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What Sen. Warnock's win really means for the battle over reproductive rights

OP/ED: The “pro-choice pastor” narrowly beat his Trump-backed challenger in the Georgia Senate runoff, but with abortion access taking center stage in the midterms, shouldn’t his path to victory have been easier?
Image: Raphael Warnock
Raphael Warnock during an election night watch party, on Dec. 6, 2022, in Atlanta.John Bazemore / AP

After the Supreme Court’s June decision overturning Roe vs. Wade, and Georgia’s reinstatement of its 6-week abortion ban, women, girls and those who can become pregnant there had good reason to fear the loss of their reproductive rights.

While access to abortion has become a hot-button political issue in the state – and the second-most important one among voters nationally – Georgians demonstrated their support for this right by sending Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock back to Washington for a second term.

But with reproductive rights taking center stage throughout this midterm cycle, shouldn’t Sen. Warnock’s path to victory have been easier?

The candidates

Georgia’s senatorial candidates’ positions were starkly different; voters had a clear choice when it came to women’s control of their own bodies.

Sen. Warnock, who describes himself as a “pro-choice pastor,” has not defined any restrictions or limits on abortion.

Republican challenger Herschel Walker – who faces allegations that he encouraged and financially supported several partners’ abortions in the past – remained steadfast in his pro-life position.

However, he has flip-flopped on the details. His latest stance supports a total abortion ban without exceptions for rape, incest or even a mother’s health. This is in contrast to his earlier statements when, debating Warnock, he claimed he was open to exceptions. He also expressed support for Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposed national ban on abortion after 15 weeks, while simultaneously endorsing Georgia’s 6-week ban and stating restrictions should be left up to the states.

The stakes

Georgia’s Supreme Court reinstated the 6-week abortion ban on Nov, 23, even though abortions past that point were allowed by another court order on Nov. 15. Current restrictions in the state include a reporting requirement, a parental consent requirement for minors, a biased counseling requirement, and a waiting period requirement.

The latest decision and ongoing legal battle sends patients and providers into limbo, rendering them unable to plan for the future with their rights ever-changing. Abortion bans will increase Georgia’s already high maternal mortality rate, which disproportionately affects Black women.

The results

As expected, women had a significant impact in the Georgie runoff. About 1.85 million people voted early – more than half of those voters were women – with two days of early voting shattering previous records. Democrats are more likely to vote early or by mail than Republicans. Importantly, new voters cast ballots: more than 75,000 people who did not vote in the general election turned out for this runoff, including significant numbers of voters of color. All of this was good news for Sen. Warnock.

When the 6-week ban took effect following the midterms, the stakes grew higher and voters seemingly became more engaged, expanding Sen. Warnock’s lead by about three percentage points.

More than a quarter of Georgia voters said that abortion was their top issue in the November election. Women, and particularly Black women, are historically the most consistent voters, and their support of abortion rights lifted Sen. Warnock to victory.

Sen. Warnock’s win is also highly symbolic. While as senator he can’t write state-specific policy on abortion, he represents Georgia voters and their values on the national stage. A parallel can be drawn to the recent midterm ballot initiative in Kentucky, where voters were unable to vote on a specific piece of law, but voted down an anti-abortion constitutional provision, paving the way for reproductive rights advocates to keep fighting in courts.

This majority “no” vote on the constitutional provision was seen as a symbolic way to affirm reproductive rights. A vote for Sen. Warnock was similar. He has led the fight to permanently expand the Child Tax Credit, expand Medicaid, and curb the Black maternal mortality rate. His election is further evidence that Georgia voters not only care deeply about abortion rights, but also about women, children, and families.

A bumpy road to victory

While those who care about women’s rights and equality can celebrate Sen. Warnock’s victory, we need to look at his win with clear eyes. Democrats and their allies reportedly spent over $5 million on ads that referenced abortion in the Georgia runoff, compared to about $6,500 spent by Republicans.

When surveyed in October 2022, nearly two-thirds of Georgia voters said that they oppose the state’s abortion ban. Taken with Walker’s extreme positioning and the backlash against the Supreme Court’s rollback of women’s rights under Roe, these factors should have propelled Warnock to an easier win.

Unfortunately, Sen. Warnock’s close victory is yet another painful reminder that we cannot take reproductive freedoms for granted. In Georgia, doctors can now be prosecuted for performing abortions after six weeks, regardless of the circumstances.

The state legislature wants to go after the already limited supply of doctors who provide essential healthcare services. As it stands, more than half of Georgia’s counties don’t even have a single OB-GYN, 35 percent of counties are maternity care deserts, and more than a third of counties don’t have a single pediatrician.The majority of women who have abortions are already mothers, who will now be forced to travel across state lines to access abortion care, racking up significant expenses on transportation, hotels, food, and childcare. What happens to the mothers and girls who are forced to give birth without the economic or emotional tools needed to raise a child? What happens when they do not have access to healthcare? And, in a state with one of the worst track records for infant mortality and poverty, what happens to those children?

2024 is closer than you think

In less than two years we will be going back to the polls. Our challenge is to stay vigilant. Sen. Warnock’s victory shouldn’t allow complacency. Voters will need to dig deeply into candidates’ true positioning on abortion. When you evaluate a candidate, think about how and if the candidate values lifelong health – not just the ten months between conception and birth.