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What President Biden’s State of the Union Says About the Politics of Abortion

8 minute read

Following abortion rights groups’ efforts to pressure President Joe Biden into speaking out in favor of reproductive rights in America, the President mentioned the topic just briefly on Tuesday during his first State of the Union address.

“The constitutional right affirmed by Roe v. Wade—standing precedent for half a century—is under attack as never before,” Biden said during the speech. “If we want to go forward, not backward, we must protect access to health care. Preserve a woman’s right to choose.”

It’s no surprise that Biden did not dwell on the issue. In his roughly hour-long address, he skipped through a deluge of other pressing headlines, including an escalating war in Europe and rising inflation. But as other top Democratic Party leaders rush to make abortion rights a central campaign issue, the President’s general hesitance to discuss the topic—he has not uttered the word abortion in any speech since entering the White House—offers a glimpse into his political advisers’ thinking.

Read More: Abortion Rights Activists Urge Biden To Do More

As a pending Supreme Court decision is poised to unwind or overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 ruling that legalized abortion, and Republican-led state legislatures are moving aggressively to restrict abortion at the state level, state and federal Democratic lawmakers are homing in on abortion access in their political messaging. Pollsters saw a spike in interest in the issue after Texas implemented its controversial law banning abortions after about six weeks last fall, and on Monday, Senate Democrats held a show vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would codify Roe v. Wade, just to demonstrate to voters that they were moving to protect abortion rights.

Just before Biden’s speech began Tuesday, Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand took the unusual step of directly encouraging Chief Justice John Roberts—who is seen as Democrats’ main hope for influencing the other conservative Supreme Court justices—to “uphold precedent” in reference to abortion, according to Politico.

Biden’s relative silence on the issue is conspicuous in comparison.

Some abortion rights advocates say the President’s hesitancy is likely due in part to the stigma that surrounds it. “We need to stop equating people’s discomfort with talking about sex, sexuality, gender identity, abortion—all of these things—pregnancy, with the political opinions or where the country is at,” says Renee Bracey Sherman, executive director of We Testify, a group that aims to share the stories of people who’ve had abortions.

Another reason for Biden’s avoidance is likely because it’s a politically tricky issue, at least from an electoral perspective. While polling indicates that the majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal in most cases—and public support for legal abortion has remained relatively stable for nearly 50 years—majority opinions do not win elections in America, thanks to both gerrymandering and the Electoral College.

Congressional and state legislative districts are drawn in such a way that small groups of voters end up with more power than the overall electorate; and states with small populations, like Montana, get equal representation in the Senate as large-population states, like California. The result is simple: in order to win elections, Democrats must curry the favor not of most Democrats, but of Democratic and Independent voters in specific swing districts, in specific swing states. A Pew Research survey in 2020 found that three in 10 Democrats and Democratic-leaning Independents disagreed with their party on abortion, and among voters without a college education—a key demographic that helped Biden in rust belt states in the 2020 election—some 42% of Democrats or those who lean Democratic disagreed with the party on abortion.

“The American public supports access to abortion,” Bracey Sherman says. “The only reason it’s, quote unquote politically divisive, is because of gerrymandering.”

Abortion rising as a campaign issue

Still, abortion access has become a key issue for Democrats in the last few years, notes Joshua Wilson, a political science professor at the University of Denver and author of “The New States of Abortion Politics.” Abortion has flipped from being a topic more likely to motivate conservatives who oppose it to being motivating for Democrats, Wilson says, thanks in large part to former President Donald Trump, who implemented policies to curtail abortion rights and nominated three conservative Supreme Court justices after promising voters he would choose justices who would overturn Roe.

“Abortion has risen in priority as an issue for Democratic voters since the Trump years, and that’s really important in terms of thinking about what are Democrats’ options in getting voters’ attention,” Wilson says.

Democrats expect the pending Supreme Court decision to fire up their base even more. “The Supreme Court is going to make it relevant. It’s going to end up being a very vivid contrast in most of these races,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic strategist and top pollster for Biden during the 2020 presidential election. “If anything, candidates should be campaigning more on it, not less.”

Read More: Justices Seem Poised to Weaken Roe v. Wade

Lake expects the issue to be particularly effective at mobilizing young women voters and suburban women Baby Boomers—another key demographic that Democrats hope to reach—because the older women remember a time before Roe v. Wade. “That’s not a totally idle threat in their mind,” she says.

In any midterm election, the party not in power typically has the upper hand. And Republicans who oppose abortion are certainly hoping the Supreme Court’s decision will motivate their own supporters to vote on the issue this year. But Sean Trende, senior election analyst at RealClearPolitics and a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, agrees that the abortion issue could present a problem for Republicans. “Especially in these suburban areas where Republicans are trying to make a comeback, it could be a challenging scenario,” Trende says.

The challenges for Democrats, meanwhile, will include keeping voters’ attention on the issue, convincing them that the situation is as urgent as activists say, and making people care about the topic even if they don’t live in a state that is currently restricting access to abortion. A poll of 1,500 voters at the end of last year from Planned Parenthood, Emily’s List and American Bridge, which support abortion rights, found that while most voters supported keeping Roe v. Wade, just 33% believed the Supreme Court would really overturn the decision.

Read More: States Push New Abortion Bans, Preempting the Supreme Court

An evolving issue

In the past months, Republican-controlled states have rushed to pass aggressive laws limiting abortion before the Supreme Court rules. Several states are moving bills modeled on Texas’ six-week ban, with Idaho and Oklahoma likely to pass such bans soon, and other states including Florida, Arizona, and West Virginia are aiming to pass laws banning abortion after 15 weeks. Democrats note that abortion opponents don’t want to stop there. If the Supreme Court does overturn Roe, about half the states would outlaw abortion immediately or quickly, and more could then pass new laws restricting it further.

“It’s not going to be hard to close that believability gap because we see it happening in real time,” says Jacqueline Ayers, senior vice president of policy, organizing, and campaigns at Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “Now we are in a place where people are able to see state legislators are actively working to remove people’s access. It’s no longer a Texas issue. It’s multiple states.”

Abortion rights advocates argue that these potential outcomes make it even more important for the White House and Democrats at all levels to focus on the issue of reproductive rights.

“Republicans stand for totally banning abortion with no exceptions. No legal abortion. That’s not a popular stance in any state in the country,” says Kristin Ford, vice president of communications and research at NARAL. “Being really clear and bold about how to communicate to the American public about what’s happening and what the solutions are is also going to become just increasingly important.”

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com