Abortion bills push women's rights into political spotlight

2020 election debate at fever pitch

By Maeve Reston, CNN
CNN image

Eight months after the contentious hearings over Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, progressives fear that the most dire warnings of abortion rights groups are now coming to fruition.

This week, Alabama passed the country's most restrictive abortion ban, soon followed by Missouri passing its own strict anti-abortion legislation. Other bills elsewhere have either been signed into law or are working their way through legislatures -- with expectations on both sides that the issue will eventually come before the Supreme Court.

This momentum has thrust women's reproductive rights to the forefront of the political debate, with leaders weighing in from the halls of Congress to the campaign trail where the 2020 election debate is already at fever pitch.

Still, the nationwide political fight over abortion rights comes at a time when 77% of voters support access to abortion in the case of rape and incest during the first trimester.

"We think that women understand their rights are under fire and that there is a dire need to ensure that the right policymakers are making the decisions," said Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications for EMILY's List. "What we've seen is a bunch of mostly male Republicans making really bad decisions on behalf of the women in this country."

"This is a deliberate Republican effort to end abortion altogether and to take away this right," Reynolds said. "I think a number of us thought this was coming. For those of us who didn't, this has been a massive wake-up call."

But anti-abortion activists argued that Roe v. Wade, the landmark ruling that legalized abortion, was "far from being settled law."

"Across the nation there is growing momentum, informed by science and compassion, and spurred on in reaction to abortion extremism in New York and Virginia, to recognize the humanity of the unborn child in the law. It is clearer than ever that Roe is far from being settled law in the eyes and hearts of the American people, and this is increasingly reflected in state legislatures," said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement. "The American people want a fresh debate and a new direction, achieved by consensus and built on love for both mothers and babies."

"The time is coming for the Supreme Court to let that debate go forward."

 

At the state level

 

Alabama's passage of a near-total ban on abortion, with no exceptions in the case of race and incest, was a stunning development this week.

It was another incremental step in the state-by-state strategy of abortion foes to dismantle abortion rights in this country, and an alarm bell for women who have not paid close attention to the spate of restrictive abortion bills that have moved quickly through state legislatures this year.

Though it could be years before the Supreme Court takes up any of the direct challenges to Roe v. Wade -- the bill already faces many likely legal challenges from groups such as the ACLU and Planned Parenthood -- the passage of the Alabama bill immediately recast the political debate, in part because the bill's backers were so explicit about their intention to force the Supreme Court to reconsider the legality of abortion.

"Many Americans, myself included, disagreed when Roe v. Wade was handed down in 1973," Republican Gov. Kay Ivey said this week when she signed the bill (which also says doctors who perform abortions could face up to 99 years in prison). "The sponsors of this bill believe that it is time, once again, for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit this important matter, and they believe this act may bring about the best opportunity for this to occur."

The Alabama law also captured the nation's attention because Ivey signed it into law a mere week after Georgia passed its so-called "heartbeat" bill banning abortions after six weeks of pregnancy. The pairing of the two measures immediately electrified the debate in the 2020 presidential race, compelled Democratic donors to contribute to abortion rights groups, and even stoked debate in Hollywood over whether to halt ongoing productions in Georgia.

Officials with Planned Parenthood have tracked at least 15 abortion bans that have already passed through state legislatures this year. Four of the bills would ban abortion starting at six weeks, and the Alabama law stands alone as an outright ban. On Friday, the Missouri House passed a bill that prohibits abortions after eight weeks of pregnancy; it would allow exceptions for medical emergencies, but not rape or incest. Already cleared by the Senate, it now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Mike Parson, who has said he would sign it.

"Remember, these politicians are trying to set up a fight over the right to access abortion in an election year -- making sure the issue of abortion is front and center in voters' minds," said Kelley Robinson, the executive director of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. "The vast majority of Americans support access to abortion, and this is an issue they vote on."

"We know that this is not what women voters want. We know this is not what Americans want. We know that support for access to abortion crosses party lines," Robinson added. "We're already seeing this create discord in the Republican Party. There's no way this doesn't backfire with voters across America."

 

The responses roll in

 

The reaction from Republicans on Capitol Hill was muted -- reflecting the problems that a roaring abortion debate could create in next year's elections -- with even House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy stating that he did not agree with the Alabama law. President Donald Trump was uncharacteristically quiet when the law passed, even though he has increasingly accused Democrats of advocating for late-term abortion at his campaign rallies.

Meanwhile, the 2020 Democrats all vigorously denounced the Alabama law, characterizing it as a dangerous encroachment on the rights of women in this country.

"They're trying to overturn Roe v. Wade. It's wrong. And we are going to fight back," Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren told CNN's Manu Raju on Capitol Hill Wednesday. By Friday, the senator had rolled out a new proposal that called on Congress to codify federal protections on abortion rights, warning that efforts to undo Roe v. Wade "just might work."

The heated debate over restrictive state measures has come, ironically, at a time when record numbers of women have been elected to Congress and statehouses across the country.

California Rep. Jackie Speier alluded to how the heat, anger and uncertainty over the slate of anti-abortion bills could upend the 2020 election cycle in an interview Wednesday with CNN's Jake Tapper.

"If you thought the pink hats that women were wearing after the 2016 election -- and the 3 million women who marched around this country -- was a significant move, you just wait until this issue is put in front of the (Supreme Court) justices and if they were, in fact, to overturn Roe v. Wade," Speier said. "That is a picture in which you will see women with pitchforks."

The political complexity of dealing with restrictive abortion laws like the one in Alabama was immediately apparent as some congressional Republicans quickly distanced themselves from the measure. Maine Republican Susan Collins, one of the swing votes on Kavanaugh, called the Alabama bill "a terrible law" and said she couldn't imagine "that any justice could find that to be consistent" with previous precedent.

McCarthy, a California Republican charged with trying to regain his party's majority in 2020, said at his weekly press conference that he opposed the Alabama law because it "goes further than I believe."

"I believe in exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and that's what I've voted on," McCarthy told reporters.

And even conservative televangelist Pat Robertson said during his weekly show that he thought the Alabama law "has gone too far."

As they look ahead to the 2020 congressional elections, many Republicans are wary of a repeat of the difficulties they faced during the 2012 cycle, when two of their Senate candidates, Todd Akin of Missouri and Richard Mourdock of Indiana, made controversial comments about rape that became an albatross for scores of other Republican candidates.

Akin talked about "legitimate rape" and suggested that a rape victim's body could prevent unwanted pregnancies; Mourdock said he believed even a pregnancy that originated in rape was "something God intended to happen."

Trump has not highlighted the new Alabama law this week, but he has fulfilled his promises to evangelicals with his judicial appointments including to the Supreme Court, which is now dominated by five conservatives. At his political rallies, he has used increasingly graphic language to accuse Democrats of embracing an extreme agenda on abortion.

"Democrats are aggressively pushing late-term abortion, allowing children to be ripped from their mother's wombs, right up until the moment of birth," Trump said last week at a rally in Panama City, referring to the "possible execution of the baby."

Backers of legislation like the bill in Alabama have, in turn, become more explicit about their judicial goals.

 

'We will fight this with everything we've got'

 

While the abortion issue has percolated in the political debate for decades, this new flashpoint comes at a time when women's rights and political power are viewed as ascendant, in part as a backlash to Trump.

Two years into the Trump administration and in the midst of fallout from the #MeToo movement, female voters turned out in huge numbers in 2018 to elect more than 100 women to the House of Representatives for the first time.

Many young women turned out to vote in the midterm elections last fall; some were newly minted activists who went canvassing with their mothers for the first time, because they viewed Trump's rhetoric and the result of the Kavanaugh hearings as endangering their rights.

Six Democratic women are now running for president, casting a brighter spotlight on issues like pay equity, the cost of child care, racial disparities in maternal mortality rates -- and now reproductive rights.

Democratic presidential candidates have been quick to make the argument that the draconian abortion laws working their way through state legislatures have endangered the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, which legalized abortion in all 50 states.

"These extremist Republican lawmakers know what the law is -- but they don't care," Warren wrote in her proposal to codify federal protections for abortion rights. "They want to turn back the clock, outlaw abortion and deny women access to reproductive health care. And they are hoping the Supreme Court will back their radical play. I'll be blunt: It just might work."

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took her campaign to the Georgia state Capitol Thursday where she promised to "lead the fight for women's civil rights across the country."

"Right now, entirely too much of the conversation about what women can do with our own bodies is being driven by a group of right-wing male politicians," Gillibrand said. "It's time for that conversation to be led by the actual experts: women and doctors."

California Sen. Kamala Harris denounced the Alabama law at a series of campaign events in New Hampshire, and made it a call to action for Democratic voters.

"Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Ohio & now Alabama - these anti-abortion bills aren't a coincidence, it's a concerted effort by the GOP to overturn Roe v. Wade," Harris tweeted. "I'm sick and tired of this outright assault on women's bodily autonomy - we will fight this with everything we've got."

Harris, former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders all sent out missives to their donor lists after the Alabama law was passed encouraging donors to contribute to abortion rights groups. Harris told her donors in a subsequent email that they had raised $160,000 for those groups on Wednesday.

Buttigieg weighed in on the Alabama and Georgia laws at greater length during a speech Thursday in Chicago, where he argued that Trump was "able to build a coalition largely around a promise, explicit or implicit, to overturn Roe."

"I don't think that you are free in this country if your reproductive health can be criminalized by government," Buttigieg said during a speech Thursday evening in Chicago. "To see in Alabama that if someone is raped and she seeks an abortion, the doctor who treats her will be penalized with a longer prison term than her rapist makes me question whether the discussion about freedom in this country has gone off the rails."

CNN's Caroline Kenny and Casey Riddle contributed to this report.

The-CNN-Wire ™ & © 2019 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.