Insofar as abortion was on the ballot in yesterday’s midterm elections, abortion won. In all five states where ballot measures asked voters to decide the fate of abortion access, voters chose to protect or enshrine abortion rights. In North Carolina, Republicans failed to win a veto-proof legislative supermajority, ensuring that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper maintains the ability to block abortion bans. And without the feared “red wave” sweeping Congress, GOP plans for a nationwide abortion ban are thwarted — for now, at least.
Abortion, however, was only on the ballot to a degree.
We got here because of the far right’s proven record of entrenching minority rule.
For decades, well-funded Christo-nationalist organizing yielded restrictions on reproductive freedoms in dozens of states, culminating in the fall of Roe. The result is that abortion access in vast swathes of the country has been abysmal to nonexistent, even prior to the Supreme Court’s felling of Roe.
In light of Tuesday’s election results, it’s important for us to remember that just because the far right achieved success in implementing these restrictions, their pro-natalist agenda has never been a reflection of the popular will. Instead, their victories are a reflection of a powerful minority’s ability to enforce their desires into policy, law, and practice.
The election results are nonetheless a major victory, earned not by the Democratic mainstream but by the reproductive justice organizers fighting on the front lines. Voters in Vermont, California, and Michigan approved ballot measures to enshrine abortion rights in their state constitutions. Voters in Montana rejected a misleading and pernicious fetal personhood bill, and in deep-red Kentucky, voters defeated an attempt to ban all abortion in the state.
None of this means we can rest easy. We got here because of the far right’s proven record of entrenching minority rule. The popularity of abortion we saw on display Tuesday only provides some relief. What was true before the elections remains true now: We still need to fight for reproductive freedom for all.
Surprise and relief at the Kentucky result echoed reactions to a ballot victory in Kansas last summer, when voters in the red state turned up in great numbers to keep abortion protections in that state’s constitution. The Kansas result served as a rebuke to the GOP agenda, but also to a Democratic establishment that had for years entertained anti-abortion candidates as a route to win in red states.
The midterm abortion rights victories should likewise galvanize Democratic leaders to fight hard for abortion access, confident in the knowledge of its popularity.
I’m not holding my breath. Even with control of both houses of Congress, Democrats have failed to codify nationwide abortion access; they will have even less power in the likely event that Republicans take back Congress with narrow margins. The Intercept’s Ryan Grim suggested Democrats should thus use their lame-duck session while still in power to codify abortion rights, but it would be out of the party’s fangless character, to say the least.
President Joe Biden’s executive branch has roundly failed to offer federal remedy to abortion seekers and providers in the wake of Roe’s fall. Strategists looking ahead to 2024 might advise Biden to take further popular executive actions, including on abortion rights, but any such efforts will be limited in scope.
We’ve not seen the end of the Democratic Party’s compulsion to kneecap its progressive flank, even when voters overwhelmingly support progressive measures. Just look at how popular Medicare for All is, and yet Democratic leadership won’t take it seriously.
These midterms also further clarified the ways establishment punditry conjures the myth of the “average American” and their concerns to the disadvantage of real, living people in this country.
Pollsters and political analysts were clear that, despite widespread anger over the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, midterms voters were not prioritizing reproductive rights. Economic concerns would rule the day, we were told. The professional predictors and commentators failed to appreciate that reproductive rights are also an economic issue, and that the fight for bodily autonomy is not a distraction.
Voters en masse reject outright abortion bans. Republicans may, however, keep doing what they’ve done for years — chipping away at abortion access until the restrictions become de facto bans. The strong electoral successes of Christo-fascists like Gov. Ron DeSantis in Florida and J.D. Vance in his Ohio Senate race give us every grounds for continued concern. The Christian far right will continue to wield disproportionate power; Republicans embrace minority rule.
Reproductive justice will also not be attained by simply reinstating a pre-Dobbs status quo, in which abortion was all but banned in dozens of states.
It would be a mistake to read Tuesday’s referenda on abortion access as evidence of mass support for the reproductive freedoms we need. Beyond protecting limited abortion rights, the struggle continues for a holistic framework of reproductive justice, for which Black feminist organizers have fought for decades. We are far from achieving the total decriminalization of all abortion; free, unrestricted abortion on demand; the recognition of abortion as a social good; and robust resources for those who want and choose to make babies.
As establishment Democrats now turn their eyes to 2024, our focus must remain on the front lines: by the side of anyone seeking to end an unwanted pregnancy, and those working within and against the law to help them do so.