The Abortion-Rights Message That Some Activists Hate

A devastating defeat in the Supreme Court could be a boon to the Democrats’ slim midterm hopes—if they can agree on the way to convert progressive anger into votes.

An illustration of a cracked blue feminism symbol (a raised fist surrounded by a Venus symbol)
The Atlantic; Alamy

The end of Roe v. Wade would be a devastating defeat for abortion-rights advocates and the millions who support a federally guaranteed right to terminate a pregnancy. It might also be the last, best hope for Democrats seeking to mobilize a frustrated, angry electorate and maintain their slim majorities in Congress this fall.

Democrats appear to have settled on their message for targeting these voters, judging by the ads that the party and its candidates have already produced in the three weeks since the leak of a draft Supreme Court opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization that would overturn the landmark 1973 ruling in Roe. An initial spot from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee opens on an image of matches about to be struck, with a narrator warning: “If Senate Republicans win in November, they will light women’s rights on fire.” Ads from Senators Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, two of the party’s most vulnerable incumbents up for reelection this year, home in on GOP proposals to “criminalize abortion” and ban the procedure with “no exception for rape, incest, or human trafficking.”

The commercials all highlight Republicans’ most extreme positions on abortion, darkly warning about the consequences of electing them to govern. That focus is surely familiar to voters, because it’s been the Democrats’ go-to tactic on abortion for years. Many abortion-rights activists, however, are sick of hearing it.

“These are scare-tactic videos meant to frighten people,” Kate Kelly, a human-rights activist and progressive campaign organizer, told me after I played her the ads from Cortez Masto and Hassan. “I don’t want to hear, This is what these dumb and terrible bad men think,” she said. “I want to hear: What is your solution?”

Kelly works with Shout Your Abortion, an activist group that seeks to normalize abortion and expand access to the procedure even where it is now all but illegal. To the organization’s founders, airing ads that highlight the most right-wing GOP laws and proposals, such as those that bar abortion even in cases of rape, incest, or when the life of the mother is threatened, “stigmatizes everyone else who wants to get an abortion or needs an abortion,” Kelly said. “Focusing on the very extreme and tragic cases of rape or incest says that those are the people who are worthy and deserving. And the discourse has moved so far beyond that.”

Democratic candidates, she said, should instead tell voters what they have done to secure access to abortion in their states and what they plan to do if abortion becomes illegal, even if that means “defying unjust laws.” Kelly and other abortion-rights advocates want to see politicians move beyond Roe v. Wade and the Constitution itself to frame access to abortion as a human right.

The largest abortion-rights advocacy groups, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and NARAL Pro-Choice America, have in recent years changed the way they talk about abortion, although perhaps not as much as activists want. In addition, top Democrats such as President Joe Biden and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer are more likely to actually say the word abortion rather than dance around it with euphemisms like “a woman’s right to choose” and “reproductive freedom.” The Clinton-era formulation “safe, legal, and rare” went out of fashion during the Obama years, and more recently the House Pro-Choice Caucus demoted the word choice in favor of decision. (No update on whether the caucus plans to change its name.)

The message that Planned Parenthood is using ahead of the Dobbs decision has been tested with the help of Geoff Garin, a longtime Democratic pollster. “We’re going to present a core proposition to our voters,” Jenny Lawson, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, told me: “Who should have power and control over your bodies, your future, and your lives? Should it be you, or should it be politicians who want to interfere?” The abortion-rights movement has long based its argument in the language of civil liberties, but advocates have now added strains of anti-government populism to match the mood of voters.

For all the talk about how advocates should talk about abortion, however, Democratic strategists say the conversation may have moved further left than the polls have. Abortion rights remain broadly popular, but voters’ views on the issue are complex.

In a recent poll by The Atlantic’s polling partner, Leger, 74 percent of respondents said that they backed the right to an abortion, and a clear majority opposed overturning Roe v. Wade. But just 45 percent of people supported the right to an abortion “in most or all cases,” while 29 percent said they approved of abortion “only in restricted cases.” Those findings are similar to what other polls have shown in the weeks since the leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion. Lis Smith, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, told me that the great majority of the country falls between two extremes on abortion. “They don’t want to criminalize abortion,” she said, “but nor do they want to shout their abortions.”

That presumption is informing Democrats’ decisions on the ads they run this year, as is the belief that painting Republicans as extremists on abortion has worked for them in the past. Smith recalled Barack Obama’s reelection campaign in 2012, when the party tried to tie virtually every Republican candidate in the country to the comments of Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock, who each lost an election they were favored to win after defending abortion bans even in cases of rape.

Democrats face a tougher challenge this year, when the political environment favors Republicans. The same polls that show solid majority support for abortion rights also indicate that voters are split between whether they plan to vote for Democrats or Republicans, suggesting that many people are placing a higher priority on economic issues such as inflation and might support candidates who oppose their personal position on abortion. Democratic strategists have taken some solace in polling following the leaked Dobbs opinion in which voters ranked abortion high on a list of issues most important to them in the midterm elections. A Reuters/Ipsos survey last week showed that a much higher percentage of Democrats than Republicans cited abortion as an important factor in their vote, suggesting that the issue might drive progressives to the polls in a year in which Democrats are otherwise struggling to motivate their base to turn out.

The other major factor that could work in the party’s favor is the element of surprise, Garin told me. Polling has shown that despite years of warnings from abortion-rights advocates, most voters did not believe that Roe would be overturned. “The fact that it was unexpected makes the impact of the decision even greater,” Garin said.

The key for Democratic candidates, he said, is to keep the shock and anger as fresh in voters’ minds in November as it will be in June, when the actual decision is expected. Advocates for gun control, for example, have seen Democrats pledge to make the issue an electoral flashpoint in the immediate aftermath of a massacre then spend their ad money elsewhere when voting begins. “It’s really important for Democrats to stay with this and not move on to the next thing,” Garin said.

Different messages might work with different audiences, he acknowledged. But he defended the kind of message that some abortion-rights advocates detest—highlighting the most extreme Republican positions on abortion. “The reality of electoral politics,” Garin told me, “is that often what drives votes is the fear of what the other candidate is going to do.”

At the core of the dispute between Democratic Party strategists and abortion-rights activists is a sharp disagreement over the definition of success. The strategists defend messaging that has worked to defeat Republican ideologues in close races and given Democrats, at least for now, the presidency and narrow majorities in Congress. But to people like Amelia Bonow, the founding director of Shout Your Abortion, the story of abortion politics over the past several years is one of resounding defeat. Democrats might have won power, but in a few weeks they will likely lose the fight for abortion rights. A continued reliance on the same stale message in the months ahead, she told me, would be foolish.

“Democrats have failed their base and the American public in just a catastrophic way by failing to protect our most basic rights to autonomy and self-determination while they have control of the House and the Senate and the White House,” Bonow told me. “Frankly, I think it’s on every Democrat to make the case for their own existence in the aftermath of such a failure.”