The shock quickly turned to sadness for Victoria Lowe.
The 37-year-old lawyer, working outside a cafe in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania, said she couldn’t believe the Supreme Court stripped away the constitutional right to abortion that women have had her entire life. She started to cry.
“I don’t understand how they could reach this conclusion,” she said.
In the immediate aftermath of one of the Supreme Court’s most consequential rulings, it was too soon to know how deeply the political landscape had shifted. But in this politically competitive corner of one of the most important swing states in the U.S., embattled Democrats hope to harness the emotion from women like Lowe to reset what has been an otherwise brutal election year environment.
For much of the year, the threat to abortion rights has seemed somewhat theoretical, overshadowed by more tangible economic challenges, particularly inflation and rising gas prices. But the Supreme Court’s decision ensures that abortion will be a central issue in U.S. politics for the foreseeable future.
That’s especially true as restrictions begin to take effect. Pregnant women considering abortions already had been dealing with a near-complete ban in Oklahoma and a prohibition after roughly six weeks in Texas. Clinics in at least eight other states — Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, South Dakota, Wisconsin and West Virginia — stopped performing abortions after Friday’s decision.
In Pennsylvania, the future of the procedure could hinge on November’s elections. For now, women here will continue to have access to abortion up to 24 weeks. Republicans are poised to change state law, however, should they maintain control of the legislature and seize the governorship in November. Doug Mastriano, the GOP nominee for governor, opposes abortion with no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother.
Democrats in Pennsylvania and beyond initially appeared to unite behind their collective outrage, fear and sadness.
They planned widespread protests. From the White House on Friday, President Joe Biden urged protesters to keep the peace, even as he described the court ruling as “wrong, extreme and out of touch.”
The Democratic president also called on voters to make their voices heard this fall: “Roe is on the ballot.”
At the same time, members of the Democratic National Committee raised the prospect of a silver lining within the high court’s historic gut punch.
“Democrats have a real opportunity right now to harness this anger, to harness the sadness,” Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee said during a meeting of a DNC subcommittee. “We are setting the foundation to ensure that Democrats stay in the White House, so that the next time, there’s an opening on the bench, on the federal bench anywhere, that we’ve got a Democratic president making that appointment.”
Democratic-aligned groups moved to deploy the resources to warn of what’s at stake in this year’s midterms. NARAL Freedom Fund and Priorities USA Action immediately spent $300,000 on digital advertising.
Republicans, for their part, sought to downplay their excitement about winning the decades-long fight against abortion rights, aware that the ruling could energize the Democratic base, particularly suburban women. Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats close to the White House were increasingly pessimistic about the party’s chances of holding either the House or Senate in November.
Carol Tobias, president of National Right to Life, said she expected abortion opponents to turn out in huge numbers this fall, even if Democrats might be motivated by Friday’s ruling.
She called it “a great day for unborn children and mothers.” “Because it’s been a so-called right for 50 years doesn’t mean it was right,” Tobias said.
Polling shows that relatively few Americans wanted to see Roe overturned.
In 2020, AP VoteCast found that 69% of voters in the presidential election said the Supreme Court should leave the Roe v. Wade decision as is. Still, recent surveys tend to show other issues rising above abortion as the most important problems facing the country.
Thirteen percent of Democrats mentioned abortion or reproductive rights as one of the issues they want the federal government to address in 2022, according to a December poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That’s up from less than 1% of Democrats who named it as a priority for 2021 and 3% who listed it in 2020.
Other issues like the economy, COVID-19, health care and gun control ranked as higher priorities for Democrats in the poll. But the exponential rise in the percentage citing reproductive rights as a key concern suggests the issue was resonating with Democrats as the Supreme Court considered overturning Roe.
The fight for abortion rights — and the related political fallout — now shifts to the states.
Thirteen deep-red states have so-called “trigger laws” that will now ban abortion almost immediately, but the future of abortion access is less certain across several other more moderate states with Republican-controlled legislatures: Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Texas and Wisconsin, among them.
In many cases, GOP legislatures have already approved restrictive abortion laws, including so-called “heartbeat” bills that would outlaw abortions before most women know they’re pregnant. Some legislation is tied up in the courts, while others have yet to move through Republican legislatures. Now that Roe has fallen, such laws — or more restrictive bans — could only be stopped by a veto from a Democratic governor or Democrat-backed court challenge, if at all.
Some states, including Michigan, Wisconsin and Texas, have decades-old abortion bans predating Roe that would now presumably take effect absent another challenge in their state courts.
Despite initial hope among Democrats that the upheaval would motivate their base, some on the front lines of the party’s uphill midterm fight aren’t so sure.
Jamie Perrapato, executive director of the pro-Democratic group Turn PA Blue, notes that Democrats produced record turnout across Pennsylvania in last year’s off-year elections. But so did Republicans, who ultimately dominated down-ballot races across the state.
“I feel sick. I hope this wakes people up. I hope they realize, even though it’s terrible, you can’t put your head in the sand,” Perrapato said. “But I don’t know. It’s a really bleak time.”
Back in Bucks County, Lowe said she votes Democratic and planned to vote in November even before Friday’s decision. Abortion rights are a top issue for her, even as inflation surges.
“I would say it is more important to me than the gas issue,” she said. “This is such a personal, fundamental human right that it’s bigger than the economy.”
Sitting next to Lowe at the cafe, 56-year-old Margaret Pezalla-Granlund also choked up when asked about the Supreme Court decision. Although they were strangers, Lowe offered her a tissue, and the women dried their eyes together.
Pezalla-Granlund was especially worried about her 15-year-old daughter. “She’ll be growing up in a really different situation than I had and I expected she’d have,” she said.
Such concern wasn’t limited to Democrats.
Not far away, 75-year-old Karen Sloan was smoking a cigarette outside a cafe in the Delaware River town of Bristol. A self-described Republican who supports abortion rights, she said Friday’s ruling upset her.
“I just can’t believe it,” Sloan said. “I’m not saying it’s right to take a human life. But there are circumstances it needs to be done.”
She said she would have voted in November even before the ruling, but now she’s planning to support candidates who back abortion rights. For her, the issue outranks high gas prices and inflation.
“You’re taking away someone’s rights and that to me is more important,” Sloan said. “It’s a big thing in the United States for women.”