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Frustration at Biden and other Democrats grows among abortion-rights supporters

Abortion rights demonstrator Elizabeth White leads a chant in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.
Brandon Bell
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Getty Images
Abortion rights demonstrator Elizabeth White leads a chant in response to the Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization ruling in front of the U.S. Supreme Court on June 24, 2022.

The rage among pro-abortion-rights protesters in front of the Supreme Court over the weekend was palpable. Plenty of that anger was aimed at the high court, but there was also quite a bit reserved for Democrats.​

"I'm not hopeful at this point that this is something that will be federally protected. I have as little faith in Democrats at this point as I did in Republicans," Carolyn Yunker said Saturday. She traveled down to the court from her home in D.C.'s Maryland suburbs.​

"Democrats have used this for 50 years to fundraise. They had opportunities to codify Roe," she said. "They chose not to because being the pro-choice candidate in an election helps you raise money. And frankly, I'm pretty disgusted with a lot of our representatives right now."

Since the May leak of Justice Samuel Alito's draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade, Democrats' main message to their voters has been that abortion is on the ballot in November. But many who support abortion rights have been voting, and, like Yunker, they're frustrated that electing Democrats hasn't produced more results.

Stalled in the Senate

In the fall, House Democrats did pass a bill that would have made Roe's protections federal law. But it failed in the Senate in May, where it would need 60 votes to overcome a filibuster.

Some abortion rights supporters want the Senate to blow up the filibuster, but Democrats haven't unified behind that idea, and President Joe Biden hasn't pushed for it. He has also resisted calls to expand the court.

Biden is the leader of the party that supports abortion rights, but since the ruling, his visibility as part of the response has been limited. Immediately after the ruling, he gave a statement, but the White House also canceled the daily press briefing, and he left for a major summit in Europe.

His fellow Democrats are not satisfied. Over the weekend, 34 senators urged Biden in a letter to lead a national response.

A White House official emphasized that the administration will support medication abortion and cited dozens of discussions with abortion-rights stakeholders. The White House also says policy action is coming this week.

Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Monday afternoon that House Democrats are exploring legislation to protect data on period-tracking apps and protect the right to travel between states. She also said the House may again vote on legislation to codify Roe.

Reproductive rights as 'extra credit'

Long-term change, however, will be the result of more voting. That means winning over new voters like 19-year-old Pryia Thompson, who went to the Supreme Court on Saturday with her grandmother. As a new voter who supports abortion rights, she's feeling ambivalent about her vote.​

"Honestly, I'm just getting started, and all of this is happening, so it's hard to make decisions and know who to vote for, who's really for us," she said.

For years now, the overwhelming majority of Democratic candidates have been running as supporters of abortion rights. With Roe overturned, Democratic candidates like Sarah Godlewski, running for Senate in Wisconsin, will be working to have a stronger message — to tell voters that they truly will prioritize protecting abortion rights if elected.

"This is one of the reasons why I stepped up to run for the U.S. Senate, was that I was getting sick of reproductive freedom being treated like some sort of extra credit project," she said.

While this anger is prominent in the abortion rights movement, there's also an acknowledgement that some supporters grew complacent during the half century that Roe was in effect.

"There is a tendency for people who've had a right to sort of assume that that's the way it is and it won't be challenged," said Aimee Allison, founder of She The People, which promotes women candidates of color. "And even when we heard that the Supreme Court was planning to overturn Roe v. Wade, it didn't sink in for many people that this was actually a threat realized and it was going to have an effect on our lives."

Right now, she's focused on electing Senate candidates who could help eliminate the filibuster and ease the way for abortion protections to pass.

"If we can elect these women of color, we'll have the votes in order to pass the legislation that went through the House and a sitting at the Senate to restore abortion rights and make reproductive justice a reality," she added.

In the short and medium-term, some are focused on abortion access. Laura Kriv was among a small group protesting in front of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's house on Saturday night. ​

"Just like the Janes started this movement years ago and and took it upon themselves to make sure women had safe access to abortion, we're going to have to do the same thing," she said, referring to the Jane Collective that helped women seeking abortions in the 1960s and 1970s. .

Kriv added that that is going to be more of a focus for her than watching what politicians say.

"I'm not going to wait for the politicians. I'm certainly not going to wait for Biden," she said. "I would love it if he would expand the court so that more of our rights aren't taken away. But I'm not going to sit back and wait."

With activists motivated to do so much to protect abortion access right now, it's not clear how much they see voting this November as a solution.

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

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.