Abortion Rights Is a Winning Issue – Not the Political Third Rail
By Yamani Hernandez
Voters in the 2018 primaries continue to send a clear message that politicians don’t need to compromise support for abortion rights to get elected.
Research shows that support for abortion rights is at its highest level in over twenty years among Democratic women and that voters discern the hundreds of legislative attacks on abortion access as a rising threat to our ability to control our own lives. The visible wave of activist resistance we’ve seen over the past year in response to attacks on health care and abortion access, as well as the record number of women and LGBTQ people running for office this year, are further evidence that abortion rights are a lynchpin of the progressive agenda.
Many of those candidates are winning. In Iowa, a state that earlier this year passed the most restrictive abortion law on the books so far, pro-choice women defeated their competitors by double digits in Congressional races, edging the state closer to sending its first woman to Congress. Both Abby Finkenauer, who won the Democratic nomination in Iowa’s 1st District, and Cindy Axne, who won in the 3rd District, campaigned in support of reproductive rights. Twenty-nine-year-old Finkenauer could become the youngest Member of Congress this fall if she prevails in the general election, which makes her support for abortion rights in line with recent research. PRRI (Public Religious Research Institute) recently found that, “[a]pproximately one-third of young Americans say their views on abortion have changed in recent years, and nearly three times as many say their views have become more supportive of abortion rather than more opposed to abortion (25% vs. 9%).”
The Iowa victories come on the heels of similar victories in May primaries, including that of pro-choice progressive Democrat Kara Eastman in the Omaha, Nebraska primary. Eastman defeated her opponent, Representative Brad Ashford, by three points in the 2nd District primary. Ashford supported a 20-week abortion ban and other abortion restrictions while in office.
Eastman didn’t just endorse abortion rights, she openly campaigned on protecting people’s right to abortion alongside other progressive positions like Medicare for All and ending tax breaks for millionaires. Her victory proves that when it comes to progressive values, lawmakers don’t have to choose between support for abortion access and economic issues, as some have suggested—in fact, these issues go hand in hand, even in conservative states like Nebraska and Alabama.
Pro-choice Democrat Doug Jones made history in Alabama earlier this year after he prevailed over Roy Moore, a staunch opponent of abortion rights. Democrats in Alabama hadn’t won a statewide race in nearly a decade, and some feared that Jones’ vocal support for abortion rights in his campaign would cost him the election. But Jones didn’t back down, remaining unwavering in his support for abortion rights throughout his campaign despite pressure to compromise on abortion. Instead, he showed the skeptics in his party that Democrats don’t need to defect from their own platform to win an election.
Politicians who talk about and support abortion know what the thousands of grassroots volunteers in 38 states that are part of the National Network of Abortion Funds have known all along—that our lives are complex and that access to abortion, a living wage, access to health care, and the ability to raise our families without violence are all part of what we need to thrive. None of these are negotiable. Support for abortion is not something to be hidden or forgotten. It is a part of our culture and our lived experience.
The establishment may be slow to change, but would-be legislators need to learn fast that throwing abortion under the bus doesn’t resonate with their constituents. Former state legislator Heath Mello’s failed bid to become Omaha mayor last year provides a stark contrast to Eastman’s success. Mello is an anti-choice Democrat who rejected the Democratic Party’s own platform by voting in favor of restricting abortion as a state legislator and then promised to support abortion rights as mayor. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senator Bernie Sanders lined up in support of Mello, granting him permission to ditch abortion only to watch him lose to an even more anti-abortion lawmaker by six points.
Democratic voters’ support for openly pro-choice candidates should be a wake-up call for their party. Every election these days is a “change” election. Clearly, the change Democratic voters want to see is more legislators standing up for abortion rights as a fundamental plank of the progressive agenda.
And Republicans should take note that their extremist views on abortion are putting them further out of step, even with their own constituency. A recent poll by Perry Undem showed that Republicans are more mixed in their views on abortion than can be seen on the surface, and Republican policymakers could benefit from embracing abortion rights. Democrats have more to lose by turning their backs on abortion access, as the Democratic base is overwhelmingly in support.
A tidal wave of policies that shame, pressure, and punish people for their reproductive decisions and pregnancy outcomes has washed over this country. Democratic voters want leadership that will fight to protect our rights and advance a clear vision for the future. Abortion is just one piece of the support we need to ensure we have the ability to have families in safe and supported environments. Voters have shown they will reward those who advance policies to support our families and our futures.
Yamani Hernandez is executive director of the National Network of Abortion Funds