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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
abortion on the ballot

Abortion and the US Midterms: 'It's about my right to take care of my body'

Voters in Pennsylvania are not voting in a referendum but the issue is central to who they’ll vote for.

women-hold-pro-choice-protest-signs-at-a-political-rally Alamy Stock Photo A pro-choice rally in Philadelphia. Alamy Stock Photo

Rónán Duffy in Pennsylvania

ABORTION IS ON the ballot in the US midterm elections in ten days’ time. 

That much is clear from speaking to people on the ground about their priorities on 8 November and from the political ads clogging up TV-time across the US. 

It will literally be voted on in five states where various questions relating to abortion are being asked. In all states though, the ‘Dobbs decision’ is a motivating factor.

The Dobbs decision is the shorthand used for the US Supreme Court ruling in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Heath case in June. That decision overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision and removed the constitutional right to abortion. 

Asking voters about their priorities in the upcoming elections, people on either side will speak about abortion.

“It’s about my right to take care of my body and the government telling me I can’t,” says Kathleen O’Brien, a voter who gave up an hour of her time to post leaflets for Democrat Senate candidate John Fetterman. 

We’re going backwards instead of forward. So for me I think that’s number one.

At an election rally for Republican candidate for Governor Doug Mastriano, the feeling could not be more different.

“A lot of people are confused with Roe v Wade, it was never part of the Constitution, never,” Janice Todaro tells The Journal

It’s not like it’s banned across the board, for incest and rape okay, but for everything else? Planned Parenthood says there are 14 forms of birth control, so if you don’t want to get pregnant, be responsible for your body and make sure that it doesn’t happen.

20221021_111812 Fetterman volunteers Donald Andrews and Kathleen O'Brien.

State by state

The Dobbs decision essentially left it up to states to determine their own abortion laws and several states already had legislation passed restricting abortion rights that kicked in once the decision came down. 

Pennsylvania is not one of those states. Nothing legally changed overnight but the context was immediately different. 

Campaigners have described an unease about its laws into the future and one immediate impact has been people travelling here to access abortion services after their own states became much more unfriendly. 

Melissa Weiler Gerber is President and CEO of Access Matters, a Philadelphia-based non-profit group that works to protect and expand reproductive healthcare.

She told The Journal that Pennsylvania has for years had restrictions in place meaning the state was relatively strict compared to other places.

These restrictions include a 24-hour waiting period, parental consent for minors and the strict separation in healthcare settings of abortion and other kinds of services. 

In the wake of the Dobbs decision and the tightening of rules in other places, Pennsylvania has begun to be seen somewhat differently. 

Now, folks are coming to us from states like Ohio and other neighbouring states because suddenly Pennsylvania looks better than their home state does. We’re already seeing that providers in the western part of the state, Pittsburgh and out bordering Ohio, they’re getting an influx of folks coming from other states. We’re starting to hear it a little bit here too and sometimes it’s people coming from quite far away, not just bordering states, but this seems like the best option for them. So we know that the demand for services is increasing.  

Midterm races

Efforts have been made at the state government level in Pennsylvania to introduce tougher abortion laws but these have been vetoed by the State’s outgoing Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat. 

Wolf is term-limited and cannot seek more time in office. Running to replace him is party colleague and State Attorney General Josh Shapiro and Republican State Senator Doug Mastriano. 

Shapiro has a clear lead in the polls but Mastriano has pledged a dramatic tightening of abortion laws should he win.

At various points during campaigning, Mastriano has pledged to ban terminations after six weeks of pregnancy and has gone further by saying he wants to outlaw abortion “at conception”

A number of years ago he said that womewho violated abortion laws should be criminalised and charged with murder

Shapiro has said he supports the current Pennsylvania law, which permits abortion up to 24 weeks and afterwards only in cases of a threat to life or health of the mother. 

The gubernatorial race is being matched at the Senate level in the much-closer battle between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz. 

This Senate race is among three or four that will decide the balance of power in the Upper House and during a TV debate this week abortion was again centre stage. 

At one point, Oz declared that the decision should be governed by “a woman, her doctor and local political leaders”.

Fetterman, though struggling with the after-effects of a stroke, was clear that he believed the situation which pertained under the Roe v Wade decision should be codified in law. A pledge that has also been made by President Biden

seattle-usa-8th-oct-2022-the-rally-to-defend-abortion-rights-at-cal-anderson-park-protestors-are-taking-to-the-streets-around-the-country-to-fight-for-the-fundamental-right-to-choose-the-supreme Alamy Stock Photo A pro-choice rally in Seattle. Alamy Stock Photo

In the US, advocacy groups that are non-profit organisations are not not legally allowed to endorse specific candidates. They can argue in favour of an issue but cannot publicly back one politician over another. 

However, some groups have specific and separate political arms that can engage in candidate campaigning.

One such group in Pennsylvania is Planned Parenthood Advocates and PAC and campaign director Lindsey Maudlin explained to The Journal that its volunteers contribute in all sorts of ways.

We endorse candidates who are going to be supportive and help to expand and protect sexual and reproductive healthcare. And after we endorse those candidates, we provide them with resources, whether that be messaging, training, content for their social media. Then also we’re able to funnel our volunteers into their canvasses and phone banks.

She added: “We’ve been focused on the gubernatorial race, letting our supporters know how important the race for governor is. Then also talking to them about those State general assembly races that are in their area, and having them turnout in canvass for those folks.”


In tandem with an increase in demand for services in more abortion-friendly states, another effect of the Dobbs decision has been its galvanising effect on campaigns on either side of the issue. 

Groups have reported an influx of new volunteers and those who have been silently supportive of one side have been emboldened. 

National polls have consistently shown support for abortion services and a significant referendum to protect them in the Republican-dominated state of Kansas also seemed to underline the public mood on the issue. 

20221021_091719 The Journal A poster in Downtown Philadelphia. The Journal

Unlike in Kansas, or indeed in Ireland, where the public were able to vote specifically on the issue, most states are not holding plebiscites on abortion. Instead, elected politicians will have the power in their various legislatures. 

Weiler Gerber says she remembers the day when Ireland voted to repeal the Eighth Amendment in 2018. 

I remember being in bed the night of the decision and just like kind of scrolling through and getting weepy. Just reading about and looking at interviews of folks flocking into the airports, people here offering to pay people’s plane tickets to get home to vote. I mean it was just so amazing. And there was horrible stuff going on here that week around reproductive rights, I don’t even remember the specifics of it, I just know there were things happening potentially within our family planning programme and it was so inspiring to see what was happening and to see people mobilising.  

But did the Dobbs decision have the same mobilising effect?

Yes, Weiler Gerber says, but that while it certainly activated people on the issue of abortion, one of its major effects was in exposing how other rights could be at risk from the Supreme Court. 

20221021_090949 Melissa Weiler Gerber of Access Matters.

In his own published opinion, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas argued that the court should also examine its rulings on contraception and same-sex marriage.

“I actually feel like Clarence Thomas gave us a gift in that regard,” Weiler Gerber says, arguing that his opinion has led to a greater intersectionality within the movement. 

The reproductive rights movement has rightly been criticised in decades past about being kind of a middle-class, white women’s movement that was very focused just on abortion access. And I think and I hope that the movement has sort of learned that lesson. And also that now many more people are seeing this decision as threatening their own rights, whether it’s around LGBTQAI+ rights, whether it’s around rights to contraception, whether it’s just around privacy rights relating to marriage and sexual intimacy.

“This goes much further and could very easily be a slippery slope.” 

Across the country, Republican candidates have quieted down on the issue of abortion, aware that taking an extreme position could cost them votes. Instead, campaign ads have mostly focused on crime or inflation, a strategy that is appearing to show some results. 

Recent polling has suggested that these issues and not abortion are increasingly being seen as the “most important” issues facing the country.

It’s led to predictions that Republicans could win across the board come election night and early post-mortems that the Dobbs decision came too soon for Democrats. 

Maudlin doesn’t necessarily agree. 

“I still think we’ll see people turning out on this issue. We’re hearing from folks in a number of polls across the state that abortion is still a top issue for voters,” she says.

“Even though we’re having conversations in a political environment, the decision to have an abortion is a very personal one. What we have to come back to with voters is letting them know how these very political conversations, that often polarise or might isolate folks, are going to impact lives and impacted folks’ ability to access health care.”

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