High above America’s capital, pro-choice activists scaled a construction crane, inching across its latticed steel arm, to affix a banner with a message for the president to see. It read: “BIDEN PROTECT ABORTION.”
In the days since the supreme court overturned Roe v Wade, eliminating the constitutional right to an abortion, legions of furious Americans have taken to the streets to protest a decision that was once unimaginable. But as a new reality takes shape, many are demanding the president and Democratic leaders do more to defend reproductive rights.
“Is it that they can’t, or they won’t, go as far as they need to to stem the tide of the radical Republican agenda?” said Aimee Allison, founder of She the People, a progressive advocacy group that works to mobilize women of color.
For many Democrats, the president has failed to capture the urgency and fear they feel as conservative states and courts rush to ban abortion. “Is this a five-alarm fire? Yes, absolutely,” Allison said, adding that Democrats must show voters they are prepared to “fight like hell”.
In the week since the ruling was issued, Biden stepped up his rhetoric. During a meeting with Democratic governors, Biden said he “share[d] public outrage of this extremist court that’s committed to moving America backward.” He also endorsed a change to the Senate’s filibuster rule that would create an exception for abortion and other privacy rights potentially under threat by the conservative court.
“Now we’re talking!” tweeted Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat of New York, who has pushed Democrats to deliver a more aggressive response. “Use the bully pulpit. We need more.”
With narrow majorities in Congress, Biden is under pressure to use the full force of his executive authority to protect reproductive rights.
More than 20 Black Democratic congresswomen sent a letter to Biden asking him to immediately declare a public health emergency. “In this unprecedented moment, we must act urgently as if lives depend on it because they do,” the lawmakers wrote.
Other proposals include expanding access to abortion medication, covering expenses for federal employees who have to travel out of state, ensuring women serving in the military can receive care regardless of where they are stationed and using federal lands to perform abortions in states where it is banned.
Warning of potentially “dangerous ramifications,” the White House has so far resisted calls to open federal lands for abortion, led by Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and echoed on Friday by the governors of New York and New Mexico.
“Do it anyway,” said Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, a progressive organisation that helps young people run for local and state office. “Show me you are willing to put some skin in the game.
Democrats need to give voters concrete plans, she said. When Biden warns voters Republicans would ban abortion nationwide if they win control of Congress, they also need to hear him say he will not sign any restrictions they send to his desk, she added.
In recent days, the justice department has said it would seek to protect any woman who travels out of state for an abortion while the health department said it is working to expand access to medication abortion.
Biden has promised additional actions but has repeatedly said the only way to “truly” protect abortion access is to elect enough Democrats to codify Roe v Wade into federal law. “Vote, vote, vote. That’s how we’ll change it,” Biden said during a press conference in Madrid.
But Democrats face a historically difficult election environment in the midterms this November, with inflation at a four-decade high and fears of a recession weighing down Biden’s approval rating.
Yet there are early signs that the court’s ruling on abortion and the potential threat it poses to other rights such as same-sex marriage and contraception, is energizing Democrats’ demoralized base.
The number of Americans who identified abortion as top concern more than doubled since December, particularly among Democrats, a new poll by the Associated Press-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research found. Meanwhile, public opinion polls show a shift toward Democrats in the wake of the court’s decision, which drew thousands of people to the streets.
To successfully galvanize voters around the issue, Democrats must “connect the dots” by showing them that Republicans’ end goal is a total ban on abortion, said Molly Murphy, a Democratic pollster who has surveyed voters’ views on the issue.
“Being against abortion is potentially for some voters not an indictment,” she said. “But wanting to make it illegal and trying to make it illegal is – and that’s where the debate needs to go.”
This week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Democrats outlining potential votes the caucus could take. They include protecting personal data stored on reproductive health apps from “sinister” prosecutors who might use it to target women who have abortions; ensuring the right to travel between states; and enshrining the right to an abortion into federal law, a version of which has already passed the House but has no path forward in the Senate.
Much of the fight has now shifted to the state and local level, where Democrats are vowing to use their power to expand access or, where they can, block new restrictions.
Across the country, Democratic governors and attorneys generals are vowing to protect abortion access. Governors in states like California and Illinois want to become havens for women seeking abortions in states where it’s banned.
Progressive local prosecutors and officials in conservative states say they will not enforce strict abortion laws against patients or providers. Some liberal-run cities are considering plans to set up funds for women who have to go out of state for an abortion.
Meanwhile, activists have declared a “summer of rage”, vowing to keep marching and resisting until a national right to abortion is restored.
But cracks are also in display in the party.
Many progressives remain furious with party leaders for backing Texas congressman Henry Cuellar, the lone House Democrat to oppose abortion, over his progressive, pro-choice challenger, Jessica Cisneros. Cuellar won the primary by fewer than 300 votes.They are also mobilizing to stop Biden from nominating an anti-abortion Republican attorney for federal judgeship in Kentucky, which was reported by the Courier Journal.
Democrats increasingly believe the problem is the supreme court itself. A number of Democratic lawmakers have backed efforts to expand the number of justices on the court or impose term limits. Some lawmakers are calling for Congress to investigate – or even impeach– justices who signaled during their Senate confirmation hearings they would respect precedent but then voted to overturn Roe.
Biden has mostly resisted those calls. But as long as there remains a 6-3 conservative majority of justices on the court, little else will change, said Christopher Kang, cofounder and general counsel of Demand Justice, a liberal group that advocates for expanding the supreme court.
“Having spent 50 years wresting a supermajority of power on the court, they’re not likely to give that away,” he said. “Unless you have a balanced supreme court, none of these other reforms will get a fair shot.”