The national battle over abortion has been fueled by a wave of state-level abortion restrictions in recent months, including a near-total ban signed into law in Alabama on May 15 and tough restrictions after six to eight weeks of pregnancy passed in Louisiana, Missouri, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky, and Mississippi. Although local Democrats supported the abortion restrictions that passed just this week in Louisiana, and the state’s Democratic governor, John Bel Edwards, signed the bill into law, the national party has thoroughly purged its anti-abortion members, a move that leaders such as Gillibrand support.
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This full embrace of abortion is the culmination of decades-long shifts in rhetoric and strategy among Democrats. It’s also a bet on what’s going to work in the next general election. Democratic candidates believe Democratic voters want abortion rights expanded, ensuring that the procedure is safe, legal, and available on demand. Of course, that bet runs the risk that voters who aren’t on board will stay quiet, stay home, or vote for someone else.
In 2007, 66 percent of Democrats said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, according to the Pew Research Center. Ten years later, 79 percent of Democrats said the same thing. By comparison, over that same time span, roughly a third of Republicans consistently said they support legal abortion in all or most cases. Similarly, 73 percent of Democrats say Roe v. Wade should be upheld, compared with 34 percent of Republicans, according to the Public Religion Research Institute.
Gillibrand has long aligned her political career with the cause of abortion rights: Last fall, following Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, she rallied with NARAL Pro-Choice America to warn that his confirmation would pose an existential threat to the status of women’s liberty in America. Earlier this month, she went to Georgia, again with NARAL, to protest a new abortion law that limits the procedure at six weeks of pregnancy.
“I believe that reproductive rights are human rights, they are civil rights, and they are nonnegotiable,” Gillibrand told me in an interview last week. “The attacks we’ve seen from Republicans in states like Alabama and Georgia represent the greatest threat to women’s reproductive rights since Roe. I believe we have to fight back with every fiber of our being, which is why I’ve made this a major platform for my presidential campaign.”
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Democratic presidential candidates with a more moderate approach to abortion have already been pushed to the left on this issue. Former Vice President and current 2020 front-runner Joe Biden, a devout Roman Catholic who once called his position “middle of the road,” pledged in May to pass federal legislation protecting abortion rights, “should it become necessary,” according to the Associated Press. He also recently told a volunteer for the ACLU that he would commit to abolishing the Hyde Amendment, despite repeatedly voting to preserve the ban on federal funding for most abortions through programs such as Medicaid.