Abortion rights activists look to VP Kamala Harris for help in midterm election fight

As a vocal supporter of reproductive rights who has close relationships with activists, Harris is emerging as a key leader for Democrats on Roe v. Wade

WASHINGTON – Vice President Kamala Harris did not set out to become the voice of women across the country fighting to preserve abortion access.

But as a vocal supporter of reproductive rights who has close relationships with liberal women’s groups, the nation’s first female vice president has naturally emerged as the Democratic Party’s most significant leader on one of the country’s most sensitive political issues. 

Democratic strategists and abortion rights activists closely aligned with the White House say that Harris – who has a history of working on the issue that dates back to her time as California attorney general – can elevate and give direction to the left’s efforts to make reproductive rights a voting issue in the midterm elections.

“I can't think of another more important, pressing issue for the vice president to take on,” former Harris communications director Ashley Etienne said. “She has that opportunity to go out and make that case that we have to be very vigilant about protecting and defending not just our rights, but our democracy.”

The potential for Republican legislators across the country to pass measures that effectively ban most abortions, or substantially curtail access, is so significant that Democrats say even a partial reversal of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court could have a big impact on turnout in the midterms.

They say that with Harris leading the charge against new restrictions on abortion, the party may be able to energize its base, including women, people of color and young Americans whose loyalty has wavered since President Joe Biden took office.

“We know women of color in particular are disproportionately affected and will be disproportionately affected by abortion bans and what we're going to see out of the court,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Mini Timmaraju said. “She’s got a unique voice as a result to really mobilize a critical constituency that we need to get excited about the midterm elections.” 

White House allies are developing a message they hope will resonate broadly with voters. They have already begun to cast the Supreme Court’s draft ruling as an affront to not only women but also to same-sex couples, whose rights they say could be under threat next, and low-income Americans, who may not have the means to access safe and legal abortion outside their home states.

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks at the Emily's List National Conference and Gala, Tuesday, May 3, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) ORG XMIT: DCPS129

Harris’ argument has been two-pronged: every American’s legal rights to privacy and self-determination will be put in jeopardy if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade.

“At its core, Roe recognizes the fundamental right to privacy,” Harris said in May at an EMILY’s List gala. “When the right to privacy is attacked, anyone in our country may face a future where the government can interfere with their personal decisions – not just women; anyone.”

Inside the White House, the president’s Gender Policy Council Director Jennifer Klein has been coordinating the administration’s response to the consequential opinion, which the Supreme Court is expected to issue later this month. 

Klein has been working closely with the Health and Human Services and Justice departments. She held a series of listening sessions on the issue last month with LGBTQ+ activists, state legislators and reproductive rights groups. Klein hosted the latter meeting alongside Harris’ domestic policy adviser, Rohini Kosoglu. 

Abortion rights is not officially part of Harris’ portfolio. She did not ask for the president to assign the issue to her, White House officials said, and Biden has not tasked her with leading that effort. But the vice president has served as the White House’s most public facing advocate on the issue.

It was Harris who outlined the White House’s reproductive rights strategy last week in anticipation of the Supreme Court’s coming opinion. She said in a video that the administration would keep up the pressure on Congress to codify Roe. 

“And we will continue to use all available options when the court rules,” Harris pledged. “Our collective charge in this moment is to fight for the health, safety and well-being of all women with everything we’ve got.”

Harris also met with faith leaders about reproductive rights during a trip to Los Angeles earlier this week. She had a conversation last month with abortion rights providers, whom she met with virtually at the White House. The vice president held a similar roundtable in September with advocates after the Supreme Court allowed Texas to ban most abortions after six weeks and empower private citizens to sue abortion providers.

Amy Everitt, a former NARAL Pro-Choice California president and volunteer on Harris’ first district attorney campaign, stressed in an interview that Harris’ advocacy around the issue is not new. 

“She's always been a champion of everybody being able to thrive, and so, of course, she's going to be talking about this right now,” Everitt said.

Harris urged the Supreme Court in an amicus brief she co-authored as California’s attorney general not to provide religious exemptions to for-profit businesses that opposed the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate. The court ultimately ruled in favor of exemptions for privately owned companies.

In that same role, Harris also fought to require crisis pregnancy centers to inform their clients of all their available options, including abortion, as was required by California law at the time. The Supreme Court invalidated the measure while Harris was serving in the U.S. Senate.

Democrats said Harris’ prior experience prepared her to lead the national fight for abortion access in the midterm elections.

“The most effective person that can go on the road for us at this juncture is someone who happens to be a former attorney general whose job was to protect our rights,” Voto Latino president and EMILY’s List board member Maria Teresa Kumar said. “She understands these nuances and can communicate them in a way that reminds people that there’s a political malaise of what’s happening but the erosion of our rights is very real.”

Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-abortion rights group the Susan B. Anthony List, said that Harris’ abortion rights advocacy will be ineffective, because she has staked out the “most extreme version” of her political party’s argument.

“The fact that she's a woman talking about this doesn't mitigate the damage that they're doing,” Dannenfelser said. “Damage to the country, and damage to their cause.”

Harris blasted Republican lawmakers as “extremists” in remarks at the Capitol after a May vote to enshrine Roe’s abortion protections into federal law failed in the Senate. She said the vote, which she had presided over in her role as president of the Senate makes clear that “a priority should be to elect pro-choice leaders at the local, the state, and the federal level.” 

Biden and Harris have both warned that if Roe is overturned, Republican legislators across the nation could attempt to rollback federal protections for same-sex matrimony and contraception access.

“Some Republican leaders – they want to take us back to a time before Roe v. Wade, back to a time before Obergefell v. Hodges, back to a time before Griswold v. Connecticut,” Harris told attendees of an EMILY’s List  gala the day after the Supreme Court opinion leaked. “But we’re not going back.”

EMILY’s List president and Harris confidant Laphonza Butler said the gala gave Americans the chance “to see the Kamala Harris that I have known for the last decade.”

“And I think America is understanding the vigilant champion that she has been on the rights and freedoms of women and abortion in particular,” Butler said.

Harris’ close personal relationships with abortion rights leaders, including Butler, will make her a significant asset to the White House as it navigates the post-Roe political and policy environments, Democratic strategist and NARAL board member Karen Finney said.

“She is someone standing up in this moment who has both a platform and the depth of knowledge and body of work and relationships with the movement to be a critically important leader and a leader for the administration,” Finney said.

As a practicing Catholic, Biden’s personal and political views on abortion are more complicated. He supported a ban on the use of federal funding for most abortion services – a provision known as the Hyde Amendment – for much of his career but changed his position on the issue before the election. He has been a vocal advocate for abortion rights as president.

Everitt said that Biden can “absolutely be a leading voice” on the issue. “He doesn’t get a pass because this has been an uncomfortable issue for him in the past,” she said. 

“But I do think that it is smart politics and smart everything else to have Kamala lead on this and be the authentic voice on it,” Everitt added.