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Don’t Just Defend Abortion Rights. Play Offense Over Them.

Abortion rights has proven time and again to be a winning issue for Democrats.

Mark Peterson/Redux
Pro-choice activists block the view of pro-life protesters with rainbow colored umbrellas for people entering a Planned Parenthood clinic in New York City.

President Joe Biden is staking his reelection and the future of this country on an American love for democracy. Marking the third anniversary of the January 6 insurrection near the Revolutionary War encampment at Valley Forge, he cautioned his audience, “We’re living in an era where a determined minority is doing everything in its power to try to destroy our democracy for their own agenda.”

When we think of democracy, what most often pops to mind are structural elements like voting rights, equal representation, and effective checks and balances. And certainly, Democrats should pound away on those crucial elements of a functional system. But it’s also the case that they have no better proof point for the president’s claim than the Republican obsession with eliminating legal abortion in twenty-first-century America.

Yes, abortion rights are about democracy. The vast majority of voters revile abortion bans. Most don’t want women punished for seeking one, and even fewer want those who help them to face penalties. Yet that’s exactly the point of laws passed by the GOP from South Carolina to Texas. Hypothetical horrors are transforming into grim realities as doctors are threatened with prosecution for providing care, and life-altering medical decisions are punted from operating rooms to the desks of hospital lawyers. These terrifying maladies have been brought to voters by the anti-democratic Republican drive to control women and girls. Democrats should broadcast that.

Consider the 10-year-old raped by a man almost three times her age and then denied an abortion in her home state of Ohio. She had to be transported across state lines to Indiana to receive care, where, afterward, her doctor faced charges for violating patient privacy laws by commenting on the already well-publicized case. The charge seemed designed more to demonstrate that doctors would be targeted for providing care than to actually protect any privacy. This doctor showed fortitude in the face of harassment and intimidation, but not everyone can be expected to jeopardize everything to treat patients. Voters have to be reminded of this.

Then there’s Texan Kate Cox, who made news lambasting her state government for refusing to allow her to terminate a doomed pregnancy that, left untreated, risked her future fertility. She wants another child; elected politicians just may deny her one. And then there’s Yeniifer (Yeni) Alvarez-Estrada Glick, whose pregnancy became a perfect storm of complications that ultimately ended her life. Yeni’s family struggled in a part of Texas where the basics were hard to get: health care, nutrition, education. As is the case with many in that situation, her maternal status was high-risk from the start. No physician felt safe even telling her that terminating the pregnancy would likely save her life. At a conference before Yeni died, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist in her hospital network laid bare the impossible choices doctors face in the grim reality of the abortion ban in place: “Some women just cannot take the stress of pregnancy, so they may basically die or develop a life-threatening condition. In those cases, I have to recommend an abortion in order to prevent a maternal death. And that is getting much harder.”

Voter frustration with abortion bans has run hot in state and local elections and has propelled backlash at the ballot box. Abortion rights ballot measures have enjoyed a clean sweep of victories across seven states. Blowouts in blue states have been reinforced by double-digit wins in reliably red states from Kansas to Ohio. In a closely watched Wisconsin Supreme Court race, a liberal judge beat a staunchly anti-choice opponent, flipping the body’s ideological majority. The race heavily featured debate over the future of legal abortion in that state. Pro-choice Governor Andy Beshear handily won his reelection in Kentucky after his state soundly rejected a ballot measure that stated there is no right to abortion under the state constitution and made future challenges to the state’s current abortion ban more difficult. And Governor Glenn Youngkin lost his quest for Republican control of both houses of Virginia’s legislature, after he supported a planned 15-week abortion ban in the state. Exceptions in the measure were meant to mollify moderate voters, and still it failed. Democrats held the state Senate and flipped the House of Delegates. Youngkin’s bill was dead on arrival.

If history serves as any guide, the only thing standing in Democrats’ path to using this issue as a cudgel in 2024 is themselves. Democrats must ignore the pundits who will inevitably claim—as they did in 2022—that the issue is played out. Instead, double down. If candidates up and down the ballot drive home to voters what their opponents want this country to look like for women and for families, they will win. Here’s a quick playbook on how to leverage this massive and historic advantage.

Come out swinging. Republicans know better than anyone that they have overplayed their hand on abortion, so they cross their fingers and hope for their opponents’ silence. Or they try to mimic Donald Trump, who adheres to a strict formulaic and noncommittal answer to neutralize the issue. First, he takes credit for installing the justices who overturned Roe v. Wade, while still suggesting skepticism about a federal ban before pivoting to slime Democrats with the false claim that they support abortion “even after birth.” Republicans’ ability to mollify the base/comfort the middle/deflect the extremism is effective only if they set the table for the audience. Democrats should throw the first punch, make their opponents own the abortion bans, and lay the destruction at their feet. If Republicans claim victory on abortion, they undercut their support with the majority of voters. If they try to distance themselves from what they have done, they alienate their base. Either plays badly; don’t let them off the hook until they answer.

Make Republicans’ position on abortion a referendum on their character. Arizona Senator Mark Kelly did this beautifully in his 2022 debate against Blake Masters when he said, “I think we all know guys like this…. You know, guys that think they know better than everyone about everything. You think you know better than women and doctors about abortion.” Voters don’t want arrogant politicians making decisions for themselves and their families. Remind the voters that it’s no coincidence that states that have the strictest abortion laws are the states where maternal mortality is highest, women are least likely to be insured, and people’s economic conditions are most perilous.

And perhaps most of all: Connect the dots for voters between Republicans’ drive to end legal abortion and their willingness to throw aside American democracy. Turns out it’s a straight line. After all, when you are losing the majority of voters, you resort to oppressing their will to hold power. Restrictive abortion laws have long gone hand in hand with voter suppression laws. Ranking Senate Republican Mitch McConnell achieved a historic coup in 2016 when he stonewalled the nomination of Merrick Garland in President Barack Obama’s last year in office. It was a high-risk strategy that reaped great reward when Donald Trump was able to install three justices to fulfill his promise to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. And those justices are just getting started: In 2023, they undermined affirmative action in college admissions and reversed President Biden’s student loan forgiveness program.

That same court may very well decide Donald Trump’s fate in the upcoming election. His lawyer Alina Habba recently suggested that the court’s decision is a “slam dunk,” citing Trump’s support for Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial nomination and suggesting Kavanaugh owes the former president. If the courts don’t work their magic, an extreme base stands at the ready. The foot soldiers of the war on abortion converged neatly with insurrectionists as January 6 saw well-known clinic protesters join the throngs attempting to take the Capitol and prevent the peaceful transition of power. There’s a crucially important story to tell here, and Democrats need to tell it.

After all, they have one thing the other side doesn’t have: the majority of the American public that does actually support their positions on both abortion and maintaining this fragile democratic system. The alternative is the tyranny of the minority that President Biden warned us about near Valley Forge, and, as always, women will be on the front lines.