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Abortion rights activists want a national leader. Is Kamala Harris up to the job?

Noah Bierman, Los Angeles Times on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON — As Democrats celebrated an abortion rights win last week, Vice President Kamala Harris spoke confidently from the center of an ornate room at the White House compound, surrounded by Cabinet secretaries and other top officials, with President Joe Biden chiming in remotely while sidelined by the coronavirus.

It was the kind of prominent role many expected Harris to assume when she took the oath of office 19 months ago — one that has so far eluded her.

Harris’ opportunity in the spotlight — albeit on a sleepy summer afternoon — came courtesy of voters in reliably conservative Kansas, who voted overwhelmingly in a statewide referendum hours earlier to protect the state’s constitutional right to an abortion.

“The people of Kansas spoke and said this is a matter of defense of basic principles of liberty and freedom in America,” Harris said of the surprise victory.

The moment offered a glimpse of potential for Harris, who has tried to turn a crisis for Democrats — the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, ending the constitutional right to abortion — into a political opportunity.

Taking command in the battle over abortion’s future, now largely being fought in the states and as an issue in the November election, comports neatly with Harris’ political résumé, touching on her experience as the first woman elected to the second-highest post in the nation and as a former California attorney general and U.S. senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.

 

Yet success is far from certain: Democrats are on the defensive in almost every red state in the country; the White House can do little to change the rights of millions of women; and the vice president, who still struggles at times to create punchy sound bites, has chosen to do most of her work on the issue at quiet roundtables, largely avoiding the type of big speeches that allow for inspiring rhetoric and national attention.

“We need a leader on this. No one knows who’s the head of Planned Parenthood,” said Montana state Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks. “In her body, as a woman and a woman of color, she knows these issues in an intimate way.”

Sands’ state illustrates the complexity of the issue after the fall of Roe. Like Kansas, it’s a conservative state where a woman’s decision to have an abortion has been protected under rights to privacy and autonomy enshrined in its constitution. A November referendum could put limits on abortions, and a Republican-led Legislature is aiming to build a supermajority that could push for a state constitutional amendment.

When she met with Harris, Sands asked for help with practical issues that many abortion rights states are facing, which include shielding doctors from liability for performing abortions on out-of-state patients.

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