Opinion: ‘The Dobbs effect’ isn’t just galvanizing voters, it’s creating candidates

  • Oct 26, 2023
  • Danielle Campoamor
  • CNN
Allie Phillips is running for the Tennessee House of Representatives.

Allie Phillips is running for the Tennessee House of Representatives. From Allie Phillips for HD75/Facebook

Editor’s Note: Danielle Campoamor is freelance writer and reporter, formerly of TODAY and NBC. The views expressed here are her own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Tennessee mom Allie Phillips isn’t supposed to be running for office.

If everything had gone according to plan, the 28-year-old would be the mom of two living daughters. She would be balancing the Herculean task of raising her six-year-old, Adalie, while navigating exhausting late-night feedings, never-ending diaper changes and everything else that goes with caring for a three-month-old.

Instead, she’s running for the District 75 seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, and suing the state over its abortion ban, after she was forced to travel out of state to obtain an abortion to end her non-viable pregnancy.

“My journey is the biggest reason why I’m running,” Phillips told me. “But the people in my state deserve better. My family and the people in my community, we all deserve to have happy, healthy lives — no matter how we choose to do that. It should be our choice.”

‘My baby was going to die’

Since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, abortion has become an even more galvanizing political issue, dominating the midterm elections, becoming one of the top issues for voters in the upcoming presidential vote and drawing a record number of voters to the polls in local and state elections. 

The Dobbs decision also motivated an increased number of women to consider running for office. Organizations like Emerge and Run For Something all reported an increase in website traffic and in the number of women signing up for information about public office training programs – what was dubbed “The Dobbs effect.” 

It has also opened the floodgates for countless, harrowing stories of women being denied abortion care, in some cases putting their lives at risk, forcing them to carry doomed pregnancies to term and traumatizing families in the process.

Phillips’ much-wanted second pregnancy was diagnosed with multiple fatal fetal abnormalities at 18 weeks gestation. The fetus — a baby girl named Miley Rose had a brain that did not split into two hemispheres, a heart with only two working chambers and a bladder, stomach and kidneys that did not develop properly.

Phillips was faced with two options: Carry a non-viable pregnancy to term, possibly putting her own life at risk, or end her pregnancy.

“My baby was going to die,” Phillips says. “And I was forced to leave my home state.”

In Tennessee, all abortions are banned with few exceptions for instances when the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Doctors there could not offer Phillips abortion care, despite her daughter’s multiple abnormalities and complications, because they could still detect a fetal heartbeat.

Until Miley died in utero or Phillips was, as she recalled, near-death “enough,” physicians could do nothing.

“I had to go to New York to get an abortion,” Phillips says. Travel, lodging and the procedure itself cost Phillips’ family, who lives paycheck to paycheck, over $3,200.

As an ultrasound technician prepped Phillips for the procedure, she discovered that Miley had already passed in utero, though it was unclear when her heart had stopped beating. Phillips’ had the procedure immediately, instead of the next day as planned, as doctors feared she could develop a severe infection.

To ensure she would survive her non-viable pregnancy, Phillips was treated by physicians she didn’t know, in a city she had never visited, far away from home.

‘You know they don’t know what they’re talking about… then you hear them actually say words’

Stories like Phillips are not uncommon. A woman in Texas, Amanda Zurawski, nearly died after she was denied an abortion and developed a life-threatening infection. A woman in Oklahoma, Jaci Statton, was told to wait in a hospital parking lot until she was closer to death before doctors would provide her with abortion care. A mom in Idaho, Jennifer Adkins, was forced to leave her home state after her 12-week pregnancy had a 1% chance of survival and was likely to endanger her health or kill her.

These stories also directly conflict with the GOP’s supposedly “pro-life” narrative, and Americans are noticing. A reported 6 out of 10 US adults disapprove of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. In a recent Gallup poll, 51% of Americans  said abortion should be legal “only under certain circumstances” and 34% believe it should be legal under “any circumstances.” The vast majority of Republicans support abortion exceptions in the cases of rape, incest and threats to the pregnant person’s life.

When voters are asked which party best represents their view on abortion, 42% cite the Democratic party versus the 26% who cite the Republican party, according to KFF.

It’s difficult for Republicans to posit their anti-abortion policies as a valiant, almost martyr-like effort to “protect the sanctity of life” when those same policies are undeniably harming pregnant people and putting their lives in danger.

That’s why people like Phillips should send a chill down the GOP’s collective spine. Their talking points are not in line with reality — not the medical realities of abortion care nor the realities of those who are denied that care — and the American public is getting a front row seat to their rank hypocrisy by way of not just women’s personal stories but their political opponents.

Of course, politicians sharing personal stories is nothing new. But the stigma surrounding abortion has historically kept many if not most lawmakers tight-lipped when it comes to personal abortion stories — until recently. Now, more and more lawmakers are coming forward and sharing their personal abortion stories in the face of extreme anti-abortion bans and policies, including Rep. Cori Bush, who had an abortion after she was sexually assaulted as a teenager; Rep. Barbara Lee, who received an illegal abortion in Mexico as a teen; and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, who had an abortion after she was told her pregnancy was high-risk.

As more lawmakers and potential lawmakers share their personal stories, those vying for or already in position of power will continue to make the GOP’s anti-abortion stance all the more unpopular. In fact — it’s science. Studies show that personal stories are remembered 22 more times more than facts alone and are more effective at persuading individuals than figures or statistics.

“One of the moments that led me to run for office was my meeting with my current state representative, Jeff Burkhart,” Phillips says. “Hearing how ill-informed he was when it came to women’s reproductive health – it didn’t shock me, but it was one of those things when you know they don’t know what they’re talking about… then you hear them actually say words.” When Phillips asked Burkhart what he would tell his daughter to do if she was pregnant with a fetus that was incompatible with life, she says he replied: “I’d tell her to continue the pregnancy.” Burkhart has not commented publicly in response to press inquiries about Phillips’ account of their meeting.

Given that the GOP is woefully (and arguably intentionally) ignorant of the facts regarding abortion care, the party has neither facts nor personal narratives on their side – a looming political pitfall that will continue to cost the party dearly. The GOP is likely to face an increase of political opponents that not only support abortion rights but who, like Phillips, also carry with them personal stories of how those reproductive justice policies can save lives and support families. They are the canary in the coal mine for an already-chaotic Republican party.

Phillips wants to be clear: Her abortion story is just one of many reasons why she says she is running for office. “There are so many other things I care about,” she says. “I care about the LGBTQ+ community, expanding Medicaid… I care about so many things. I grew up here in Tennessee and I’m raising a daughter here. I want to make sure this is a safe place for her.

“The Republican narrative is that women who have abortions just love ‘killing babies’ and we shouldn’t be in office,” she adds. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and stories like mine prove it.”