WASHINGTON — In a direct challenge to Republicans, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ home turf on Sunday to proclaim her party’s commitment to restoring abortion rights for every American.
Harris intended the defiant speech in Tallahassee, where state legislators last year passed a law outlawing abortions after 15 weeks of gestation, to send an unmistakable signal that Democrats are not ready to give up on access to the procedure for women in red states like Florida.
“The right of every woman in every state in the country to make decisions about her own body is on the line,” Harris told a crowd at the Moon, a concert venue less than two miles from the state Capitol.
Harris spoke on the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Courtruling that protected the legal right to abortion until the high court’s 6-3 conservative majority overturned it last year.
In the seven months since the court overturned Roe, the battle over abortion rights has shifted to statehouses. Republican-led states have swiftly moved to enact new restrictions on the procedure. Some have outlawed it almost entirely. Abortion advocates, clinics and providers are challenging abortion restrictions or bans in court in at least 14 states, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
“We will not back down,” Harris told the crowd. “We know this fight will not be won until we secure this right for every American.”
In Florida, where the state Supreme Court is reviewing a legal challenge to the 15-week abortion ban, antiabortion activists are pushing for further restrictions. Florida abortion providers say they have seen more patients from states such as Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, all of which have stricter bans.
“Florida is at the epicenter of states’ rights for abortion care,” Laura Goodhue, executive director of Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates, told The Times on Saturday as she rode a bus from West Palm Beach to Tallahassee. “There’s still so much risk here.”
Goodhue was one of hundreds of people who traveled across the state to hear Harris speak, with buses coming from Naples, Fort Myers, Orlando and Gainesville, she said. About 1,200 people were in attendance for the speech, according to Harris’ office.
In recent months, the vice president has embraced a role as the face of the Biden administration’s push to preserve abortion access and women’s reproductive rights. She’s met with leaders from 38 states to discuss attacks on reproductive rights and convened nearly 200 state legislators from 18 states to hash out pending legislation, according to a Harris aide.
Democrats view abortion as a pivotal issue heading into 2024 after it lifted the party in key swing states and helped to blunt what some analysts expected to be a red wave in November’s midterm elections.
Midterm voters in Pennsylvania and Michigan — two battleground states — ranked abortion ahead of inflation as their top concern, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts. In five states where abortion was on the ballot, including in more conservative states such as Kentucky and Montana, voters backed abortion protections.
A survey in July found 53% of U.S. adults said they disapproved of the high court’s decision to repeal Roe, compared with 30% of respondents who approved, according to the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.
The challenge for Republicans, White House aides argue, will be how to navigate a national landscape that has tilted in favor of abortion protections. The GOP has struggled to find a unifying message on abortion rights, as right-wing members of the party call for a national ban while moderates remain wary of turning off swing voters.
Antiabortion activists descended on Washington on Friday for the annual March for Life to celebrate victory in their decades-long fight to overturn federal abortion protections. The movement needs to plan “the next steps in a post-Roe era,” House Majority Leader Steve Scalise (R-La.) told the rally.
“States like Florida are at a crossroads,” said a White House official, who was granted anonymity to discuss the vice president’s speech before it was delivered. “Republicans have to decide who they are and Democrats have made clear where they stand.”
DeSantis — a potential 2024 GOP presidential contender — has signaled he’s open to further abortion restrictions but has yet to commit to calls for a further ban on abortions after six weeks, when fetal cardiac activity can be detected. DeSantis’ office did not respond to a request for comment.
Foes of abortion rights insist that their position remains an electoral winner. “Bold pro-life governors like Ron DeSantis who are committed to signing protections for unborn children and their mothers into law… soared to re-election victory by large margins last November,” Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said in a statement ahead of Harris’ speech.
Harris “could not have set up a starker contrast between the radical abortion lobby and the compassion and common sense of the American people,” she added. “We encourage GOP leaders to call out their opponents’ extremism and we will work tirelessly to educate voters during the 2024 election cycle.”
Though President Biden has taken some executive action to protect reproductive rights, the Supreme Court decision on Roe and Republican control of the House of Representatives have left the administration with few options.
Biden will sign a presidential memorandum directing some of his Cabinet members to recommend actions to protect doctors and patients who want to access abortion pills, Harris announced Sunday. Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration finalized a rule allowing women to receive abortion pills by mail in states where the procedure is legal.
Medication abortions account for more than half of all abortions in the U.S., according to the Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. But despite the FDA rule change, some GOP-led states have passed laws requiring a physician to be present when the drugs are dispensed.
Though the new Biden memorandum is nuanced, it is a “bold declaration” on the role the federal government should play in the abortion fight, said Alexis McGill Johnson, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Federal of America.
“There’s no silver bullet out of the situation that we’re in right now … particularly with this Congress,” Johnson said. “But the role of federal government is to make sure that people do not get discriminated against … it is to ensure that no state is allowed to hold any of the rest of us hostage to hostile lawmakers.”
In a statement on Sunday, Biden 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.”
The president also issued a proclamation commemorating the 50th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, despite its repeal.
Harris repeated the administration’s calls for Congress to enshrine abortion protections in federal law. But the Democratic-controlled Senate does not have the votes to pass such legislation, and House Republicans have already used their new majority to pass two antiabortion measures. One of the GOP bills condemns attacks on antiabortion facilities, including crisis pregnancy centers. Another threatens up to five years in prison for doctors who refuse to medically intervene in the extremely rare cases in which a fetus survives an abortion procedure and is born alive. Neither is likely to get a vote in the Senate.