After a half century of abortion rights protected by the landmark 1973 case Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court on Wednesday offered the clearest signs yet that the era of reproductive freedom is drawing to a grim close.
The Court spent the morning hearing oral arguments involving a Mississippi law that makes it effectively impossible to obtain an abortion past 15 weeks of pregnancy. The state law clearly runs afoul of Roe and decades of settled legal precedent—and that’s exactly why Republicans wrote it. Mississippi’s cynical legal effort is the latest salvo in a decades-long Republican effort to build a test case capable of overturning abortion rights.
The Supreme Court’s new conservative majority is close to handing Republicans one of their most consequential victories in a generation, but you wouldn’t know that from listening to lawmakers. For a party constantly making noise on every possible media platform, GOP elected officials are strangely unwilling to take credit for their war on women. They have good reason to clam up: 80% of Americans across the political spectrum support abortion rights. By gutting Roe, the GOP is declaring war on a staggeringly broad and deep coalition.
Conservative Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas recognize this thorny political problem. Instead of barreling forward with an outright repeal, the Republican justices are hiding their partisan endgame behind an incremental approach. The 24-week “viability window” for abortions outlined in Roe and reinforced in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey is destined for the legal dustbin. In its place, Kavanaugh outlined a system of “states’ rights” — stop me if you’ve heard this one — under which millions of women in red states would find themselves with no abortion rights at all.
The Court’s decision will almost surely be catastrophic. It will also offer battered Democrats the priceless opportunity to upend what has been a brutal 2022 electoral narrative. For Republicans who privately acknowledge their stance on abortion is a drag at the polls, a cultural conversation centered on reproductive rights could be the only way embattled Democrats maintain their razor-thin majorities in the House and Senate.
“There is a complete disregard for women and families that is central to the GOP platform,” American Bridge President Jess Floyd told The Daily Beast. “It’s Democrats’ job to make sure voters understand this isn’t a fluke, this isn’t fringe. The central argument Republicans are making is that women do not matter.”
Before Democrats can start punching back, they’ll need to admit that they’ve been fooled by years of Republican messaging that paints abortion as a polarizing and unpopular issue. In fact, abortion is one of the few unifying issues in a divided nation: a survey conducted last month by Hart Research Associates and ALG Research found that when an election focuses on abortion rights, respondents vote for Democrats over Republicans by an eye-popping 71-point margin. Even worse for the GOP, a whopping 8-in-10 voters strongly opposed exactly the kinds of anti-abortion laws now before the Supreme Court.
But if Democrats win big when abortion is the message, why hasn’t that been the case in the past? Put simply, because most voters don’t actually know what states like Texas and Mississippi are actually doing to women.
“Only about 34% of voters say they understand what is happening in Texas or have heard of [state anti-choice laws],” Floyd says. “At higher levels of awareness, voters show greater concern about protecting abortion rights. The more we can lean in, this is a message that works with constituencies across the political spectrum.”
That’s especially bad news for Republicans’ suburban strongholds, which recovered slightly in 2021 after abandoning Donald Trump for Joe Biden and Democrats last year. As Elaine Godfrey writes in The Atlantic, suburban Republican women have long played a central role in the GOP’s electoral strategy. They also support the right to choose, an inconvenient fact that led the Virginia Republican Party to muzzle on any talk about restricting abortion during Glenn Youngkin’s successful bid for governor this year.
“If Roe v. Wade is overturned, there is no doubt that millions of women will turn out in droves,” argues Democratic strategist Emily Tisch Sussman. “Democrats have never been able to mobilize their voters based on threats to the court, where Republicans have, and part of that is that younger voters have never lived in a world where Roe was not the law of the land, so they didn't see an imminent threat to the right to choose.”
That’s about to change. And that means Democrats need to revoke the GOP’s free pass to duck tough conversations about their anti-freedom agenda, and amplify the real-life crises that happen when a country suddenly lurches 50 years into the past.
“Democrats need to seize this opportunity to make clear to voters that the Republican Party stands for outlawing abortion—an unpopular stance in every state in this country,” says Kristin Ford, VP of Communications and Research at NARAL Pro-Choice America. “This is the moment for Democrats to expose who Republican politicians are and how out of step their draconian agenda is with most Americans. Voters won’t forget which politicians put their families and freedom on the line.
The political landscape around abortion has changed drastically since 1973. Record-high numbers of voters supported abortion in 2019, a fact that played out disastrously for Republicans a year later during the 2020 election. Even then, many Republican politicians managed to duck discussion of reproductive freedom during a campaign dominated by Donald Trump’s bombastic excess. They won’t be able to wiggle away with the Supreme Court plastering the issue on every front page in the country.
If Democrats want to frame the 2022 election as a referendum on Republican attacks on abortion, they’ll need to start laying the groundwork now. For millions of Americans, the idea of losing abortion rights is still an abstract concept—something reserved for debate-stage theatrics and never seriously considered. But that unthinkable moment is here, and we must treat it as the direct assault on our fundamental liberties that it is.
“For a long time, it didn’t seem believable that the ACA was going to be taken away, so people who most benefited from it weren’t that mobilized,” Floyd said. “For the last 40 years there has been a level of trust that the Supreme Court would uphold our constitutional right to abortion. Now that is not the case. We need to make that clear to voters.”
It isn’t enough to have good messaging — Democrats also need a clear agenda for restoring the abortion rights the GOP has already weakened or stripped away. Blue states like New York have bolstered their legal defenses by enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions. That’s a start, but such a path remains a fantasy in Trumpist bastions like Mississippi and Georgia. It will take focused federal action to truly protect reproductive rights. The Women’s Health Protection Act, currently awaiting a vote in the Senate, offers just the solution.
Make no mistake, we are watching the most successful effort to date to strip fundamental rights away from American citizens. But that does not need to be the case. In assaulting freedoms as deeply-held and broadly supported as abortion, Republicans have gifted Democrats a golden opportunity to expose just how harmful the GOP agenda is to our sense of national identity. They won’t get another chance.