In Kansas, a record number of primary voters overwhelmingly opted to protect it. In New York, a congressional candidate in a close race centered his campaign on it and won.
And in November, voters in California, Vermont and Michigan will decide whether to amend their state constitutions to guarantee a right to it.
The right to abortion — a perennial, if at times sidelined, issue in U.S. politics — is center stage after the U.S. Supreme Court this summer overturned Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision that had protected the procedure as a constitutional right since 1973. The court sent the issue back to the states, to immediate effect. Multiple states banned or severely restricted abortion. Those outraged by the decision girded for battles that have played out in primaries across the country and, soon, November’s general election.
“The ground is shifting so quickly under our feet,” said Alona Del Rosario, a third-year University of Baltimore law student and co-leader of the reproductive justice group, If/When/How. “It really seems to have lit a fire under folks who maybe weren’t active before.”
Much of the focus has been on states where abortion rights were under threat. But with the Supreme Court decision coming in an election year, candidates’ stances on the highly charged issue could sway some voters picking people for elected office.
In Maryland, abortion rights provide a clear line of demarcation between the two major-party candidates for governor, Democrat Wes Moore and Republican Dan Cox. Moore decried the Supreme Court decision and vows to expand access to abortions; Cox celebrated the end of Roe and promises to defend “the unborn.”
Political observers also anticipate the ruling will lead abortion rights supporters to push for strengthening what are already some of the nation’s most liberal abortion laws.
“In Maryland, abortion is pretty well protected, and there will be a push to make it even more protected,” said Todd Eberly, an associate professor of political science at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
Protection efforts even in Maryland, an abortion rights state
State Del. Ariana Kelly, a Montgomery County Democrat, said the end of Roe makes strong laws on the state level even more necessary. She successfully sponsored a bill last session, with now-retired Delores Kelley of Baltimore County on the Senate side, that allows other medical professionals, like nurse practitioners, to perform abortions. The practice was previously limited to physicians. The new law also requires most health plans to cover the procedure at no cost to patients.
Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, refused to speed up the release of $3.5 million to train those medical professionals, something Moore has vowed he’d do on his “day one.”
“It matters who you vote for in November,” Kelly said.
The state Senate’s minority leader, Bryan Simonaire, said Democrats are overstating the threat to Maryland posed by the overturning of Roe.
“I see this as a Democratic ploy to get their base energized with a false narrative,” said Simonaire, an Anne Arundel Republican.
“The law has been settled for decades in Maryland. You have a supermajority in the House and in the Senate. There’s absolutely no chance of any restrictions in Maryland.”
Landmark decision sparks both sides to seek gains
While the furor over the Supreme Court decision has energized abortion rights supporters, those on the other side say they, too, are more motivated — and hopeful for further advances for their cause.
“We see an educational opening,” said Kathy Kelly, who directs Democrats for Life of Maryland.
Kelly, who lives in Bethesda and coincidentally is an aunt of the state delegate, said the attention on the issue can help activists educate the public on aspects such as the amount of public funding for abortion.
Abortion has become a more partisan issue over time, with Democrats more supportive of it and Republicans less so. While the long-sought overturning of Roe is considered a victory for Republicans, it could backfire on the party. That’s because polls show close to 60% of Americans oppose the Supreme Court decision.
Even in a conservative state like Kansas, voters defeated in August a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed state lawmakers to ban or severely restrict abortion.
That referendum was the first vote on the issue since the Supreme Court decision, which came June 24 in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. It drew a surge in voter registrations in Kansas, with women making up more than 70% of the new voters. That helped defeat the measure by a surprisingly large 60-40 margin.
“It shows when a policy becomes too extreme, it really galvanizes people,” said Melissa Deckman, a former Washington College political science and public policy professor who specializes in women and politics.
“Clearly, the Dobbs decision is having an effect on women voters,” said Deckman, now the CEO of the Washington-based Public Religion Research Institute, which focuses on the intersection of religion, culture and public policy.
A national survey the institute conducted in the days after the Dobbs decision found support for abortion in most or all cases had risen to 65%, compared with 55% in 2010.
The institute has also found that about a third of those who support abortion now say they will only vote for candidates who share their views, up from 15% two years ago. In the past, Deckman said, it was generally abortion opponents who had a “litmus test” for candidates.
She said that doesn’t bode well for Cox, whose former colleague Ariana Kelly describes having “a special level of opposition to abortion rights.”
His campaign did not return a request for comment. As a delegate, Cox regularly proposed legislation to restrict abortion, such as by banning it after a fetal heartbeat is detected, instituting waiting periods for people seeking the procedure, and limiting who can prescribe the pills for a medical abortion.
Moore, by contrast, supports amending the state constitution to include abortion rights and making Maryland “a safe haven” for reproductive care.
Still, Deckman and Eberly agree abortion will likely not be a decisive factor in the governor’s race, given that Moore would be expected to win in lopsidedly Democratic Maryland, particularly as Cox lacks the support of Hogan and other moderate Republicans.
Cox is a Donald Trump loyalist who supports the former president’s unwarranted claims of election fraud; attended the Jan. 6, 2021, rally before the riot at the U.S. Capitol; and called then-Vice President Mike Pence a “traitor” for not overturning the 2020 presidential election results.
“I think in a death of a thousand cuts,” Eberly said, “the abortion issue is just another cut.”
The political scientists say abortion may have less impact on other races because factors such as redistricting and gerrymandering will play greater roles in their outcomes. In the 1st Congressional District, where “every Republican got shoved in” the new boundaries, Eberly said, even a fired-up, post-Roe influx of voters likely won’t be enough to tip the race to progressive Democrat Heather Mizeur over conservative Republican incumbent Andy Harris.
The redrawn 6th Congressional District — in which Republican state Del. Neil Parrott is challenging incumbent Democrat David Trone — now includes more Republican voters, prompting some prognosticators to deem it a place for a potential flip from blue to red.
“But Dobbs makes that less likely,” Deckman said.
Maryland, other states reexamining their constitutions on the issue
Some are looking beyond the election to the 2023 legislative session. Ariana Kelly, the delegate, said amending the state constitution to include “reproductive liberty” will be a priority. The proposal has come up several times in the past, but some viewed it as unnecessary, given existing state laws.
With Roe gone, the amendment could gain traction.
“A lot of folks in Maryland want to know that no matter what happens, Maryland enshrines that right in its constitution,” Eberly said.
In 10 states, their highest courts have ruled their state constitutions protect abortion rights, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights. Voters in California, Vermont and Michigan will vote in November to add reproductive protection to their constitutions. Kentucky voters face a referendum that would declare there is no constitutional right to abortion in the state.
Margaret E. Johnson, an associate dean at the University of Baltimore law school, said the “reproductive liberty” amendments currently under consideration in Maryland and the other states make their protection more secure than older provisions, which were interpreted by courts to be included in the right to privacy. That is what the original Roe ruling was based on, and Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the majority in the Dobbs case, declared its conclusions “egregiously wrong.”
“You see privacy is vulnerable,” said Johnson, co-director of the school’s Center on Applied Feminism. “Privacy has been a lightning rod and vulnerable to attack on the federal level.”
Maryland Policy & Politics
Abortion opponents say attempts to add to Maryland’s existing protections are unnecessary.
“We have extremely permissive laws,” said Deborah Brocato, who organized a referendum drive called the Campaign to Protect Women. It failed to get on the statewide ballot a measure to repeal the new law expanding who could perform abortions.
Laura Bogley, director of legislation for Maryland Right to Life, said in an email that abortions remain legal under state law, despite the overturning of Roe.
“Democrat politicians are using the reversal of Roe to fearmonger and fundraise,” she said. ”This is an obvious deflection from the Democrats’ failed policies that they assume women will fall for.”
For Del Rosario, the UB law student, the churn over Dobbs has raised a multitude of needs, electoral and otherwise. She and others in If/When/How, part of a national network of law school-based chapters, are looking on their own campus for how it can address the new post-Roe landscape, such as advocating for coursework specifically on reproductive law.
“I certainly hope whatever Dobbs ignited in folks carries into the election,” she said. “But that can’t be the end of it.”
This is the first in a series of articles about issues of importance to Maryland voters and facing the next governor.