“Forced birth”—that’s how Maryland Democrats phrased Republican efforts to derail a new law that allows trained health-care practitioners to perform abortions, as opposed to limiting the procedure only to doctors.
It’s not a radical step, even though Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican with presidential ambitions, framed it that way. Maryland is the 15th state to expand access this way. The larger point, Democrats had the votes to pass the bill, and they had the right framing with an emotional punch.
Another example where Democrats are on message is in Florida with the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. The legislation doesn’t say that, of course, but that’s the intent when classroom discussion of sexual orientation or gender identity is prohibited.
“It’s extremely important for Democrats to frame issues in ways that define and expose what Republican policies are really about, and this can be especially effective when the framing is sticky and memorable as in the case of Don’t Say Gay,” says Democratic pollster Geoff Garin.
“Sticky and memorable,” should be words to live by as the Democrats approach midterm elections that are likely to cut short their power in Washington—if they don’t find the language to energize and persuade voters. They’ve done it in the past, sinking former President George W. Bush’s overhaul of Social Security by hammering home that he was “privatizing” the government program. Efforts to reform Medicare ended once Democrats declared the GOP wanted to “end Medicare as we know it.”
These examples from the pre-Trump past show that Democrats can be effective, “but it is the case that Republicans have played the branding game more aggressively and Democrats have erred too often in talking about policies in a too wonkish a way,” Garin told The Daily Beast in an email.
The phrase “forced birth” came up during floor debate in the Maryland legislature last month as lawmakers debated an amendment for parental consent to a new Abortion Care Access bill. The term put Republicans on the defensive, as Democrats defeated 11 GOP amendments designed to undermine the bill.
“It changes the spotlight. It puts the spotlight on the woman. Republicans make it about the potential child, but this is an issue about women,” says George Lakoff, an expert in political framing and author of the bestselling book, Don’t Think of an Elephant. “It’s a shocking enough phrase that people will notice it and if it’s used repeatedly, it will have force, and it will get the idea out there, not just the words, this is an issue about women.”
Last month was the first time in 30 years that an abortion-related issue had reached the House floor, says delegate Ariana Kelly. “For 30 years, we had this truce,” she told The Daily Beast. The right to an abortion was secure in Maryland, and there was no need to act, Kelly says. “This year it was different because we saw what was happening with federal laws, and what happened after the Texas law when wait times in neighboring states went up to 20 days, so we had to end the truce.”
Thirty years ago, in 1992, Maryland codified Roe v. Wade in a statute that assures abortion services will be provided in the state even if Roe—the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion—were overturned. Compromises were made to get that guarantee, and one was the “physicians-only” restriction.
Democrats argued that women in the neighboring states of West Virginia and Pennsylvania will seek abortion care at record rates in Maryland if the Supreme Court acts (as expected) to overturn Roe or further restrict access to the procedure. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) gave its blessing to removing the restriction in 2011, allowing trained clinicians to perform the procedure, assuring that health and safety would not be compromised.
The new law also requires insurance companies to cover abortion care without co-pays, and it establishes a $3.5 million fund to train clinicians in the procedure.
“During the debate over vaccines, we heard a lot of Republicans use ‘My body. My choice,’” says Kelly, the Maryland delegate who led the fight for greater abortion access. “It seemed a little bit ironic that Republicans were referring to their bodily autonomy, but it did not translate to the right for abortion access. They also carried on about how much they love babies, but they voted the next day against parental leave.”
Meanwhile, what Democrats are doing in championing individual rights and limited government borrows a page from the GOP playbook. “They’re clearly latching on to libertarian rhetoric trying to limit the power of the government,” says Jack Pitney, a professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College. “That may win them more support than some invocation of ‘woke’ values.”
Democrats have been trying to claw back from the damage done by “Defund the police,” a phrase that energized Republicans and cost Democrats support in swing districts.
One of the wild cards is how voters will react if the Supreme Court strikes down Roe, or further restricts access to abortion. All those women who came out for the Women’s March after Donald Trump’s election, where are they?
“If the Supreme Court reverses Roe v. Wade, many women will get penalized, and that will change the conversation,” says Pitney. “Women will get hit with penalties, and that’s the part the pro-life movement averts its eyes from. So far it’s been hypothetical, but when it gets real, it’s real.”
In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said if abortion is illegal, women should face “some sort of punishment.” His campaign tried to walk it back, saying abortion providers would be penalized, but that’s the direction we’re headed if abortion is made illegal in substantial parts of the country.
A half-century after Roe, with the rights it conferred about to be overturned or drastically curtailed, we can only guess at what will unfold. Republicans have had a long run exploiting an issue that is deeply personal.
Now it’s the Democrats’ turn to see if they can find political benefit—by deploying a provocative phrase that sums up the intent of a court swayed by a conservative majority that’s out of step with the country.