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Democratic leaders in battleground states want Washington to do more to ensure abortion rights

Demonstrators outside the White House on July 9 urged President Biden to take more action to protect abortion rights.ALYSSA SCHUKAR/NYT
Demonstrators participate in a Women's March rally in front of the White House in Washington on July 9, 2022.ALYSSA SCHUKAR/NYT

WASHINGTON — The day the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Michigan state Representative Laurie Pohutsky went to her state Capitol and promised the abortion rights supporters gathered there that she was ready to “[expletive] fight.”

Not known for dropping f-bombs in public, Pohutsky said that was what the moment demanded. And she’s concerned she’s not seeing that same aggressive approach from Democrats in Washington as many states move to ban or severely restrict abortions.

“I don’t think that it looks like a united strategy on this, and when you couple that with moves to try to appoint people to lifetime judicial appointments knowing that they are antiabortion, I don’t think you can say it’s a cohesive strategy,” Pohutsky said, a reference to reports that President Biden was preparing to nominate a Republican who opposes abortion to the federal bench before the Supreme Court released its decision last month.

“I don’t feel comfortable saying we’re working on it on the state level and the national level. I can’t say that because it doesn’t feel true to me.”

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Pohutsky, chair of the Michigan Progressive Women’s Caucus, is one of many Democrats frustrated with their party’s leaders in Washington over their response to the court eliminating the federal right to an abortion. The Supreme Court decision left the matter to states, but abortion rights activists are dealing with very different landscapes depending on where they live. In Michigan, for example, a 1931 abortion ban is being blocked by the courts from going back into effect, and abortion rights supporters submitted a petition to put an amendment guaranteeing abortion rights in the state on the November ballot.

This year’s midterm elections will be a critical moment in the fight over abortion rights, particularly in battleground states such as Michigan where the next congressional majorities will be decided. But many Democrats are frustrated with a perceived lack of urgency in Washington, and a split has developed in the party over how far Biden and congressional Democrats should go in taking federal action to increase access to abortion in states that are severely limiting or banning it.

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“Young people turned out in 2020, communities of color turned out, and we expect results, we expect urgency when our lives are on the line,” said Nida Allam, Durham County commissioner in North Carolina. “Yes, we want to get out and vote. Yes, we want to make a difference in this election. But we also need to see our elected officials respond to us and act with the urgency that we elected them to act with.”

Right now, Biden is the best hope abortion rights advocates have of some immediate relief. But he has downplayed his ability to ensure abortion rights, noting that “the fastest way to restore Roe is to pass a national law codifying Roe,” while urging people to vote for Democrats in November to do that.

So far, Biden has taken limited steps. He signed an executive order last week that expanded access to federally approved abortion medication and emergency contraception, but focused largely on directing administration officials to explore what further actions the government could take. Biden also has said he now supports the Senate carving out an exception in its filibuster rules to allow for the passage of a law codifying Roe v. Wade’s guarantee of abortion rights with a simple majority.

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The White House so far has rejected calls to do more, such as using federal lands to provide access to abortion and expanding the Supreme Court to dilute the power of conservatives. Progressives have also called for Biden to declare a public health emergency, which he has said his administration is looking into although his press secretary has minimized its potential effect.

The House has passed legislation protecting access to an abortion, but it’s blocked in the Senate because of opposition to suspending the filibuster from Republicans and two Democrats — Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.

“You say, OK, well the Supreme Court overruled this longstanding law, why can’t we just make it the law?” said Nicole Cannizzaro, the majority leader of the Nevada state Senate, the first in the nation to elect a majority-woman legislature. “And it’s frustrating to talk to constituents, to friends, to family and try to explain why that isn’t the case when so many people ... feel that way.”

“I can introduce bills, I can try to get bills passed so that I can say things like, in Nevada we have this protection,” she said, noting that abortion is legal in Nevada. “But inevitably it’s not good enough.”

Judith Whitmer, chair of the Nevada Democratic Party, said voters want accountability for Supreme Court justices such as Brett Kavanaugh, who has been accused of misleading senators during his confirmation about his willingness to overturn Roe v. Wade. She’d also like to see Congress consider term limits for justices, who now have lifetime appointments.

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“It’s natural for people to be afraid of the change or be hesitant about making those kinds of changes,” Whitmer said. “But I think we have to consider all options, and all options should be on the table as to how we fight back against an activist Supreme Court.”

But Biden has been hesitant to push the envelope. And some advocates were upset with a statement by outgoing White House communications director Kate Bedingfield in response to reporting by The Washington Post about the administration’s strategy. Bedingfield said Biden’s goal was “not to satisfy some activists who have been consistently out of step with the mainstream of the Democratic Party.”

“I think we can be focusing on the midterms and communicating to voters who did this, which is Republicans,” said Ashley Allison, a Democratic strategist who worked on the Biden campaign and “took offense” to Bedingfield’s statement. “Simultaneously, we can be working in Washington, D.C., and the people who are in power can be working to figure out next steps.”

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre sought to diffuse the controversy this week, asserting that “to say that the president has not been passionate, to say that this president has not been focused is just not true.”

Kristen Keyser, chair of the Wisconsin Democrats Women’s Caucus, said she has seen more people who have never participated in the political process getting involved since Roe was overturned, and that she was “heartened” by Biden’s executive order. But asked whether she felt Democrats in Washington are reflecting the anger she’s seen on the grassroots level, she said “some people.”

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“I really respected Elizabeth Warren’s response when the initial news came out. She was fired up and ready to go. I would like to see more of that,” Keyser said.

Many abortion rights advocates agree the steps taken so far aren’t enough.

North Carolina state Senator Natalie Murdock said Biden’s executive order was “a strong first step, but there still is so much more that we could do.”

With action in Congress unlikely given the Democrats’ narrow majorities, the November elections present the clearest course of action for the party to restore abortion rights.

“This has to be the number one issue as we look toward the midterms,” said St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. “We should be heading to the polls fearful of what could happen if we don’t vote out some of these Republican senators who are hell-bent on turning us back to the 1950s.”


Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at lissandra.villa@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @LissandraVilla.