ATLANTA, GA - MAY 21: People protest against Georgia's recently passed "heartbeat" bill at the Georgia State Capitol building, on May 21, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. The bill would ban abortion when a fetal heartbeat is detected. The Alabama abortion law, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey last week, includes no exceptions for cases of rape and incest, outlawing all abortions except when necessary to prevent serious health problems for the woman. Though women are exempt from criminal and civil liability, the new law punishes doctors for performing an abortion, making the procedure a Class A felony punishable by up to 99 years in prison (Photo by Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
Protests erupt across the country over restrictive new abortion bans
02:10 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

2020 Democratic presidential candidates are plunging into the debate over restrictive new abortion laws in states like Alabama, Georgia and Missouri – making abortion rights a central part of their messaging as some charge President Donald Trump with waging a “war on women.”

Republicans have often sought to seize on the decades-long battle over abortion rights. Judicial appointments and Supreme Court vacancies have energized segments of their evangelical, anti-abortion base in election years. But with the installation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as the fifth conservative justice on the court and efforts by conservative state legislatures to drastically restrict abortion rights, Democrats are taking the opportunity to rally their own voters, particularly women.

This was most evident Tuesday as a parade of presidential contenders joined demonstrators on the steps of the Supreme Court to protest Alabama’s decision to pass the most restrictive abortion law in the country last week – a measure that includes no exceptions for rape or incest – as well as the so-called “heartbeat bills” sweeping through statehouses in the South.

As demonstrators from groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU voiced their outrage about the state measures intended to challenge the landmark 1973 decision known as Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in all 50 states, six of the 2020 candidates – two of them women – showed up vowing to fight measures that endanger women’s reproductive rights under Roe.

“This is something that President Trump has unleashed,” New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said in an interview with CNN from the rally, with pink-shirted protesters from Planned Parenthood standing behind her. “He apparently wants to have a war on women in America, and if this is a war that he wants to have, he will have it, and he will lose it, because American women are not going to accept this.”

In a tweet over the weekend, Trump made it clear that he supports exceptions to abortion bans for rape, incest and the health of the mother.

The rising power of female voters

Democrats recognized the power of female voters in driving the outcome of the 2018 elections, flipping the House of Representatives from Republican to Democratic control and electing more than a 100 women to the House for the first time.

The six women who are competing for the 2020 Democratic nomination have also highlighted the ascendant power of female voters – crafting plans that would offer greater assistance with childcare, eliminate pay inequity or address racial disparities in health care, including maternal mortality. On Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren highlighted her plan to pass federal laws that she says would ensure “real access to birth control and abortion care for all women.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who was also at the rally at the Supreme Court, vowed Wednesday to take executive action if elected to protect abortion rights, including creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom to oversee his administration’s efforts.

The tone and tenor of the debate are an abrupt reversal from just months ago when Democrats were on defense on abortion, facing uncomfortable conversations about controversial new measures protecting certain late-term abortions in New York and Virginia. That led Trump to attack Democrats as “pushing for late-term abortion” at his political rallies, though he often distorted the facts around the measures that were being proposed.

Now the success of anti-abortion advocates in passing restrictive new laws in Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi, Missouri and Kentucky have shifted the conversation.

In a telling sign of the ripple effect that the strict new state laws are having, lawmakers in Nevada – which has the first female-majority legislature in the country after the 2018 elections – removed several restrictions on abortion Tuesday night.

The Nevada Assembly passed a bill Tuesday rewriting part of a state abortion law that required physicians to tell pregnant women about the “emotional implications” of having an abortion. Under the new changes, Nevada doctors would have to describe only the “nature and consequences” of the procedure to their patients. Physicians will no longer need to certify pregnant women’s marital status and ages in writing before performing an abortion.

The assembly voted 27-13 in favor of the bill; it passed the Senate in April 12-9. The bill has to go back to the Senate for a final vote on an amendment before going to the governor’s desk.

A trip to the Supreme Court

In addition to Gillibrand, five other Democratic presidential candidates showed up at the abortion rights rally on the steps of the Supreme Court on Tuesday to telegraph their outrage about what they framed as “extreme” abortion restrictions, with many other candidates weighing in to show their support by tweet.

Klobuchar shared Gillibrand’s view that the Trump administration was to blame for some of the new bans.

“I think it shows us what this administration had planned for a very long time. This is not just a coincidence that one state did it and then another state. No, this was a plan,” Klobuchar said in an interview with CNN’s Jessica Dean. “You go back to 2016 when the President was running for office and had a town hall meeting. He was asked, ‘Well, what should happen if a woman has an abortion?’ and he said she should be punished. … A few hours later, his campaign clarified it and said no, we mean the doctor should be punished.”

“Well, look at what these laws are,” Klobuchar continued. “They are right in that direction. You’ve got a law that would basically put doctors in prison for 99 years. You have a law that basically says … if you’re raped and you’re a college student, you don’t have a choice in the matter if you get pregnant.”

Seeking to highlight the broader consensus across America on abortion, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke to the difficulty that these restrictive new laws are posing for Republicans. Advocates pushing for these strict abortion laws, he said, “are not only implementing bad policy, but they are deepening the unpopularity of this party and this administration.”

“Most American, including many Republicans, believe in women’s reproductive rights,” Buttigieg said, “and when you see an outright ban, that is just showing how extreme the Republican Party has become in my lifetime.”

A shifting conversation

A poll by Fox News in January showed that 6 in 10 registered voters say that Roe v Wade ought to remain in place; while 21% said they would like to see the court decision overturned. Even among Republicans, there is no clear push for overturning the law, just 37% said they’d like to see that happen.

And there is not a sharp gender divide on the issue, 59% of women said Roe should stand while 54% of men agreed with that position.

Women's rights advocates demonstrate against recent abortion bans, Tuesday, May 21, 2019, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

The new ban in Alabama, which does not make exceptions for rape or incest, is a position that is far beyond where most Americans stand on the issue. Seventy-seven percent of voters believe abortion should be legal in cases of rape or incest during the first three months of pregnancy, according to a 2018 Gallup poll.

Without mentioning the Alabama law in his tweet this weekend, Trump made it clear that he did not agree with measures that do not include exceptions for rape and incest.

“As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions - Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother - the same position taken by Ronald Reagan,” Trump wrote on Twitter.”

Candidates seizing on the issue

The protest Tuesday, organized by Planned Parenthood, the ACLU and NARAL, drew out a crowd that was dominated by women, many of them from local colleges, advocacy groups in Washington and even staffers on Capitol Hill.

Some of the 2020 candidates walked across the street from the Capitol and wandered into the crowd – surprising demonstrators who ended up face to face with Buttigieg, Gillibrand and the others. Protest organizers did not initially plan for any of the 2020 candidates to speak, but a number of them did anyway.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, told CNN’s Jessica Dean that he showed up at the event “because the right for a woman to control her own body is a fundamental constitutional right and we have got to do everything we can to defend it.” California Rep. Eric Swalwell also attended the rally.

A number of candidates were unable to attend the rally because of prior conflicts, but still sent along their support, including Beto O’Rourke – who was campaigning in Iowa before Tuesday night’s CNN town hall – and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden and California Sen. Kamala Harris.

During that town hall, O’Rourke laid out a plan to protect women’s reproductive rights, including only nominating judges who support Roe v. Wade, doing away with the gag rule and the Hyde Amendment and passing legislation in Congress to protect abortion rights.

“For so long, women have been leading this fight, shouldering the burden of making sure that their reproductive rights are protected. It is time all of us join them in this fight,” he said.

Warren issued a call to action and tweeted a link to her plan to protect reproductive health care.

“The time to act is now. Get into the fight, run for office, and make these right-wing Republican lawmakers face the consequences of their actions,” Warren tweeted. “Let’s be clear: #RoeVWade established a woman’s constitutional right to safe, legal abortion & has been the law of the land for over 46 years. An overwhelming majority of Americans don’t want to return to a world before Roe. But extremist Republicans are fighting to do just that.”

Biden tweeted that “states across the nation are passing extreme laws that violate a woman’s constitutional right to choose.”

“These bills are a blatant attempt to overturn Roe v Wade,” Biden tweeted. “It’s wrong. It’s pernicious. We must #StopTheBans and ensure this choice remains between a woman and her doctor.”

A Biden campaign spokesperson told CNN Wednesday Biden “believes that codifying Roe (v. Wade) through legislation must be pursued.”

“Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri are passing extreme laws in order to prevent a woman to be able to have an abortion under virtually any circumstance,” the spokesperson said in a statement. “Roe v. Wade lays out a constitutional guarantee that a woman can, in fact, make a choice between she and her doctor.”

Harris also weighed in via tweet, vowing to “fight with everything we have to defend access to reproductive health care.”

“There’s nothing more powerful than people speaking up for what we all know is right,” Harris said. “I stand in solidarity with those across the country to #StopTheBans.”

She also posted a clip from her Los Angeles rally this weekend where she said that the passage of the bills in Alabama and Missouri last week “made clear that reproductive health care is under attack and we will not stand for it.”

CNN’s Jessica Dean, Jennifer Agiesta, Dan Merica and Arlette Saenz contributed to this report.