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Inside the Biden Campaign's 'Blame Trump' Strategy on Abortion

Kelsey Lawrence is a 30-year-old mother with four kids living in Front Royal, Virginia. She thought of herself having conservative and libertarian views before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, paving the way for Republicans to pass abortion bans and restrictions in 21 states. Now there’s no question about it: she’s voting for Joe Biden.

“I think every woman should have autonomy over her body,” Lawrence says, as she waits in a concert hall in Manassas, Virginia on Tuesday for a Biden campaign rally to start. On the backdrop of the stage, massive white block letters read “Restore Roe.”

Soon, Biden is at the podium alongside Vice President Kamala Harris and their spouses. When the President pins the fall of Roe on Trump, he seems to be speaking directly to voters like Lawrence. “The person most responsible for taking away this freedom in America is Donald Trump,” Biden said. “The reason women are being forced to travel across state lines for healthcare is Donald Trump.”

The rally—the first event of Biden’s re-election campaign to feature both him and Harris on the same stage—is one piece of a broader strategy to frame abortion access as a clear dividing line between the parties in 2024. A year and a half after the Dobbs decision shook up the political landscape, Republicans are still struggling to respond to the situation.

At a Fox News town hall this month, Trump took credit for getting Roe “terminated” and said he was “proud to have done it.” But he and other top Republicans have offered vague or conflicting answers on whether they would support a national federal ban or other measures that could further restrict access.

Trump “bragged about overturning Roe v. Wade; he bragged about being the most pro-life President, and we are living with the consequences,” says Alexis McGill Johnson, the President and CEO of Planned Parenthood.

Republicans have also overstated Biden’s stance on abortion. The Republican National Committee falsely asserted in a press release this week that Biden supports “abortion-on-demand up until the moment of birth and after.” Biden is pushing to restore the same limits on abortion that were in place for 49 years before Roe was repealed. In order to achieve that, Biden needs Democrats to hold the White House, win back control of the House of Representatives and gain more seats in the Senate.

It’s a tall order, which is why Democrats are devoting much of their messaging to blaming Trump for the current situation and warning of what he might do on the issue if allowed back in power. The strategy includes a new 60-second ad featuring Dr. Austin Dennard, a mother and ob/gyn from Dallas,who found herself unable to terminate her pregnancy in Texas despite having a fetus with a fatal condition that could have put her own life at risk. She ultimately traveled to another state to get an abortion. "In Texas you are forced to carry that pregnancy, and that is because of Donald Trump overturning Roe v. Wade,” Dennsard says in the video. “It’s every woman’s worst nightmare, and it was absolutely unbearable.”

Prominent anti-abortion activists see a second Trump term as an opportunity to further reduce abortion access. Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, wants to see the next President enforce a strict interpretation of the Comstock Act from 1873 that prohibits the shipment of “any drug, medicine, article, or thing designed, adapted, or intended for producing abortion.” Doing so would hobble the ability for doctors that perform abortions to get supplies and medicine needed for the procedure as well as miscarriage management. “I think it should be enforced,” Tobias says. If Trump becomes President, Tobias said she isn’t sure whether or not Trump would enforce the act, which had been obsolete as long as Roe was in place. Trump’s “record would certainly indicate that he would be ready to do it,” she says.

The National Right to Life Committee also wants a future President to use their executive powers to make it easier for medical personnel to choose to not participate in abortions, have the federal government put out information encouraging pregnant women to consider alternatives to abortion such as adoption, and track more information on abortions performed in all 50 states. And she would like to see a national requirement that parents be notified if their minor daughter is pregnant and considering an abortion. Many of those regulations are steps Trump took during his first term, Tobias says.  "I don't think any of those would be considered controversial for him. He's already done it,” she says.

Since the Dobbs decision in 2022, Republicans in state legislatures have passed abortion bans and new restrictions in 21 states, an area where 25 million American women of childbearing age live. A peer-reviewed study published online Wednesday in the medical journal JAMA found that rape resulted in 64,565 pregnancies in 14 U.S. states with near-total abortion bans since Dobbs. Few, if any, of those pregnancies were terminated by legal abortions, the researchers wrote.

Polling suggests Republicans are out of step with American voters on the issue. A Gallup poll in May showed that 61% of Americans think the Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs decision overturning Roe was a “bad thing.” A Wall Street Journal-NORC poll in November found that 55% of Americans believe a woman should be able to obtain a legal abortion for any reason.

Republicans geared up for a “red wave” midterm election in 2022, but their victories fell short of expectations. Polls in Pennsylvania showed that abortion access was a major part of Democrats taking the governor's mansion, a U.S. Senate seat and making gains in the state House. Michigan polling showed that the issue was crucial to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer winning reelection in 2022 and Michigan Democrats taking control of the state legislature. Democrats also believe that the reproductive rights agenda helped them win special state legislature elections last year in Virginia and Florida.

Campaign officials see the issue as crucial to motivating Democrats to turn out for Biden in November and believe it could drive some independents and Republicans to vote for Biden, or at least sit out the election. Polling shows that independent and moderate Republicans are “troubled by Dobbs and don’t agree with it,” according to Mini Timmaraju, President and CEO of Reproductive Freedom for All.

“This is an opportunity for this President to reach across the aisle,” Timmaraju says. “It’s not just a base issue any more.”

Harris is poised to be a key player in this strategy. She is heading out across the country in the coming weeks on what the Biden campaign is calling the “Fight for Reproductive Freedoms” tour. She spoke in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, a key battleground state, on Jan. 22, and is set to speak in San Jose, California on Monday.

Like Biden, Harris used her speech at the Virginia rally to link the Dobbs decision to Trump. She pointed to the three Supreme Court Justices Trump added to the court, saying they were “handpicked” for a decision like Dobbs. “He intended for them to take your freedoms.  He is the architect of this healthcare crisis.  And he is not done,” Harris said.

The Vice President got a particularly rousing response when she made the case that there was no conflict between people being opposed to abortion because of their religious convictions and a state or federal government choosing to stay out of the process. “Let us all agree, one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body,” Harris said. “If she chooses, she will consult with her pastor, her priest, her rabbi, her imam.  But it should not be the government telling her what they think is in her best interest.”

More abortion restrictions may be on the horizon, further amplifying the issue ahead of November. Later this year, the Supreme Court will review a lower court ruling that could restrict access to the medication mifepristone widely used in miscarriage management and that medical experts say is an important tool for protecting women’s health.

Rep. Jennifer McClellan of Virginia, a Democrat who was elected to Congress in a special election last year, was a Virginia state senator when she helped push through a state law in 2020 to shore up access to abortions there. Lawmakers were able to convince voters to support abortion access by having women describe their first person experiences, she says. “Women telling their stories was more powerful than any call or statistics or talking points,” McClellan says. Yet the loss of access across the country is still deeply felt by those in states where the procedure is still available, she says. “It matters who the President is,” McClellan says. “It’s just a visceral anger that many of us feel.”

“I am the first member of my family to lose a Constitutional right in my lifetime.” McClellan adds. “I’m angry that my daughter, when she enters childbearing years, could have fewer rights than I did when she was born, and I almost died giving birth to her.”

Contact us at letters@time.com.