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Democrats hope abortion will jolt young voters to action in the midterms

Young people who support access to abortion chant in front of un-scalable fence that stands around the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 5, 2022.
AFP via Getty Images
Young people who support access to abortion chant in front of un-scalable fence that stands around the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 5, 2022.

After a draft opinion suggested that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, President Biden and other Democrats called on voters to send more lawmakers who support abortion rights to Washington.

"If the court does overturn Roe, it will fall on our nation's elected officials at all levels of government to protect a woman's right to choose," Biden said in a written statement the day after the draft opinion was reported. "And it will fall on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November."

For Arekia Bennett-Scott, those words fell flat.

"It didn't feel like an urgency for the White House, a fight that they want to, like, get out in front of," she said.

Bennett-Scott is the executive director of Mississippi Votes, a youth advocacy group. Her state's only abortion provider is at the center of the case that could strike down the landmark law that has stood for half a century.

"The rest of the country is going to wake up in Mississippi the day Roe v. Wade is overturned," she said.

With six months to go until November's midterms, key components of the broad, multigenerational coalition of voters that powered Democratic victories in 2018 and 2020 are showing signs of dampened enthusiasm. Some party leaders hope that the prospect of a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade could reenergize them.

"Voters have struggled with a believability gap, with majorities noting that they did not believe Roe was truly at risk," said Laphonza Butler, the head of EMILY's List, a national group that backs women candidates who support abortion rights. "Now that the Supreme Court's pending decision to overturn Roe all together has leaked, we believe voters are galvanized to take action."

Polling shows that most young people oppose completely overturning Roe.

"We have got to connect these generations so that the experiences of pre-Roe v. Wade can be made much more clear and tangible to young voters who haven't lived a time without Roe v. Wade being the law of the land," Butler said.

Nicole Hensel, the executive director of the youth-focused group New Era Colorado, said that while young people haven't lived in a country without Roe, "that doesn't mean that young people don't know what it feels like to live without access to abortion."

"This fight is the ability to control other people's bodies. And that is something that young people are very fearful of and also energized to resist," she added.

But Hensel pointed out that while the prospect of the Supreme Court striking down Roe is launching young people to action — that action doesn't always equal voting. It could mean things like protesting, having conversations with family members or people in their communities or getting involved at the local level.

"If we want young people to mobilize for the midterms, then politicians can't pay lip service to these issues. They need to show that they're willing to take bold action," she said.

Hensel said she wants to see the Senate vote to codify abortion rights into law — something the Senate plans to hold a vote on next week. The legislation does not have the support to be enacted.

If Roe is overturned, individual states would decide whether abortions would be legal. In Kansas, the right to an abortion is currently protected by the state's constitution. But that could change in August when the state's voters have their say on a constitutional amendment.

"There's a lot of anger and distrust in political institutions right now. But we know that we can't cede that ground," said Melissa Stiehler, the advocacy director for Loud Light, a Kansas-based group focused on engaging young people.

She says young voters are looking for "unapologetic leadership."

"You've got folks who are talking about abortion access, but not even using the word abortion. You have politicians who are claiming that this is an incredibly divisive issue when, time and time again, every poll shows that the majority of voters do not want Roe overturned," she said. "And that is what we're seeing in our future that is more real than ever. These are not hypothetical things."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.