California’s Planned Parenthood president isn’t buying what Trump says about abortion

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Ever since the reversal of Roe v. Wade two years ago threw Democrats a political life raft in the midterm elections, abortion rights were destined to be a central part of the party’s strategy in 2024.

Appended to that strategy, though, is a giant question mark: Is a campaign message about abortion compelling in blue states like California, where protections have only increased since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision?

Democrats here tried to capitalize on the issue in 2022, easily passing an initiative to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state’s constitution. But they still came up short in key congressional races, which ended up being decisive in handing House control to the GOP.

This year, Democrats’ hopes of retaking the House almost certainly hinges on winning some of those California seats.

POLITICO spoke to Jodi Hicks, president of Planned Parenthood California, on the lessons learned from that fight and what this busy week of abortion news — former President Donald Trump appearing to side against a national ban and the Arizona Supreme Court upholding a 1864 state law imposing a near total ban — means for the abortion rights movement.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

On Sunday — prior to Trump coming out with his statement — how would you have summed up Democrats’ strategy in California on abortion for the fall?

The stark difference between Congress, Senate and our president is whether or not we're going to have policymakers that protect access to abortion nationwide, or we have policymakers that are going to pass a federal ban. And those are the two choices that voters have right now — even in a state like California.

We've passed many, many laws. We're doing everything we can to ensure that we're expanding access for moments like this when we know we're going to have an increase because of people coming from out of state. But the fact of the matter is we're still beholden to what our national policymakers do.

Now Trump has come out with a statement that says the decision will be left to the states. He does not explicitly endorse a 15-week ban. Does that undercut the message of a federal abortion ban being on the table with a Trump presidency?

Absolutely not. First of all, we know Trump will say anything to get elected. He's on record for saying he does support a ban. He's on record for saying that he would criminalize women trying to seek abortion. So out of the gate, I think we should believe actions and not words. We have a history with this ex-president, who's not a truth teller. So I don't believe what he says.

Speaking of the Arizona decision, the Arizona attorney general has said she won’t enforce this law. So we don’t know yet what the practical implications of this decision will be. But the fact is right next door to California, there are at least the headlines of this ban being back in effect. How do you think that jump-starts the issue in California campaigns?

It's a stark reminder when we have our neighbors that are facing this type of challenge, and we know that California will be impacted. We saw it before, when there was a pause on services right after Dobbs and Roe was overturned and we saw an increase — we saw our parking lots full of license places that said Arizona. So we know we’ll be impacted.

Yes, this attorney general is saying that she won't prosecute. But again, we're beholden to that policymaker, that elected official. What we're seeing play out in this election is that abortion is on the ballot every single time, in every election. Our reproductive rights, our freedoms are on the ballot every time we're beholden to what policymakers are doing. We need to have protections, not people that are either standing on the sidelines or ready and poised to pass a federal ban.

Looking back at Proposition 1, the campaign to enshrine abortion rights in the state constitution in 2022. Two-thirds of voters supported it. We also saw, in that same election, that Democrats had a tough time in some of those key House races. It seems like there was a decoupling of the abortion issue and these down-ballot races. What are the lessons learned from Prop 1?

What you said was absolutely right. We know that when people are faced with whether or not they can vote for abortion rights and reproductive rights and birth control, and put it as a protection in the Constitution, they overwhelmingly vote to do that.

We had Roe v. Wade as a protection for almost 50 years. And so it is not in our voting muscle, if you will, to recognize that we have to vote for policymakers every single time now to ensure that we're protecting reproductive rights. But that's what we have to do. And so we'll be talking about that in this election. We'll be talking about it in every election until we have an overwhelming majority of folks that are committed to protecting reproductive rights, protecting people's freedoms, which is the will of the vast majority of people across this country.

Does the success of Prop 1 make your job harder this year? How do you impart urgency to the voters that abortion rights are at stake when they've been hearing now for the last two years that California has enshrined the right to abortion?

What we did in California was extraordinary. We would do it again. It's necessary, unfortunately, for every state to have to look at how they can protect the state that they live in. But we have to talk now about what's happening at the national level because there's a threat that comes at the national level.

Quite frankly, voters are going to be reminded about that every step of the way. They were in Florida. Now they are again with this happening in Arizona. There is medication abortion that's in front of the Supreme Court that will happen this summer. And that decision will impact Californians and what type of care they can get, depending on a Supreme Court decision yet again. So I think voters are reminded over and over and over that this is a national issue. And yes, we protected the state of California and we needed to do that. But we also need to ensure that we're protected from national extremists and ensure that we have champions that will protect our rights.

The battleground House races in California are spread out across the state. Is abortion a winning issue in all of them? Or does it play better in say, Orange County than the Central Valley, both of which are home to key contests this year?

Obviously in every district, there’s all types of factors on what messages will be. I can tell you this: The vast majority of people throughout the state of California –- throughout the country, but especially in California — want their reproductive rights protected. We saw that with Prop 1, that was overwhelmingly the top vote-getter throughout the state of California. And the stark difference between people that are willing to protect reproductive rights versus people willing to vote for a federal ban is very clear. And that's what we'll be talking about. And I think voters are going to respond to that message throughout the state of California.