Abortion at crossroads after midterms with focus on states

WASHINGTON (AP) — Before Democrat Tina Smith ran for the Senate, she volunteered at a Planned Parenthood clinic in her home state of Minnesota where protesters would confront women as they entered.

The experience is on her mind this Sunday, the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that ensured a nationwide right to abortion until it was overturned last year.

“It feels like such an empty day,” she said.

The White House is trying to replace that sense of emptiness with outrage and resolve this weekend by demonstrating determination to restore abortion rights even though there’s little chance of progress in Washington.

Vice President Kamala Harris is headlining the effort with a speech in Florida, where Democrats fear a renewed attempt to restrict abortion by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“America is the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Harris plans to say, according to excerpts of her speech. “But let us ask: Can we truly be free if a woman cannot make decisions about her own body? Can we truly be free if a doctor cannot care for her patients? Can we truly be free if families cannot make intimate decisions about the course of their own lives?”

The decision for Harris to speak in Tallahassee, the state capital, reflects how the battle lines have shifted since last summer. Now that there’s no more national right to abortion, debates over the issue will play out in individual statehouses rather than in the halls of Congress or before the Supreme Court. White House officials this past week convened top lawmakers from eight states to discuss pending legislation.

In addition, after performing better than expected in November’s elections, Democrats see abortion as a key issue for their party in 2024, when control of the White House and both chambers of Congress will be up for grabs at the same time. DeSantis may seek the Republican presidential nomination, the first step to challenging President Joe Biden, who has been preparing for a reelection campaign.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Florida is critical because its rules for abortion are less restrictive than its neighbors, making it a relatively safe harbor for women in the region who are trying to end their pregnancies. But more restrictions could be considered by the Republican-controlled state government.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.

Biden, in a statement Sunday, said “women should be able to make these deeply personal decisions free from political interference. Yet, Republicans in Congress and across the country continue to push for a national abortion ban, to criminalize doctors and nurses, and to make contraception harder to access. It’s dangerous, extreme, and out of touch.”

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who has worked with Biden, said the White House strategy on abortion had three goals.

“You can create an atmosphere and put pressure on these states to make it more difficult to pass draconian restrictions,” she said. In addition, Lake said, “you can set up the contrast for 2024” and “you can use this as a major motivator for people to turn out to vote.”

Democrats have concluded that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade reshaped the political landscape for last year’s elections, rejuvenating the party’s chances when analysts had expected a Republican wipeout.

Democrats still lost control of the House and expanded their Senate majority by only one vote, meaning legislation that would create a nationwide right to abortion remains out of reach.

There are concerns that Biden and his administration have exhausted their options for executive actions.

The Food and Drug Administration announced this month that abortion pills would become more widely available at pharmacies and through the mail. The pills can also be obtained through a virtual appointment, rather than by visiting a doctor’s office.

A legal battle is now playing out in federal court in Texas, where abortion opponents have sued to undo the decades-old approval of the drugs.

“The administration is really looking at existing federal law, and trying to leverage it,” said Lawrence Gostin, who runs the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health at Georgetown Law.

Not all of the administration’s ideas have panned out. Biden announced last year that states could apply for waivers to use Medicaid dollars to pay for women to travel to get abortions. No waivers have been sought.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declined to say why he thinks that states haven’t taken the administration up on its offer.

“I’ll let you speak to the different states,” he said Thursday. “We have made the offer out there and we continue to challenge folks to find ways to make sure no one loses access to health care.”

Becerra was in Minnesota, where Democratic leaders were finalizing legislation to codify abortion rights in state law.

“We’re going to continue to work with states like Minnesota that want to do the things it takes to embed in our laws the protections that forever prevent any American from losing access to health care,” Becerra said during an event with Democratic Gov. Tim Walz and lawmakers.

Across states, the fight to protect abortion access is playing out in courtrooms, with active litigation against abortion restrictions in 14 states, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

The nonprofit health organization found that advocates have generally taken one of three approaches to mounting legal challenges against abortion laws by claiming the laws violate state constitutional protections, infringe on some states’ guaranteed rights to make health care choices, or block religious freedoms.

It’s unclear which legal arguments may be most successful, with the states’ highest courts ultimately deciding how accessible abortion will be. Meanwhile, abortion opponents are searching for ways to use the courts to further restrict abortion.

Renee Bracey Sherman, founder and executive director of the group We Testify, which advocates for women who have had abortions, said she is disappointed that Biden hasn’t done more.

“The fact that he is missing in action during this public health emergency is really embarrassing,” she said.

Smith, the Minnesota senator, had joined with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., last year to call on Biden to formally declare a public health emergency.

Biden never did, but Smith said she is satisfied with the steps he has taken.

“I’d be hard pressed to point to something that they haven’t done that they might have done with a public health emergency,” she said.

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Associated Press writer Steve Karnowski in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Amanda Seitz contributed to this report.