Jun 9, 2024 - Health

Democratic-leaning doctors flex political muscle in abortion debate

Illustration of a doctor with abstract shapes and textures.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

The wave of state abortion restrictions that began after the Supreme Court's reversal of Roe v. Wade in 2022 has led Democratic-leaning doctors to become an organizing and political force against such laws.

Why it matters: Doctors driving the backlash say many of the new state laws jeopardize patients' health and restrict their ability to practice medicine.

  • Their push coincides with the erosion of the historical alliance between Republicans and the American Medical Association, which has staked out progressive stances on topics including trans care and gun violence.
  • It's also reminiscent of how the 2010 Affordable Care Act sparked a wave of political activism among Republican-leaning doctors who were eager to push back on what they saw as an intrusive government.

The big picture: In Ohio, doctors have worked to pass a ballot measure that enshrined reproductive rights into the state's constitution. In Texas, they've battled in court over a narrow exception to the state's abortion ban.

  • At least six Democratic doctors are running for competitive House seats this year, seizing on voters' concerns about reproductive health and high health care costs, Axios Pro's Victoria Knight reported.

Zoom in: Ohio pediatrician Lauren Beene, who worked on the Ohio ballot measure, said she hadn't been involved in politics before the Supreme Court eliminated the federal right to an abortion.

  • That all changed when she heard from patients and their parents about the consequences of losing abortion access in a state that was among those with a ban after six weeks of pregnancy.
  • "We really felt strongly that doctors needed to be at the front of this movement for reproductive rights, because it's our responsibility to make sure our patients can get the care that they need," Beene told Axios.
  • Beene and other doctors who spoke with Axios recognized their potential influence as political messengers. While Americans' confidence in major institutions has dropped, doctors are still highly regarded.

State of play: In Congress, it's often Republican doctors — who are larger in number and have their own caucus — driving conversations about how medicine is practiced.

  • Kristin Lyerly, a Wisconsin OB-GYN running as a Democrat for an open House seat, says that having more physicians in Congress who support abortion rights would "completely redefine the conversation that we're having" about access to care.
  • Lyerly was a plaintiff in a successful lawsuit challenging a Wisconsin abortion ban that dated back to 1849.
  • At the federal level, physicians played key roles in getting the Food and Drug Administration to approve an over-the-counter birth control pill and allow telehealth abortion care, said Jamila Perritt, an OB-GYN and president of Physicians for Reproductive Health.

The other side: Abortion debates also have prompted action by conservative doctors.

  • Membership in the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists has increased by more than 500 in the past two years, said spokesperson Myriam Diallo.
  • "Our members have found that confusion and false narratives about induced abortion are prevalent even in their own field, emphasizing the need for life-affirming medical professionals to speak out," Diallo said in an email.
  • The Alliance for Hippocratic Medicine, a coalition of anti-abortion physician groups, sued the federal government over its decision to expand access to abortion pills, sparking the blockbuster case that's now before the Supreme Court.

Reality check: Of the four Democratic doctors who ran for House seats two years ago, only Rep. Yadira Caraveo won, narrowly capturing a seat in Colorado.

  • Many of those running this year aren't focused exclusively on reproductive health. They're also pushing to make care more affordable.
  • The Dobbs decision striking down Roe v. Wade decision was a "watershed moment," but doctors advocate on many issues that affect their patients, said Rob Davidson, an emergency room doctor and executive director of the Committee to Protect Healthcare.
  • "We're just going to speak on what we believe to be true and try to help the folks who we take care of," he said.

The bottom line: The urgency of the abortion debate has many Democratic physicians convinced they're on the cusp of a new movement.

  • "The newer generations of doctors ... are advocating in a very different way than our predecessors did," Lyerly said. "It's the dawn of a new day."
Go deeper