Stacey Abrams, a prominent champion of choice, once opposed abortion

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A teenage Stacey Abrams and a friend were watching the movie “Dirty Dancing” when the other girl asked the future Georgia gubernatorial candidate what she thought about a character’s decision to have an abortion.

Growing up in a religious community in the South, Abrams recalled, she had no doubt in her mind about the issue. She said that Penny had been wrong to terminate her pregnancy. Abrams later learned that her friend’s question wasn’t hypothetical.

“She was trying to figure out what she was going to do,” Abrams said in a recent interview. “And in retrospect, I realize just how naive and arrogant I was, because I was opining about something I did not understand and I had not given it careful consideration.”

Today, Abrams, 48, is unequivocal in her support of abortion rights: “For me, the conversion was slow, but it was true and it remained. Because fundamentally, the answer is that this is a medical decision and it is a personal decision. And in neither of those two instances should there be any intervention by a politician.”

And because the Supreme Court may reverse Roe v. Wade, the issue could figure prominently in her race for Georgia governor — a rematch against Gov. Brian Kemp (R), to whom she narrowly lost in 2018.

Kemp, 58, opposes abortion rights. Shortly after taking office in 2019, he signed one of the nation’s strictest antiabortion laws, banning the procedure in most cases once fetal cardiac activity can be detected; this can be as early as six weeks, and before many women know they are pregnant. Abrams says Kemp is out of step with the majority of adults in Georgia and the country. Kemp’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.

Among Georgia voters, 68 percent said they opposed the Supreme Court overturning Roe, according to a January poll by the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, and 54 percent opposed the state’s six-week abortion ban, with 38 percent supporting it. (In 2019, the margin was closer, with 49 percent opposed to the ban and 45 percent in favor.) Opposition to abortion restrictions was even stronger among Black voters: 87 percent said they did not want to see the Supreme Court completely overturn Roe, and 74 percent opposed Georgia’s abortion ban.

The pattern repeats in nationwide surveys. According to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll, 72 percent of Black Americans oppose recent state legislation that makes it more difficult for abortion clinics to operate, while 24 percent support it. Black Americans are more likely to oppose this type of legislation than White Americans (63 percent) or Hispanic Americans (59 percent). At the same time, White Democrats are more united in opposition to restrictive abortion legislation than Black Democrats: 94 percent vs. 77 percent.

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Abrams was still firmly against abortion in the early 1990s, when she attended Spelman College, the historically Black women’s school in Atlanta. Then a conversation with a close friend who worked for Planned Parenthood prompted her to reconsider her beliefs. “When I gave a reflexive answer to something she said about working there, she engaged me. She said, ‘Tell me what you think,’ ” Abrams recalled. “I fell back on a religious argument, but we both had very strong religious values and she really pushed back and had me think about what I was saying and what that meant.”

Over the next several years, Abrams found, “more and more I was using the language of choice without ever saying to myself that’s where I stood on the issue.”

When she decided to run for office in 2006, Abrams said, “I wrote myself an essay. I wanted to know what was my belief system and how was I going to answer these questions. … What am I willing to do as someone who is making the laws of the land and the laws that would govern somebody’s body?” It was the first time that Abrams articulated to herself that she supported abortion rights — an experience she has since recounted in interviews and in speeches, to convey that she gets why people struggle with the issue.

Abrams acknowledges the arguments that, in various ways, complicate the conversation in Black communities: the influence of the church, which generally teaches that abortion is wrong; the painful history of enslaved Black women being separated from their children or being impregnated against their will; the distrust of a medical system that has mistreated African Americans, including through unethical experiments. Despite these factors, though, there is “very lopsided support for abortion” in Black communities, said Abrams, which she attributed to “a strain of realism.”

“These are communities that understand,” Abrams said. “They understand ectopic pregnancy, they understand not having the choice, not wanting a forced pregnancy. And they want there to be an option. And that does not mean that that would be the choice they would make. But they understand the necessity of the choice and the right to make that decision.”

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Monica Simpson is executive director of SisterSong Women of Color Reproductive Justice Collective, the Atlanta-based group that is the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit blocking Georgia’s abortion ban. (The law is on hold in federal court, awaiting a decision from the Supreme Court.) The leaked draft opinion in the Supreme Court’s current abortion case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, has restarted the conversation over the state’s law, she said — and the conversation about abortion’s place in Black politics.

“If we only think that voting rights is going to get us Black liberation, if we only think that saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ and holding police accountable is going to get us liberation, then we are sadly mistaken,” Simpson said.

Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of BlackPAC, which has been talking to Black voters in rural communities and cities outside metro Atlanta, said canvassers have recently included abortion in the list of issues they ask voters to rank. “People see the attack on abortion rights with the same lens as they see the attack on voting rights and democracy broadly,” she said. “Abortion becomes another data point in the story about Republicans specifically and the right more generally and their efforts to undermine our individual rights and equality in the country.”

Karen Finney, a board member of the abortion rights group NARAL, said that Black women in particular are experiencing how the issues of reproductive justice and racial justice converge, “especially in this moment where you’re a Black woman in a red state, where you are about to lose the right to make your own decisions about your body, and then you are already seeing your voting rights made harder, and they’re attacking affirmative action, and you’re still fighting to be paid equal wages.”

If Roe is overturned, Finney and other advocates said, low-income Black women in states like Georgia would be disproportionately affected because they are less likely to have the resources to seek abortion care in another state.

Georgia has the second-highest maternal mortality rate in the nation — 66 deaths per 100,000 live births — and Black mothers in the state are twice as likely to die than White women. Abrams has made expanding Medicaid for uninsured adults a key promise in her campaign, saying it would help improve reproductive health care for women in poor and rural communities, many of which lack medical facilities and doctors.

After news broke of the draft Supreme Court opinion potentially overturning the right to abortion, Abrams suspended fundraising for her gubernatorial campaign for two days and asked supporters to instead donate to several abortion rights groups in Georgia and other southern states. She made a similar appeal on behalf of abortion rights groups in 2019 after the Georgia legislature passed the six-week ban, while also urging entertainment firms not to pull out of the state in protest.

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Abrams said that while serving as Democratic leader of the Georgia House, she kept her caucus together to oppose abortion restrictions by talking with them — trying to focus their attention on the question of women making their own decisions, while respecting her colleagues’ personal views. “And I had a number of members who were pastors. I had members who, just because of religious or cultural beliefs, would not describe themselves as pro-choice, but we could have conversations,” she said. “My job was to — if I couldn’t get them to agree with me — get them to not take action that would further those bills.”

She takes a similar approach when talking to voters on the campaign trail. “My responsibility is to make certain that we have a full conversation, that if this is what you believe, let’s talk through the consequences of this belief,” she said. “If you believe that abortion rights should not exist, what do you tell that woman who had an ectopic pregnancy, when you tell her she is going to be forced to carry it and knowing what she knows? What do you say to that 11-year-old victim of incest?”

“I believe that you have the right to choose, meaning you can choose to disagree with me, and you can choose to never have an abortion,” she continued. “But what I will not countenance is that it is okay for me to abandon the people who need that choice to be theirs.”

Scott Clement, polling director, and Emily Guskin, polling analyst, contributed to this report.

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