After Alabama passed its draconian abortion ban last week, the latest state law meant to challenge Roe v. Wade, the leading women in contention for the 2020 Democratic nomination pulled no punches. They didn’t talk about how abortion should be safe “but rare.” There was no measured rhetoric about the settled Supreme Court precedent.
They went off.
“Access to safe, legal abortion is a constitutional RIGHT,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tweeted. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who’s made women’s rights the centerpiece of her flagging campaign, appeared at a pro-choice rally in Georgia. “As a party, we should be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be non-negotiable,” she said in a Washington Post interview. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) were similarly vocal.
While many of the many Democratic men running for president also issued statements, there was something different ― more personal, more passionate ― about the way the women responded. It felt unprecedented. Powerful.
“For the first time ever we have candidates where this is personal,” said Rebecca Katz, a Democratic strategist. “They don’t have to talk about their mother, sister or daughter; they can talk about their own lived experiences.”
There was more than just talk of preserving Roe v. Wade. Sen. Warren proposed Congress pass laws to protect abortion and outlined what that would look like. Gillibrand also said she’d take legislative steps to protect choice, including overturning the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to pay for abortions, except in rare cases.
“Actually saying here is my policy to protect Roe is something I think the women are more forward-leaning on, and I think they’re driving the field,” said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, a pro-choice political action committee.
Since the midterm elections, the rising field of Democratic female politicians and candidates has reshaped the rhetoric on abortion, typically a topic even pro-choice candidates sort of tiptoe around.
During the 2018 midterms when historic numbers of women ran for office ― and won ― they didn’t shy away from abortion, Reynolds said. “Women were incredibly successful in 2018 and successful about being vocal, about being pro-choice,” she said. “I’m not saying it was a central plank but they knew it was an important issue, and they were strong on their positions.”
For example, when she was running for Congress for the first time in 2018, Democrat Katie Hill opened up about considering getting an abortion when she was 19.
The abortion battle feels like an inevitable next step in what’s been a growing war on women that escalated the day Donald Trump was elected and has only felt more palpable every day since ― the marches, MeToo, the Kavanaugh hearings.
On Tuesday, thousands of women took to the streets in support of abortion rights. That we have women politicians in the fight seems crucial.
“This is really new for our country,” said Adrienne Kimmell, vice president of communications at NARAL Pro-Choice America, pointing to the number of viable female presidential candidates in 2020. “Everything looks and sounds a little bit different. There’s a level of attention to the issue that feels different in cycles past.”
Part of that is the threat level, she added. Anti-choice politicians have never been this nakedly ambitious in recent history.
Jennifer Lawless, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, called the current moment the “biggest threat to Roe that we’ve seen.” She said that while the male candidates are out there fighting this battle ― New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, for example, has pledged to take executive action on abortion if elected ― it’s possible the women are more compelling.
“If Warren or Harris say the same thing as [former Vice President Joe] Biden or Booker, it might resonate more coming from a woman,” she said.
It’s worth noting, too, that none of these Democratic candidates would really benefit from shying away from abortion rights at this stage. “These are candidates running in a Democratic primary, where voters are overwhelmingly pro-choice and worried about efforts to chip away at and overturn Roe v. Wade,” Lawless said. “At his stage of the electoral process, tepid pro-choice statements are probably more of a liability.”
Abortion wasn’t always an issue Democratic presidential candidates wanted to get into. Anti-abortion Democrats still aren’t unwelcome in the party. If a candidate had to give up on reproductive freedom to win an election in a red or purple state, that was OK. Democratic men seemed to see abortion as more of a niche issue, as Rebecca Traister writes in The Cut, or, as former President Barack Obama once framed it, a distraction. It wasn’t considered a true “economic” issue.
“[F]or years, I’ve listened to Democratic politicians distance themselves from abortion by calling it tragic and insisting it should be rare, instead of simply acknowledging it to be a crucial, legal cornerstone of comprehensive health care for women, people with uteruses, and their families,” she writes.
But of course, for women, abortion is a critical economic issue; if you can’t control when, and if, you have a child, good luck trying to figure out your financial future.
Whether or not the female candidates will have an edge with Democratic voters who care about choice is up in the air. Men and women’s views on abortion tend to run along party lines. However, Democratic women voters do consider abortion a more crucial election issue. In a recent poll, 63% of women who voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 said abortion would be a very important issue in the 2020 election; compared with one-third of male Clinton voters.
Still, there is one issue that may eclipse abortion at the 2020 ballot box, and that’s the man in the White House.
“At the end of the day, even if Democrats are far more worried about abortion rights, they’re still motivated by who they think has the best shot of defeating Donald Trump,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story indicated that Katie Hill had an abortion at 19. However, Hill had a miscarriage as she was considering whether to terminate her pregnancy.