How abortion law could still impact who wins US midterms

Michigan women campaign for abortion rights ahead of ballot
Activists in Michigan campaign for abortion rights ahead of ballot

I met Susan Van Hoek at a pro-choice women's demonstration in Michigan's capital, Lansing. As she stood there with a placard, wearing her long grey hair loose, she remembered marching for abortion rights 50 years ago and couldn't believe she had to do it again.

With tears in her eyes she told me it was difficult to find the words to express how disappointed she was when the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling - which guaranteed nationwide protection for abortion rights - was reversed by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

"It feels like going back into a type of slavery and control, where other people get to decide they will suborn me," she said.

Thirteen states banned or severely restricted abortion after the right to the procedure was struck down at federal level this summer, leaving states to make their own rules.

On 8 November, voters will determine abortion laws in at least five more, by either upholding or rejecting amendments in their state constitutions on access to the procedure. In California, Michigan and Vermont, it may result in enhanced access, while Kentucky and Montana could restrict abortions.

The votes are being held on the same day as midterm elections across the US, which will decide which party - Democrats or Republicans - holds power in Congress. Democrats nationwide have made abortion access central to their messaging.

Opinion polls suggest about two-thirds of voters across America want guaranteed abortion rights - and if they turn out to vote as a result, it will help President Biden's party win seats and possibly even retain control of Congress.

"The [Supreme Court] decision has motivated increased voter registration among women, but we will need to see if that energy translates into showing up at the polls on election day," said Laura Lindberg, a professor at Rutgers University's School of Public Health and leading researcher in sexual and reproductive health.

"Midterm elections in the United States generally do not have high voter turnout, but this year may be an exception," she said. "Democrats will need to focus on getting people to the polls to voice their concern and anger."

It is highly unlikely that either party will win enough seats to pass a federal law on abortion. It would take 60 senators to legislate for either a nationwide ban or to guarantee abortion access in all 50 states.

President Biden is urging voters to get to the ballot box nonetheless. "If you care about the right to choose then you [have] got to vote," he said.

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"The Democratic strategy is about turnout, not about changing minds," said Jennifer Lawless, a professor at the University of Virginia who has a research focus on women and politics.

"The best shot they have at winning close races is to ensure Democratic voters flock to the polls. The question heading into Tuesday is whether it can still drive up turnout and enthusiasm now that we're several months beyond overturning Roe v Wade," she added.

"But it's unclear if the ads they're running will be enough."

At her Michigan campaign headquarters, Democratic congresswoman Elissa Slotkin told campaign volunteers about all the women she has met who are changing their traditional political allegiances in this election to vote for pro-choice Democrats. Ms Slotkin said she knew of at least two "fake book clubs" where Republican women tell their husbands they are meeting to discuss literature but actually go out campaigning for Democrats.

But I also met passionate anti-abortion activists in Michigan who are determined to make sure the state doesn't sign the right to an abortion into its constitution.

A priest
Father Alex Kratz held a special hour of prayer for the Michigan abortion proposition to be defeated

At St Mary's Catholic Church outside Detroit, one female worshipper told the BBC: "I don't normally get involved in elections, but this one is so important… it's about our kids, our future, it's about what we say about ourselves as a country."

She said she had taken time off work so she could stand outside polling stations on Election Day and talk to voters about abortion before they cast their ballots.

At a special "Holy Hour for Life" at St Mary's last month, they prayed for the proposition to be defeated. The priest at the sermon, Father Alex Kratz, warned about the possibility of late term abortions and underage girls being able to access abortions without their parents' consent.

When asked if it was appropriate for him to be campaigning from the pulpit, he said, "I don't feel like I'm campaigning - I'm preaching the gospel. It's not hard on a grave moral issue like abortion to see how you should vote."

Polling in Michigan suggests the church's efforts will not succeed. Over 50% of voters say they support the abortion proposition. A similar vote took place in the traditionally conservative state of Kansas in August in a bid to restrict abortion access. Voters decisively rejected a proposal to remove abortion rights from the state constitution, with a much higher than expected turnout.

In states where women believe reproductive rights are at risk, larger numbers of female voters are signing up. In states like New York or Rhode Island, where abortion is protected by state law, men and women are registering at roughly the same rate.

While 56% of voters tell pollsters that abortion is an extremely important issue for them when deciding how to vote - it has been overtaken by inflation and the economy as the subject voters are most concerned about.

Pew research into voters' priorities conducted from 10-16 October found that 79% felt the economy was very important when making their decision about who to vote for - and 82% said economic conditions today are "poor", or only "fair". Just 2% called conditions "excellent", and 16% went for "good".

With crime, gun laws and immigration also weighing on voters' minds, the issue of abortion may not be enough to allow the Democrats to maintain control of Congress.

"The Republicans are focused on crime and the economy for two reasons," Prof Lawless said. "They're two issues that will drive their base voters to the polls, and independents view the party as better suited to handle these two issues.

"As long as the Republicans prime voters to think about crime and the economy, they're on far more solid footing then they'd be if they tried to defend their preference for restricting abortion access."

Personal principles on reproductive rights don't divide neatly along political lines. There are anti-abortion Democrat voters and, of course, Republicans who support abortion access and have had abortions themselves.

Now that Republican candidates are having to confront difficult and detailed questions about exactly when, if ever, it should be permissible to terminate a pregnancy, some who had previously proudly supported abortion bans with no exceptions for rape or incest appear deeply reluctant to discuss their positions.

For their part, Democrats hope talking to voters about reproductive rights will help them overcome President Biden's poor opinion ratings and the rising cost of living.

Abortion will feature in this election in a way it has not for decades. Whether it's a strong enough vote driver to decide the balance in Congress, voters will show us this week.

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