Access Denied

Don’t Count on White Women to Save Abortion Access

While women may be "fired up" over abortion rights, white women consistently vote for their race over gender. Will this time be different?

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The 2022 midterms, just under three weeks away, will be the first national election since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June. Five states (California, Kentucky, Michigan, Montana, and Vermont) literally have abortion on their November ballot, and abortion has been positioned as the defining issue for Democratic candidates, hoping that it will galvanize voters, women in particular, to vote in droves and deliver this tight election to the Democrats.

Women Are So Fired Up to Vote, I’ve Never Seen Anything Like It” reads the headline of an opinion piece at the New York Times. Indeed, women registered to vote in droves after Roe was struck down in June, notably in red states like Kansas and Idaho, and in swing states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Among those women who registered to vote after Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, 55% chose to register with the Democratic Party.

That theory makes sense. Legal abortion is actually quite popular in the U.S.—according to a recent poll from Pew, more than 60% of Americans think abortion should be legal in most cases. The August results in Kansas, in which an anti-abortion ballot measure that would have allowed the state to ban abortion, was defeated by nearly the same percentage. Americans largely believe that abortion should be legal, and since the Republican Party has firmly established itself as the party of abortion bans, logically, abortion should deliver droves of voters to the Democrats, now more than ever.

But that theory is disrupted by one persistent and stubborn reality: Women don’t actually vote as a bloc. There’s been a persistent gender gap in presidential elections—women have gone for the Democratic candidate in every election since Reagan. Yet, if we break down that vote by race, a troubling reality emerges: White women, as a bloc, don’t go for Democrats.

In 2016, Donald Trump carried white women over Hillary Clinton—the first female presidential candidate nominated by a national party—by 16 points. Though it was by a much smaller margin, four points, Trump once again carried white women in 2020. Four years of a Trump administration, including the appointment of three deeply hostile anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court, wasn’t enough to convince white women to abandon Trump. Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment to the Court a mere week before the election clearly sealed Roe v. Wade’s fate, and white women showed up for the Republican Party anyway.

But if we just make the case that abortion is a fundamental women’s rights issue, then the women who support Trump will embrace it, too! is a refrain I hear from more than a few women, and I understand it. It would be a lot easier to get out of this mess if it were that simple, that it was just about explaining it to white women who vote for anti-abortion candidates. If we could only make them see what voting for these candidates does to other women!

Except white women have seen. We continue to see. Abortion access was a dystopian nightmare for marginalized women long before Roe was struck down. The Hyde Amendment has barred federal funding for abortion care since 1976, routinely denying access to abortion to low-income folks. The more than 1,300 abortion restrictions that have been enacted since 1973 have disproportionately affected people of color. Maternal mortality rates for Black women have been at a crisis level for years, up to four times higher than white women. Immigrant women detained by ICE were forcibly sterilized, and incarcerated women have reportedly been forcibly sterilized within the last decade.

Despite all of this, white women, as a bloc, still vote for conservative, racist, anti-choice candidates. White women as a voting bloc have proven, time and again, to prioritize racial privilege over gender solidarity. The issue of abortion isn’t just about abortion—it’s about control, about power, about who gets to reproduce the nation and what that nation will look like. As a voting bloc, white women can’t be relied on to vote in solidarity with Black and brown women, with Indigenous women, with other marginalized women, because the majority of white women aren’t voting as women—they’re voting as white people. It is impossible to disentangle abortion from the broader issue of white supremacy, because restricting and banning abortion is part of a broader white supremacist worldview. The sky high Black maternal mortality rates, the onerous barriers that must be overcome, the ongoing surveillance and criminalization of pregnancy for Black and brown women—they aren’t accidents, but the very point. 

If we want white women as a voting bloc to finally abandon the Republican Party and to embrace access to safe abortion as a fundamental right for everyone with a uterus, rather than white women with means, it will require work much more difficult than explaining that abortion bans hurt women. It will mean challenging and ultimately undoing white supremacy, and convincing white women to abandon that racial privilege in favor of justice and liberation. 

And that will take much longer than the midterm elections will allow.

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