DIGEST November 2022

US elections, Abortion and Gen Z

Something very interesting and heartening just happened in the United States in the November 2022 midterm elections: abortion rights moved young, Gen Z (currently aged 18–29) voters to the polls. Is this the only issue young people care about? No, it isn’t. But in an exit poll conducted by ABC News on Election Day, 44 percent of Gen Z voters named abortion as their top issue—twice as many as those who picked inflation, in second place.

As a result, the 2022 midterms saw a 27% turnout among 18-29-year-olds, second only to the record 2018 midterm turnout of 31%. This is in contrast to the 20% youth turnout that was the norm in the 2000s and 2010s. In a number of battleground states (Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), youth turnout reached 31%. And because 63% of Gen Z voters chose the Democratic Party, with 89% of Black youth and 68% of Latino youth choosing a Democrat for the House of Representatives, this high turnout helped block the “red wave” that many had expected.

Gen Z turnout was the key factor in many races

Clearly, young people, and especially young women, did not take kindly to the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision in Dobbs that annulled their constitutional right to abortion. They were outraged that, in the words of the dissenting justices in Dobbs, “As of today, young women will come of age with fewer rights than their mothers and grandmothers had.” They were worried, enraged and mobilized. Young Black women led the charge.

Gen Z made their views clear in the midterm elections

They were the young women who registered to vote in droves, even while pundits like MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell opined that abortion was “fading” as a voter concern in the months after Dobbs. They were the young people who consistently told journalists that while student debt relief was important to them, it was abortion rights that were motivating them to vote. Erin Moore, 25, of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, summarized it this way: “I went into school as an undergrad expecting to never pay off my student loan debt, but the women’s right to choose directly affects me and my family and people I care about.” (So much to unpack in that comment about lifelong student debt! If you are not living in the US, I realize lifelong student debt makes no sense to you.) They were the numerous University of Michigan students who waited for hours in the cold to vote, with the last one casting his ballot at 2:05 a.m.

As a result of this mobilization, in Michigan, as in California and Vermont, abortion rights will now be enshrined in the state constitution, while in conservative Kentucky and Montana, voters rejected anti-abortion constitutional amendments even while otherwise voting for Republicans. In swing or purple states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, young voters also helped ensure the governor will be a Democrat.

Right-wing commentators have noticed what happened, and are rushing to offer “solutions” to this “problem”:

Put a ring on it, say Fox News commentators

Yeah, that is going to work—NOT!

As someone who watches abortion politics closely, I had a sense the end of Roe would be a key factor. The August 2022 vote in Kansas, where a resounding 59% of voters defeated a proposition to strip abortion rights from the state constitution, was not an aberration. Young women in Kansas registered to vote in significant numbers ahead of that vote. But over the summer and fall, abortion still didn’t seem to be taken seriously by mainstream media pundits, who kept their focus on economic issues as the true concerns of voters going into the midterms. They even did not understand it as a key issue after Tuesday’s results became clear.

Mainstream media may be catching on...

Or are they?!

Most pre-election polls also got it badly wrong. Clearly, young people in the US don’t answer their phones to speak to pollsters. And even if they did, why would they tell a stranger what they intend to do about abortion, in this age of surveillance and denunciation of partners, family members and neighbors? Measures like SB8, the Texas law that allows someone to collect a $10,000 cash “bounty” if they successfully sue anyone who has helped a person get an illegal abortion, certainly would deter many from answering questions from unknown persons about their views on abortion. But it clearly has not stopped Gen Z from mobilizing and voting.

I was not alone in thinking abortion rights would be an important motivator in these elections: other abortion rights and feminist activists spoke about this extensively over the last few months. Dobbs was a thunderclap. Losing a fundamental right does focus the mind.

Yet, true to form, Senator Bernie Sanders published an op-ed in the Guardian on October 10th entitled Democrats shouldn’t focus only on abortion in the midterms. That’s a mistake, and campaigned on that theme. That Democrats could have better touted their significant economic achievements during the past two years—from infrastructure to student debt relief, from microchip production to investment in green energy technology—is a fair point. But at which point in this campaign were Democrats focusing only on abortion? It does suggest that, for a certain group of political figures and commentators (older, white, male), any mention of abortion is always too much.

This line of argument also disregards the overwhelming evidence that abortion is in fact an economic issue, as discussed in the July 2022 FMUS Digest review of the Turnaway Study on abortion in the US. Pregnant persons who are denied abortions face significant financial hardship, as do their existing children. They experience a decrease in employment and an increase in household poverty that lasts four years on average. Five years after being denied an abortion, these people still have difficulty paying for food, housing and transportation. Their credit score takes a hit, their level of debt increases, and they are more likely to go bankrupt and be evicted. These economic consequences are most significant for those who are already facing hardship: half of those who seek abortions in theUS every year are already living in poverty. Having a child you can’t afford to take care of IS a huge economic issue!

Unfortunately, in some states, the roadblocks to youth voting put in place by state legislators were effective. Bucking the trend, Texas saw a lower youth turnout than other states. SB1, the misnamed “Election Integrity Law” passed in September 2021 by the Texas Legislature, added to previous restrictions targeting student voters. SB1 specifically stopped 24-hour early voting and drive-in voting, which had been beneficial to students who hold a job and to shift workers. The law tightened the rules to vote by mail, thus forcing a number of students to go home to vote (Texas is a big state!). Earlier legislation had already disqualified student ID cards as a form of voter identification and forbade temporary early voting sites on campuses. As a result, only 50% of Texas’ 36 publicuniversities, and only 20% of Texas’ nine historically Black colleges and universities had an on-campus early voting location in 2022. Election authorities also removed Election Day polling locations from several college campuses. The bottom line: young people are more engaged than ever, so the Republican Party is actively suppressing their vote.

Of course, there are Gen Z voters who are staunchly anti-abortion. In a short article published in the Atlantic in January 2022, journalist Christian Paz described the Anti-Abortion Movement’s Gen-Z Victors, the young Catholic or evangelical students who attend the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington, DC. Paz was surprised by how young the participants in the march actually are. I saw the same contingent on December 1, 2021, in front of the Supreme Court of the United States during the oral arguments in Dobbs: lots of young white women who have no idea that, even if they reject abortion, they will still need competent obstetric and gynecological care.

Liberty University students calling for Roe to be overturned as the Supreme Court heard arguments in Dobbs, December 1, 2021, Washington DC
Evangelical young women in front of the Supreme Court, December 1, 2021, Washington DC

University departments of obstetrics and gynecology in the 13 US states that have effectively banned abortion are currently weighing whether to send their medical students out-of-state for training in how to safely empty the content of a uterus: a critical skill for an obstetrician, vital to managing miscarriage, handling pregnancy complications and saving the lives of pregnant persons. Without that, they will simply not be accredited to practice as ob-gyns. Nearly half of all trainees in obstetrics and gynecology are currently in states that make it potentially illegal to train in the procedure. The likely result: fewer trained ob-gyns in the US.

The US already has the highest rate of death in pregnancy and childbirth amongst rich countries. Not coincidentally, the US states that have banned abortions are exactly those that offer the least support to pregnant persons and that have the highest maternal mortality figures. Being pregnant in the United States will only become more dangerous, especially for poor and Black people.

The results of this election make it clear that we cannot shy away from abortion access. In fact, a sizeable majority of American voters—in red (Republican-majority) or blue (Democratic-majority) states—have made clear once again that they want abortion to remain accessible and legal. As activist Renee Bracey Sherman, founder of We Testify, the organization that supports people to tell their abortion stories, put it, the time for euphemisms is over: “Everyone loves someone who has had an abortion!”

If you are in the US and want to invest in young voters and young candidates, contribute to Voters of Tomorrow, TurnUp, and the New Georgia Project (Democrats still have to win the December 6th election runoff in Georgia to return Raphael Warnock to the US Senate! I just made my contribution).

In youthful feminist solidarity,