In the battleground US state of Pennsylvania, Democrats hope that defending abortion rights will mobilise their electorate, especially women, and allow them to win votes in the November 8 midterm elections.
<p>Although she expected it, Ellen Pierson remembers her shock when the US Supreme Court in June overturned the half-century Roe v. Wade ruling that enshrined national abortion rights. "People, including me, didn't think that right could disappear,” she said.
On a sunny Saturday in October, Pierson was in full Democratic supporter gear: a trade union cap on her head, Biden-Harris tote bag on her shoulder, and a “Pro-Choice/Pro-Fetterman” badge on her chest. John Fetterman, a Democratic Senate candidate in the US midterm elections on November 8, was the draw that brought Pierson and her family to Wallingford in Pennsylvania’s Delaware County.
The mother of two-year-old Mary-Louise – who attended the Wallingford rally in her stroller – was unequivocal when asked to name her most important issue in the midterm race: abortion rights. “Any pregnancy can become dangerous. Even if you don’t plan to have an abortion, things can go wrong. And when the government imposes draconian laws that are incompatible with the survival of the mother, then it’s drama,” said Pierson.
It was a view held by every woman interviewed at the rally. And many men had the same concern, such as Pierson’s husband, Henri Duarte. “Women will die if this right is taken away. It’s a simple question of personal freedom. Does a person have the right to control their own body or not? If you believe in freedom, then you must be pro-choice,” declared Duarte.
‘I will always fight for abortion rights’
In the modest-sized gym of the Nether Providence Elementary School, where the meeting was held, the audience of around 600 people was on fire. The mere mention of the words “abortion” or “reproductive rights” sent the decibel levels soaring.
In recent days, Fetterman, a rising star in the Democratic Party, has been insisting that his Republican rival, Mehmet Oz – nicknamed “Dr. Oz” – remains unclear when asked if he would vote for a federal ban on abortion. “He refuses to answer the question,” proclaimed the candidate on stage. “Me, I will always fight for abortion rights. Having an abortion is not my decision, nor Dr. Oz’s decision, but the decision of women and their doctors.”
Across the US, abortion rights, supported by a large majority of Americans, have become a unifying theme in the 2022 campaign for Democrats, who are ramping up targeted ads. The groundswell of support for reproductive rights has seen many Republican candidates, who once loudly touted their “pro-life” positions, trying to avoid any mention of “the A-word” in what the political news website Axios has dubbed, “The Big Scrub”.
Oz, a Turkish-American celebrity surgeon and host of “The Dr. Oz Show”, is one of the Republican candidates trying to avoid the abortion issue on the campaign trail.
Polls give Fetterman a slight advantage over Oz in one of the most closely watched Senate races of the 2022 midterms. A battleground state, Pennsylvania has been the site of critical electoral victories and defeats for both parties in recent years. US President Joe Biden has travelled repeatedly to Pennsylvania, touching down on Thursday in Pittsburg, where he was greeted on the tarmac by Fetterman. “You’re gonna’ win,” the cameras caught Biden telling Fetterman as he shook hands with the Democratic candidate.
If Fetterman does indeed win on November 8, the Democrats will have a chance to retain their majority in the US Senate and prevent a federal ban on abortion in Pennsylvania state.
A threat on all levels of government
But the threat does not stop at the federal level. The Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade allows each state to decide its own abortion policy. In Pennsylvania, the legality of the procedure – for up to 24 weeks of pregnancy – hangs by a thread today: the governor, a Democrat, can veto it in the local Congress, whose two houses are controlled by Republicans. Increasing the stakes, the governor’s office is also up for grabs this year.
Doug Mastriano – a far-right Republican candidate who disdains the separation of church and state – is running against Democrat and frontrunner Josh Shapiro. But even if Shapiro wins, the threat will not disappear. In order to override the governor’s veto, an anti-abortion amendment passed by Republican lawmakers this summer could be put to a vote next year in a primary.
With such sky-high stakes, Democrats are fighting at every level of these midterm elections, including trying to flip the majority in one of the local chambers. In a state where voters are accustomed to splitting their votes between Democratic and Republican candidates, the challenge this year is to convince them to give not a single vote to the anti-abortion party.
Doctors enter the fray
The morning Fetterman addressed the rally at the Wallingford school gym, around 30 volunteers and Democratic candidates gathered outside Lisa Goldstein’s home in an upscale Philadelphia suburb. Stocked with pretzels, chips and bottled water, Goldstein’s garage has been turned into a sort of base camp for the door-to-door campaigning teams. On the wall, the word “DEMOCRACY” is scrawled in big lettering in blue chalk.
Goldstein notes that in Pennsylvania, threats against abortion rights have caused an outcry among her medical colleagues. “I’ve been opening my doors since 2012 to help Democratic campaigns, and this is the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned that I’ve seen so many doctors get involved in politics,” said the child psychiatrist.
“It’s because, for the first time, legislators are trying to intrude into the examination room, into the relationship we have with our patients. Gynecologists started the movement, but other medical specialists have followed. It’s not just abortion, it’s medicine in general that is being threatened by legislators who don’t believe in science. So we’re out there, knocking on doors, organising events, expressing ourselves on social networks,” she explained.
This unprecedented mobilisation of the medical profession is accompanied by other promising signs for the Democratic party, according to supporters. For example, voter registration, especially among women and young voters, is up. Since June 24, the day Roe v. Wade was overturned, 56% of new registrants in Pennsylvania have been women, according to the consulting firm TargetSmart. Among the new female voters, 62% are Democrats, compared to 15% who are Republicans. Moreover, 54% of them are under 25, a sign that young women are particularly mobilised.
Among the volunteers at Goldstein’s place, five Philadelphia University students prepared to knock on doors in the neighbourhood. They confirmed the high levels of mobilisation in their student circles. “I was on campus the day Roe v. Wade was overturned,” said Lucy Kronenberg, a political science major.
“I received an enormous amount of text messages from friends pleading with me to help them register to vote in Pennsylvania rather than in their home state. They realised the importance of voting here, given the stakes in abortion: whoever is elected governor will decide whether it is legal or not,” said Kronenberg.
According to J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer and co-editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball newsletter, polls show that “voters who have been to college care more about abortion, which probably works in the Democrats’ favour. Now, what we’ve seen in other midterms in the past is that it’s college-educated voters who have the highest turnout. Donald Trump’s success in 2016 and 2020 is that he rallied what are called ‘casual’ voters, who are generally less educated. And by definition, if they are casual, they vote less in the midterms. So I think one of the issues that will help Democrats with the college-educated electorate is abortion.”
Kronenberg and her friends get into the SUV of Sarah Carroll, a financial analyst who says she has free time now that her children are in college. Before dropping them off in their door-to-door zone, Carroll offers some advice: “Most importantly, if you run into someone who seems to disagree with you outright, leave politely and make the encounter as insignificant as possible to the person you’re talking to. You don’t want to further motivate a Mastriano voter.”
‘Personally pro-life’ but campaigning for abortion rights
Every weekend, Carroll dons her sneakers, heads over to Goldstein’s house and picks up her set of addresses for the day. Then she swings through the hilly driveways until she’s visited every house on her list.
“My experience in my suburban Philadelphia area [an area particularly courted by both parties] is that women listed as Republicans plan to vote for local Democratic candidates because of the threat to abortion rights,” she noted. “I hope that in more rural and conservative areas, the same phenomenon will be observed.”