Abortion rights activists are taking the fight to the state level

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Anti-abortion activists marched on Washington, but abortion rights groups see the action in the states

While supporters of the Supreme Court decision that ended federal abortion rights descended on Washington last week, the other side of the ideological spectrum converged on another capitol city: Madison, Wisconsin.

Ahead of what would be the 50th anniversary of the landmark ruling Roe v. Wade, anti-abortion activists rallied at the national Capitol for the March for Life. Just days later, the national Women’s March, an organization supporting abortion rights that was founded following the 2016 election of President Donald Trump, moved from its usual spot in Washington to Wisconsin, a sign that the states are now the front lines for the fight over abortion access.

“The road to federal action around the issue of abortion is pretty blocked right now,” said Women’s March Executive Director Rachel O’Leary Carmona. “So, where we have seen the future is the ballot initiatives and elections that are happening in the state.” Over the weekend, there were also local “sister marches” across the country, all with the rallying cry “Bigger than Roe.”

In Congress, the issue is at a stalemate. Earlier this month, the Republican-led House passed two abortion-related measures, but with Democrats in control of the Senate, it’s unlikely they will be taken up. After the Supreme Court ended federal abortion rights, the absence of a national standard has created a muddy picture of abortion access across the country — some states have been adding restrictions, while others have looked to expand access.

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In Wisconsin, there’s a high-stakes election on the radar. This spring, the state will hold an election for a new Wisconsin Supreme Court justice, and the outcome will determine the ideological balance of the court, which could ultimately determine the future of abortion access. After the Dobbs v. Jackson decision, abortion providers in Wisconsin stopped providing care because “the enforcement status of the state’s pre-Roe ban is unclear,” according to the Guttmacher Institute. There’s an ongoing court case challenging the ban. Carmona said this election could potentially be considered a referendum on the state’s abortion ban.

Typically, political groups organize with the presidential election as the priority, and races further down the ballot for state and local office benefit from the residual enthusiasm. But Carmona told Grid that the traditional approach no longer works. Instead, the organization is looking to focus heavily on down-ballot elections, like the Wisconsin Supreme Court race.

“I think that we would see that that momentum builds a grassroots base that is much more sustainable and powerful than the kind of trickle-down organizing that we’ve been trying to do,” she said.

This past Friday, the abortion rights group NARAL announced a new initiative aimed at mobilizing voters and supporters over the next year in states where it has already established grassroots efforts, like Arizona, California, Georgia, Michigan and Nevada.

Angela Vasquez-Giroux, NARAL’s vice president of communications and research, told Grid that the organization is focused on both “threats and opportunities.” The threats refer to states that are looking to pass restrictions on abortion, like Georgia, while the “opportunities” are places where abortion access is being expanded, like Michigan and California.

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“We knew coming in that we couldn’t allow whatever momentum we were building as a movement to fall off after the election,” Vasquez-Giroux said. “We put a lot of time and energy and thought and money into making sure we could connect with the voters. … One of the silliest things we could possibly do is then just light that on fire by not talking to them again.”

Vice President for Communications at EMILY’s List Christina Reynolds noted that after Dobbs, where an individual lives determines their access to abortion.

She said that although the issue of abortion may not be at the top of mind for everyone the way it was right after the Supreme Court decision, it is for individuals in states where access to abortion is still in limbo. EMILY’s List is an organization that works to elect female Democratic candidates who support abortion rights. Reynolds added, “For the people in the states where … they’re still trying to vote away your rights, you know, it absolutely matters.”

“We think this is still an issue across the country and up and down the ballot,” Reynolds told Grid.

Thanks to Lillian Barkley for copy editing this article.