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The threat to abortion rights could mobilize young voters, Democratic leaders hope


A broad, multigenerational coalition of voters powered Democratic victories in the 2018 midterms and the 2020 presidential election. But with six months to go until this year's midterms, younger voters have soured on Democrats. Some party leaders hope that the prospect of a Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade could re-energize them. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: After a draft opinion suggested that the Supreme Court could overturn Roe v. Wade, President Biden and other Democrats called on voters to elect pro-abortion rights elected officials in November. For Arekia Bennett-Scott, those words fell flat.

AREKIA BENNETT-SCOTT: It didn't feel like an urgency for the White House, a fight that they want to, like, get out in front of.

SUMMERS: Bennett-Scott is the executive director of Mississippi Votes, a youth advocacy group. Her state's only abortion provider is at the center of the case that could strike down the landmark law.

BENNETT-SCOTT: The rest of the country is going to wake up in Mississippi the day Roe v. Wade is overturned.

SUMMERS: Democrats are hoping the news will give them momentum in the fight for control of Congress, where the party is defending slim majorities. And Biden is facing diminished enthusiasm among a number of key groups, including the young voters he overwhelmingly won in 2020. Polling shows that most young people oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade. This is Laphonza Butler, the head of Emily's List.

LAPHONZA BUTLER: We have got to, in my opinion, connect these generations so that the experiences of pre-Roe v. Wade can be made much more clear and tangible to young voters, you know, who haven't lived a time without Roe v. Wade being the law of the land.

NICOLE HENSEL: While young people today may not have technically lived without Roe on the books, that doesn't mean that young people don't know what it feels like to live without access to abortion.

SUMMERS: That's Nicole Hensel. She's the executive director of New Era Colorado.

HENSEL: This fight is about power. It's about control and the ability to control other people's bodies. And that is something that young people are very fearful of and also energized to resist.

SUMMERS: But she also said that while the prospect of the Supreme Court striking down Roe is launching young people to action, that action doesn't always equal voting. It could mean things like protesting, having conversations with family members or people in their communities, getting involved at the local level.

HENSEL: If we want young people to mobilize for the midterms, then politicians can't pay lip service to these issues. They need to show that they're willing to take bold action.

SUMMERS: Hensel said she wants to see the Senate vote to codify abortion rights into law, something the Senate plans to hold a vote on next week. The legislation does not have the support to be enacted.

MELISSA STIEHLER: There's a lot of anger and distrust in political institutions right now, but we know that we can't cede that ground.

SUMMERS: That's Melissa Stiehler, the advocacy director for Loud Light, a Kansas-based organization focused on engaging young people. In Kansas, the right to an abortion is currently protected by the state's constitution. But that could change in August, when the state's voters have their say on a constitutional amendment. She says young voters are looking for unapologetic leadership.

STIEHLER: Every poll shows that the majority of voters do not want Roe overturned, and that is more real than ever. These are not hypothetical things.

SUMMERS: And, facing headwinds in the midterms, Democrats will need a message that can mobilize these young voters to the polls in November. Juana Summers, NPR News.


Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.