As the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh got underway on Tuesday, a group of pro-choice activists held a “vigil” for abortion rights outside. A handful of protesters dressed up in the red robes and white bonnets described in The Handmaid’s Tale, a dystopian novel about a future America in which the government forces women to have sex and bear children against their will. They did this with the apparent blessing and backing of Democratic senators, who have echoed their language of alarm: Kirsten Gillibrand joined a call with reporters hosted by Planned Parenthood in the morning, promising that “if this extreme judge is confirmed by the Senate, the Supreme Court would take away and criminalize women’s reproductive freedom.”
Democrats seem to have made a political bet: that they should make Kavanaugh’s nomination about Donald Trump, and make it about the future of abortion. But it’s not apparent that people will show up to the polls based on this issue, especially among those voters who will be the future of the party, according to researchers at the GenForward project at the University of Chicago, who have spent the past several years running a consistent, periodic survey of Americans aged 18 to 34. When asked about the main issue that will motivate them to show up to the polls in 2018, only a fraction said Kavanaugh or Roe v. Wade was at the top of their list. “It’s clear from young people that they don’t want Roe overturned,” said Cathy Cohen, the political-science professor who leads the project. But “it is not clear from the data that Roe, as an issue, will motivate young people to go to the polls, or [that] they see it as the most important issue defining how they will vote.”
With Kavanaugh likely to be confirmed, these hearings are perhaps most useful to Democrats as a test run for their midterm strategy, and so far they suggest more apocalyptic rhetoric on reproductive rights ahead. If this week is any indication, Democrats are going all in on abortion in 2018—a pitch that will no doubt persuade some voters, but may leave others, and especially young people, still alienated from national politics.
On Wednesday morning, as questioning of Kavanaugh began, abortion quickly emerged as a priority issue. Senator Dianne Feinstein of California repeatedly asked Kavanaugh about his position on women’s right to an abortion and whether he sees Roe v. Wade as “settled law.”
“I understand how passionate, and how deeply, people feel about this issue,” Kavanaugh said. Roe is “important precedent of the Supreme Court [that] has been reaffirmed many times.” Further, the 1992 case Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey “is precedent on precedent,” meaning it’s a case about how abortion cases should be decided, “which itself is an important factor to remember,” he said. He highlighted both the “significance” of the abortion issue, and its “real-world effects.”
Like other Supreme Court nominees, Kavanaugh framed his answer carefully, not promising to vote one way or another in any particular case. But his deference to Roe was far from the way abortion-rights and anti-abortion activists have both painted him. Both sides have pointed to Trump’s promise to nominate only “pro-life judges” to the Supreme Court, and abortion-rights activists have even argued that anything Kavanaugh said would be “code” for “anti-choice.”
But what Feinstein seemed to be getting at, and what the whole debate over Roe v. Wade gets at, is something deeper. Roe has become a symbol—not just of abortion rights, but of women’s status in America, and the progress of society as a whole. In 1973, when the Supreme Court first established a constitutional right to abortion, “feminists latched onto legal abortion as the end-all and be-all of women’s freedom,” said Stacie Taranto, a historian at Ramapo College of New Jersey. “Roe becomes the code … for keeping women back.”
Older Democrats, especially the female Baby Boomers who were involved in the feminist movement of that era, seem to connect strongly with this symbolism. During her opening remarks at Kavanaugh’s hearing, Feinstein called back to a time in the 1950s and ’60s when “horrendous” things happened to women who tried to terminate their pregnancies. “The impact of overturning Roe is much broader than a woman’s right to choose,” she said. “It is about protecting the most personal decisions we all make from government intrusion.”
Younger voters, however, don’t necessarily identify with their mother’s or grandmother’s version of feminism. In the University of Chicago surveys, “young people line up in support of gender equality,” Cohen said. “But very few—20 percent or so—are willing to identify themselves as a feminist. Many of them understand the feminist movement as one that benefitted white women, mostly, rather than poor women or women of color.”
In the most recent GenForward survey, which was conducted among young voters in late July and early August, only 3 percent of respondents said Kavanaugh’s nomination was a major motivation for voting in November. Another 6 percent said the potential for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade was their greatest concern, and 4 percent said women’s rights is the issue they care about most. Only 24 percent of Millennial women and 34 percent of Millennial men said they’d like to see Roe overturned. But this didn’t necessarily translate to their understanding of the latest news in the judicial branch: Nearly half of respondents said they don’t know enough to say whether they support or oppose Kavanaugh’s nomination, including strong pluralities of black, Asian, Latino, and white Millennials.
All of this underscores an important fact about the Kavanaugh nomination: Many Americans don’t know that much about it, or aren’t following it that closely. This is particularly true among the younger voters who tend to be less dependable in midterm elections, but whose turnout could make the difference for Democrats in competitive House and Senate races. “Many of these young people … are never talking about politics, never really having adults around them voting or participating in civic life,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the head of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which often focuses on youth political engagement. “These are the young people who campaigns aren’t reaching, who they don’t think are likely voters, and because nobody talks to them, they’re not going to be voting.”
For activists who are deeply engaged on this issue, public clashes on abortion are welcome—and encouraged. “Brett Kavanaugh is the linchpin in [a] decades-long plan to end safe, legal abortion in this country,” said Dawn Laguens, the director of policy and political strategy at Planned Parenthood, on a press call Tuesday. “A vote for Brett Kavanaugh is a vote to erode the constitutional right to abortion.” Kristan Hawkins, the leader of the anti-abortion group Students for Life of America, observed that this kind of rhetoric is “a doubling down of what we saw during 2016’s messaging.” Members of her group, which organizes anti-abortion activism on college campuses, have seen evidence of this “scare tactic” since Trump was elected, she said.
Kawashima-Ginsberg wasn’t convinced that this concentrated focus on abortion will effectively reach younger voters, however. “There’s always this impression … [that] you can impose a certain issue on young people, asking them to care about it. But it’s not really an organic formulation of a platform for the party’s future,” she said. Abortion has “not really been on the radar of a lot of young people as the key issue,” she added. “The majority vote pro-choice, but it’s not like the do-or-die issue for many young people.”
In this #MeToo moment, and following the huge turnout for the Women’s March after Trump’s election, Democrats may be trying to tap into the kind of momentum that first united the women’s movement with the Democratic Party decades ago, Taranto said: “Roe is really about the ultimate women’s right.” Right now, she said, “we have all this consciousness about women’s rights.” The question is whether voters will see this issue in as dire a way as liberal activists do—and whether defending abortion rights will be a compelling reason for them to show up in November.