Supreme Court from hearing anything that tests Roe v. Wade. “I think he’s a very political animal,” Shapiro said.

The Supreme Court already delayed a decision on whether to hear an Indiana case for abortion laws that were less restrictive than those passed this year by Alabama, Georgia, and others.

But Katz said the abortion issue will continue to resonate, in the same way Trump’s election and the #MeToo movement inspired massive numbers of women to vote and run for office in 2018.

“With the threat of what is happening across the country to their rights,” she said, “they’re only going to get more active and more successful at the polls.”

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—Should Title VII civil rights protections include the LGBTQ community?

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