In the wake of Republican victories in state legislative races and Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, dismal predictions about the future of reproductive rights are everywhere. “Why the Left Is Losing on Abortion,” a New York Times headline promised to answer. The logic is that the right-wing waged a decades-long war against legal abortion and won, fair and square.
But this explanation misdiagnoses the real challenge and hinders efforts to overcome it.
Yes, reproductive rights are at greater risk today than at any time since Roe v. Wade. But the setbacks we’ve faced are not because people have turned against abortion rights. The reason anti-choice extremists have been able to turn back the clock has everything to do with the right wing’s ability to hijack our democracy to pass policies the majority of voters do not support.
From voter suppression and gerrymandering schemes to Donald Trump’s sabotage of the census—right-wing politicians have created a tyranny of the minority, and abortion access is not the only casualty.
Even as President-elect Joe Biden won the national popular vote decisively, Republicans will retain control of at least 59 state legislative chambers—in large part due to rigged, unfair maps that protect Republican incumbents and disadvantage Democrats. They will no doubt use these majorities to pass more tax cuts for the rich, block commonsense policies like Medicaid expansion, and push abortion care even further out of reach.
So how do we turn the tide and take our democracy back?
First, we need to stop pretending that U.S. voters don’t support abortion rights. They do.
Seven out of 10 voters oppose overturning Roe v. Wade. In fact, not even a majority of Republicans support completely overturning the landmark decision affirming people’s legal right to abortion. Among independents, a 2019 survey showed two-thirds were likely to support state laws that decriminalize abortion and lessen restrictions on care. In Colorado, voters resoundingly defeated an anti-choice ballot initiative, with “no” votes outperforming votes for Biden by more than 56,000.
Popular opinion falls squarely on the side of respecting people’s personal medical decisions. But this pro-choice majority has been silenced by politicians willing to bend the rules and subvert our democracy to deny them that right.
Second, we need to advocate, organize, and vote like our rights depend on it.
At Trust Women, we’ve always known that protecting and expanding access to abortion care, especially in politically hostile states, meant not only providing abortion services but also engaging in integrated advocacy, litigation, and organizing.
Earlier this year we helped stop an extreme anti-choice amendment from going to the ballot in Kansas. Since 2014, our canvassers have knocked on over 250,000 doors: identifying voters on abortion rights and educating them about laws and bills that affect one’s reproductive freedom. Voters from every political persuasion are on that list.
Looking ahead, we’ll need to organize and advocate in every single state—not just on the coasts or in swing states—and build an even larger base of grassroots activists and volunteers to fight back against abortion bans and expand access across the country.
We’ll need to reject the notion that some places are just too hostile to abortion rights, or that we need to compromise our values by conceding that only “pro-life” candidates can win. Instead, we need to be having more conversations about how reproductive health care is essential to healthy families and communities. Democrats’ structural disadvantages in the electoral college and the Senate mean we cannot write off rural, exurban, or center-right voters who may be conflicted on abortion rights.
At Trust Women, these are the communities we serve. We don’t ask our patients whether they are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or liberals. Without question, many of them voted for Trump and down-ballot Republicans. But all of them need and deserve access to affordable, compassionate abortion care. Winning in these communities doesn’t mean compromising our values; it means rallying people around our shared values of human dignity and personal autonomy.
Beyond that, we need to support democratic reforms that will ensure our voices are never again silenced by a minority of extremist politicians. That means restoring the Voting Rights Act, ending the filibuster, and ensuring fair maps.
Unless our democracy is strong, none of our rights are secure. The people want abortion to be safe and legal. Now we just need politicians who will listen.