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Story Publication logo May 15, 2024

Is America's Stance on Abortion a Clear-Cut Issue?

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W&M students developed reporting and writing skills with the support of Pulitzer Center staff.

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Ari Faber speaking at a protest at the courthouse in Athens, Ohio, in October of 2022. Image by Jenna Keiffer. United States.

If you asked Amanda Collins if she would run for office as a pro-choice Democrat when she first moved in 2008 to Knoxville, Tennessee, she would have shaken her head. Born into a Southern Baptist, politically conservative family, she grew up in a small city in Alabama. As a child, women in her community pressured her to believe getting an abortion was disrespectful to God.

"The message to youth was very much that abortion is only something for 'loose' women who don't plan ahead, like a form of birth control," Collins said.

Throughout her life, as she moved to different states to pursue her education and career, Collins encountered friends' stories about fertility and pregnancy complications. Many of these complications resulted in abortion procedures. What Collins learned prompted her to reflect on her personal beliefs. Over the years, her attitude towards abortion shifted. She now views abortion services as healthcare—even if just for the pregnant person's mental health and well-being.

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"I continue to be a person of faith," Collins said. "I just have gotten to know a God bigger than the one I was introduced to."

Roe v. Wade was U.S. law for nearly half a century until 2022. It established abortion access as a constitutional right. Roe governed reproductive rights until the Supreme Court overturned it in the 2022 landmark case Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization and paved the way for states to ban abortions. Now, 21 states ban or restrict the procedure earlier in pregnancy than the standard set by Roe v. Wade. One of the states, Tennessee, immediately passed a trigger ban after the Dobbs ruling, completely banning all abortions with no exceptions, except for extreme medical emergencies. The radical limits on abortion run counter to the attitude of most Tennessee voters, who believe there should be exceptions, according to a 2023 Vanderbilt poll. This attitude prevails outside the major cities: 70 percent of rural Tennesseans supported exceptions to the ban. These restrictions mobilized a wave of political participation by women, with those affected aiming to restore abortion access, or at least reinstate exceptions.

Collins ran for office as a pro-choice state representative for Knoxville in 2022. She was one of the first people to run for office on a campaign that focused on reproductive health services in Tennessee. A vital issue of her campaign was preserving abortion access—a matter deeply personal to her due to her experience with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a genetic disorder where the ovaries produce too much of the male hormone androgen. This hormone imbalance can cause pregnancy complications, which is exactly what Collins had to endure with her second and third pregnancies.

Because Collins was among the earliest candidates to respond to the Dobbs decision by pursuing public office, she faced an uphill battle and collected only 36% of the vote against the Republican incumbent Jason Zachary, who had held the legislative seat for nine years. In April 2024, a bill sponsored by Zachary making it a felony for adults to help pregnant minors get an out-of-state abortion without parental permission passed in the Tennessee Statehouse. If signed by Governor Bill Lee (R), Tennessee will become the second state in the nation to make it illegal for adults, like neighbors, aunts, or grandparents, to help minors get an abortion without parental consent.

A growing disconnect between lawmakers who make abortion access virtually unavailable and voters who believe in a woman’s right to choose when and if to give birth has become a potent political mobilizing force. According to a March 2024 KFF poll, voters are now putting abortion in the limelight. Despite losing to Zachary in 2022, Collins is running again this year. And she’s not the only one. Among the new wave of pro-choice candidates are Allie Phillips, who is running for the Tennessee House after being denied an abortion procedure in 2022 for her failing pregnancy, and Domonica Bryan, who is also running as a pro-choice Democratic senate candidate. Bryan always identified as a Democrat, but when she first moved to Knoxville in 2008, she felt alone because of how conservative the city seemed compared to her home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"But when the Dobbs decision came down, I was like, 'Oh my goodness, there's a Democrat here, and there's a Democrat there!'" she said.

Tennessee's total ban on abortions led Bryan to run for office because of her personal experience 10 years ago when she needed life-saving care after a miscarriage, which counts as an abortion procedure. She said the Dobbs decision seemed to activate many "hidden" Democrats, and even Republican women. This shift gave her confidence to run for office this year.

In 2022, shortly before the leak of the Dobbs decision ahead of its official announcement, a Pew Research study found there were only modest gender differences on the survey’s questions about abortion’s legality. After Americans learned of the decision and witnessed subsequent bans, Pew Research indicated that most women (62%) disapproved of the decision to end the federal right to an abortion. More than twice as many women strongly disapproved of the court’s decision (47%) as strongly approved (21%). These polls reflect the expanding gender gap. Historically, over past decades, men and women have supported and opposed abortion at equal rates.

"The obvious explanation for that is religion," said Patty Stokes, professor of Women's Gender and Sexuality studies at Ohio University.

"Women tend to have somewhat higher levels of religiosity. So, when you look at who's been sort of the troops of the anti-abortion movement, it has been overwhelmingly conservative, religious women."

However, in November 2023, after Issue 1 passed in Ohio to protect abortion access in the state constitution, exit polling by CNN revealed a seven-point gender gap, with women voting "yes" in higher numbers than men.

Stokes attributes the increased sympathy towards abortion access among women to media coverage highlighting stories of people needing to get abortions for failing pregnancies. She also explains that personal experiences with daughters, friends, and neighbors make people more empathetic.

"My Republican sister is much more conservative than I am," Stokes said. "But when Dobbs came down, she told her college-aged daughter that she should tell all her friends that if they needed to get an abortion, 'we will help them with transportation, we will help them pay for an airplane ticket, and we will take care of it.'"

Beyond the increased sympathy among women, rural Democrats are shaping up as a powerful, albeit previously overlooked force in mobilizing votes to protect abortion access. In the 2022 midterm elections, rural Democrats helped candidates win in areas where Republicans have generally done well. Even in states where Democratic candidates didn’t win, they still proved to be competitive.

In November 2023, rural voters helped pass Issue 1 in Ohio. Significant effort was concentrated in Athens, a progressive town in the center of Ohio’s rural Appalachian region. Through door knocking, phone banking, and a yard sign campaign, volunteers in Athens brought visibility and identity to the 653,000 Democratic voters in the surrounding rural areas, whose representation is obscured by Ohio's heavily gerrymandered district lines. In fact, in 2022, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that state Republicans violated the constitution for proposing a congressional map that prevents fair representation.

On a state map, Athens looks like a blue dot in a sea of red. Thanks to Ohio University’s liberal student body, Athens has reliably been a progressive hub in rural southeast Ohio. Following the overthrow of Roe v. Wade, Athens roared alive with protests and petitions as residents mobilized to put the abortion issue on the ballot. Even residents of surrounding rural counties flocked into town on Saturdays at farmers' markets to put their names on the petition.

The proposed abortion ban in Ohio drew these voters to the polls in large enough numbers to edge out the opposition—56% to 43% statewide.

Ohio isn't the only example, though.

"My home state—Kansas—is the classic farm state, and they beat Ohio to the punch," said Katherine Jellison, an Ohio University history and politics professor. Two months before the Ohio referendum, in August 2022, voters in Kansas decided to keep abortion legal, rejecting a proposed amendment heavily restricting the procedure.

"My sister lives there, and she sensed that the abortion bans were considered too extreme, even by Republican women in rural Kansas,” Jellison explained. “This wasn't some kind of political manipulation. It was, 'Hey, this is how people feel.'"

One of the many volunteers involved in phone banking was Ari Faber. In the months leading up to the Issue 1 election, he worked with the organization Ohio Woman's Alliance trying to reach 400 voters every night, five nights a week. The volunteers initially focused on contacting young women of color and, eventually, Republican voters. Through a few of his conversations with conservative voters, he sensed some frustration towards the Republican Party for imposing such strict limitations.

"I see the Libertarian Party growing a lot,” Faber said. “I talk to more people all the time who tell me they're Libertarian, more than I ever remember," he said.

Faber's roots lie in rural, conservative Ohio. Raised in New Lexington, a rural village 35 miles from Athens, his first college dismissed him for identifying with the LGBTQ+ community. After finding a haven at Ohio University, Faber has since thrown himself into nonprofit work, like cooking weekly free meals and helping individuals apply for housing assistance as outreach director for the university's United Campus Ministry.

Faber believes the main reason Issue 1 passed is the extreme nature of the proposed abortion ban, which didn't include exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

"Surprisingly, my Southern Baptist grandmother voted 'yes' precisely because of the six-week abortion," he said.

"She was the victim of childhood sexual abuse. For her, not having exceptions for rape or incest was a very personal thing."

When news of the Dobbs leak broke in 2022, Faber immediately organized a protest on social messaging platforms. Upon realizing that several other people were organizing protests, he joined forces with them to create the group Athenians for Bodily Autonomy (ABA). As one of ABA's founding members, Faber has helped people who traveled from areas like West Virginia (where abortion is banned) and directed them to abortion care in Columbus, Ohio (where the nearest clinic is located). 

Faber has now become a prominent figure in Athens and is challenging Republican incumbent Brian Chavez for a seat in the Ohio Senate in the November 2024 election. His experience working at non-profits has shown him that they can't tackle the systemic issues facing Americans alone.

"At best, we are slapping band-aids on missing limbs, and I'm realizing that the only way to make a more equitable and just society is through policy," he said. "That's why I decided to run."

Abortion access is a decisive issue that voters—no matter their political party or geographical location—care about. Rural America does not necessarily mean pro-life America; a 2022 YouGov poll on rural battleground voters showed the most important policy voters look for in a candidate is whether they’re pro-choice. And Americans have protected abortion access every time it's been on the ballot, from swing states like Ohio and Michigan to deeply red states like Montana and Kansas.

So while biases may lean toward seeing the abortion issue as deeply unpopular in rural America or even among Republicans, trends from these past two years after the Dobbs decision show that support for reproductive rights is not as clear cut as simple red-blue divides. 

"Democrats should not just write off rural America," said Jellison.


Three women grouped together: an elderly woman smiling, a transwoman with her arms folded, and a woman holding her headscarf with a baby strapped to her back.


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