We knew it was coming, but that didn’t make it sting any less last week when the Supreme Court overturned nearly 50 years of established precedent by abolishing the constitutional right to abortion. Yet as devastating as the ruling is for many, this most regressive of moments can serve as a pathway to new political power and progress on abortion, as well as a range of issues that have languished in Congress for decades.
In fact, buried in the SCOTUS decision is a sentence intended to disperse responsibility but that is actually a clear call to action. Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so. In the last election in November 2020, women, who make up around 51.5 percent of the population of Mississippi, constituted 55.5 percent of the voters who cast ballots.” This is a disingenuous rationale for overturning a 50-year precedent, but abortion foes may very well find out exactly how right Alito is.
The path to successfully righting this historic wrong requires work at the local election level, as much as on the national scene. It means allowing for years of sustained mobilization to remind those in power of the issues, and it demands bringing broader awareness to candidates’ positions election after election after election. The majority of us have known for years the goals of abortion opponents, and now we know how long it took them to arrive at their victory: 50 years. Abortion opponents were geared up to play the long game. They ran candidates at local and state levels, but they also ran a campaign for hearts and minds. They placed ballot measures in state after state. They focused on a cultural shift in how this country views women and their place in it.
But those tactics aren’t exclusively the domain of the right. In 2011, Mississippi voters rejected a ballot measure that would have outlawed all abortions and many forms of contraception. The measure was all but ensured passage until the final weeks of the election, when a major campaign to defeat the initiative launched. It focused on how to talk with people and educate them about what the unintended consequences of the measure would be. People who opposed abortion were willing to change their minds. Elected officials publicly distanced themselves from the measure as a broader narrative brought context and nuance to a seemingly black and white issue. And it worked, even in one of the most conservative states in the nation.
The overarching lesson is that Democrats’ 50-50 majority (Vice President Kamala Harris’s vote as president of the Senate tips the scale in the Democrats’ favor) is not enough to pass legislation codifying abortion protections. In order have any chance of passing legislation at the federal level, Democrats would need to keep all their current Senate seats plus flip two more in November, and thereby get rid of the filibuster that Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema won’t vote to end. They’d also need to keep control of the House after the midterms.
Democratic voters can no longer ignore state legislative bodies, as they have in the last 20 years, barely showing up to vote in state elections. At the same time, the Democratic political machine can no longer afford to abdicate state races as they have been doing for decades. In Florida this year, Democrats didn’t field candidates in nearly 50 of the 160 state House and Senate races on the ballot.
From the individual to the systemic, all angles matter. Yes, the journey can look overwhelming, but it’s the incremental actions that yield a sea of change. Volunteer for a pro-choice candidate. Show up at a protest. Donate to a pro-choice organization, and turn out to vote in local, state, and national elections. Use your voice and be willing to engage in a conversation with someone, sharing your personal experience and be willing to listen to them in return.
If you believe the political system is flawed, the good news is the power is in the people to change it. But it takes one day at a time.