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The Anti-Abortion Demographic Gap


Images of the 25 Alabama state senators who voted for their new controversial abortion law have spread far and wide on social media this week. The fact that there is not a woman among them has led some abortion rights supporters to say this is a case of men telling women what they can and can't do with their bodies. Alabama is not alone. Missouri passed a similar bill today.

Debbie Walsh runs the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She sees a pattern in the people behind these abortion bills.

DEBBIE WALSH: This basically falls out along party lines. And women are very underrepresented on the Republican side. If we look at all of the women state legislators in the country, about 70% of them are Democrats. The lack of women's representation on the Republican side is a part of this conversation.

CORNISH: At the same time, the Alabama bill was sponsored in the State House by Terri Collins, a Republican woman. It was signed into law by a woman. Can you talk about how this squares with the criticism of the bill?

WALSH: Well, I think it's important to remember women are not monolithic. Women span the ideological perspectives. And in the South, Republican women tend to be quite conservative.

CORNISH: And, of course, this follows a long history of women who are anti-abortion - right? - in politics.

WALSH: Yes. I mean, I think what you saw in this particular case was extreme and particularly punitive. And I don't want to lump all Republican women in the South in this basket because we saw an example just recently in South Carolina of a Republican woman who is pro-life. But when a bill was coming up in her legislature, she spoke up and told her personal story of being a victim of rape. She thought that there needed to be an exception for rape and incest. It matters to have more women in the room. And it matters to have these experiences at the table.

CORNISH: I'm curious how this affects the overall debate. Watching the response to the bill being passed on social media and elsewhere, there's a lot of conversation about the fact that there are men who are passing these bills. Does that kind of give the other side a rallying point?

WALSH: Well, I think what it does is it raises this issue. I think it becomes problematic when the voices and the face of these bills are older white men making decisions about women's lives. And I think it becomes an issue that the other side can absolutely use and capitalize on.

CORNISH: What's the response then to the idea that, look, these are legislators who have the support of their voters, right? They are in office because of men and women voters in Alabama.

WALSH: Right. If you're going to have a piece of legislation this extreme, you would be much more surprised if it were coming from a state like New Jersey or Massachusetts or Rhode Island. But it's coming from a state like Alabama, where there is a high level of evangelical Christians, white Republicans, who dominate the legislature. And this is in line. Now, this is more extreme than we have seen and will likely be struck down, but it is not surprising to see this coming from a state like Alabama.

CORNISH: So when people talk about the idea of a backlash, an electoral backlash maybe in 2020, is this just on the progressive side? How do you see this playing out?

WALSH: I think this will play out on the progressive side, on the Democratic side. We have seen an engagement of women at levels that we haven't seen before. It started in 2016. And this kind of legislation that we saw coming out of Alabama is only going to keep women engaged and involved to work for candidates and to contribute to candidates and possibly run for office themselves so that they can have a voice in the political process, and when decisions like this are being made, to make sure they are at the table themselves.

CORNISH: Debbie Walsh is director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Thank you for speaking with us.

WALSH: No problem. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.