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Alabama law foreshadows 2020 abortion clash

Senator Kamala Harris took a photo with supporter Rob Penttinen during a town hall event in Nashua on Wednesday. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

NASHUA — The controversy over an Alabama bill that would outlaw nearly all abortions in the state spilled into the Democratic presidential race Wednesday, with candidates scrambling to denounce the measure amid deep alarm from the party’s voters that it could catalyze a broader rollback of abortion rights by the Supreme Court.

“Women’s health care is under attack, and we will not stand for it,” California Senator Kamala Harris said at a town hall-style event here, adding that Alabama lawmakers “need to check their hypocrisy.”

The forum was supposed to highlight Harris’s new plan to ban the import of assault rifles. But news of the Alabama Senate’s Tuesday night passage of the bill overshadowed that announcement and thrust abortion rights to the forefront of many voters’ minds in a primary campaign that has been dominated by issues such as economic inequality, the environment, and health care reform.

“When I said we were headed to the ‘Handmaid’s Tale’ scenario, it came across as hyperbole,” said Wendy Thomas, a Democratic state representative from Merrimack who attended the Nashua event, referring to the dystopian Margaret Atwood novel and TV series in which women’s lives are wholly controlled by men. “But with Alabama’s moves, it seems very real now, and I want presidential candidates that share my outrage on this.”


The Alabama measure contains no exceptions for rape and incest and would punish doctors performing most abortions in the state with up to 99 years in prison. It is the most restrictive in a series of antiabortion laws recently enacted in states such as Georgia and Ohio pushed by Republican politicians emboldened by a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that they believe would uphold any new limitations.

The Alabama measure passed the state’s House last month and Republican Governor Kay Ivey signed the bill into law Wednesday. It is likely to face an immediate legal challenge, which could eventually put the matter in front of the Supreme Court. It does not take effect immediately.


The developments come at a time when President Trump — once an avowed supporter of abortion rights — has made graphic and inaccurate descriptions of late-term abortions part of his stump speech, suggesting he and his evangelical allies plan to make reproductive rights a major issue in the 2020 election.

While that would rev up his base, experts in abortion politics say it could ultimately motivate supporters of abortion rights to vote singularly on the issue.

“I expect this will really mobilize pro-choice supporters, where in the past they voted on a number of different issues,” said Dave Campbell, the chair of the University of Notre Dame political science department, who has written extensively on religion and politics.

If the Nashua event was any indication, the Alabama measure has left Democratic primary voters — even those conflicted over abortion — suddenly spooked.

“I’m a really liberal Democrat but I struggle with the abortion issue — but this Alabama law is just completely ridiculous,” said Rita Kirk, a retired speech language pathologist and a Democrat from Nashua. “With the Supreme Court that we have, I frankly am scared to death.”

While all of the candidates seeking the Democratic nomination support abortion rights, the Alabama bill could pressure them to be more specific — and more outspoken — about how they would try to protect access to abortion as president.


Asked by reporters what, specifically, she would do as president to protect abortion rights, Harris said she would use “the bully pulpit” to draw attention to the issue.

She also said she would consider a potential Supreme Court nominee’s views on abortion as a “very significant factor,” but seemed to stop short of New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s pledge to only nominate judges who would commit to supporting Roe v. Wade.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s campaign did not offer a specific plan for preserving abortion rights as president but tweeted that the Alabama measure was an “unconstitutional attack on women.” She has made pointed comments when asked about the issue on the campaign trail.

“When I was a little girl, there was a time when back alley abortions killed people and when young women — girls — killed themselves rather than face an unplanned pregnancy,” Warren said last week at an Ohio town hall. “We are not going back.”

On Tuesday, Senator Bernie Sanders urged Alabama’s governor to “veto this cruel bill.” And former vice president Joe Biden said the Alabama law was “clearly unconstitutional” and “Roe v. Wade is settled law and should not be overturned.”

Even William Weld — the former Massachusetts governor and Trump’s only Republican primary opponent — issued a statement denouncing the bill.

There is a question of what, exactly, a president elected in 2020 could do because the Alabama measure is likely to become a matter for the Supreme Court. But the controversy could draw more attention to an unorthodox tactic some Democratic candidates have proposed to tip the court’s balance of power: adding more justices to the bench.


Democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., proposed expanding the court from the current nine judges to 15. A number of rivals including Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, and former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke have said they were open to the idea.

University of Denver political science professor Joshua Wilson, who has written two books on the abortion debate, said the clash over the Alabama abortion law is likely to become a “significant factor” in the presidential election.

“I think that there is far more that Democrats will want to run against Trump with,” Wilson said, “but if things continue as they have been, abortion should now be a larger part of the election discussion.”

But Maura Feller, an unemployed guidance counselor who drove to Harris’s event from Marlborough, Mass., said abortion was swiftly becoming an issue “we need to hear” the 2020 Democrats talking about.

“It could be in our lifetime that we see, in a very short space of time . . . this go back to what I feel is probably a dangerous time,” Feller said.

Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood. James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter: http://pages.email.bostonglobe.com/GroundGameSignUp