Abortion rights center stage ahead of Pennsylvania vote
Abortion rights activists protest outside the US Supreme Court on June 30, 2022, days after it overturned the nationwide right to abortion

Jen Sloan has voted Republican her entire life, but in the upcoming midterm election, the nurse living in suburban Pittsburgh will cast her first vote for Democrats.

Why? The 52-year-old Pennsylvanian fears for the future of abortion rights, which has become a key issue this election season.

The divorced mother of three said the US Supreme Court decision at the end of June -- which struck down the half-a-century old Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the federal right to abortion -- "changed everything for me."

Calling the move by the conservative-dominated court "a slap across my face," Sloan said she'd always considered the right as "something untouchable."

"I never thought this would happen in my lifetime," she told AFP, explaining her decision to switch her vote.

Sloan said she voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and again in the 2020 race he lost to the Democrat Joe Biden -- but after the court's decision, she says "that's just not who I am."

"I didn't want to be aligned with that anymore."

The state of Pennsylvania is among several key states in the upcoming election, scene of a tight Senate race that could decide control of the evenly-divided upper chamber.

Democrats there have identified the fight for abortion rights as a vital issue that could sway voters towards their camp.

'Vital state'

At a recent rally in Doylestown, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, the national nonprofit organization Planned Parenthood made their voices heard.

"Abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania and we're going to fight every day to make sure that that stays the case," said Lindsey Mauldin, the vice president of public policy and advocacy at one of the state's Planned Parenthood branches.

"Our patients don't come to our health centers for political reasons, they don't come to our health centers for religious reasons; they come to our health centers because they need care," she said, saying that patients from bordering states are also arriving seeking health services.

"Pennsylvania remains a very vital state in providing that care for patients in the northeast quadrant of the country," she said, even though the state has fewer than 20 clinics for more than 12 million residents.

Standing among signs reading "My Body, My Choice," Angela Jacobs says it's the first time she's become active in politics.

But the 51-year-old felt moved to get engaged, saying in her early 20s she had an abortion and wants her own daughter, now 20, to have the same option.

"I realize now that, if we don't talk about these things, then we're going to lose that choice and that's not something that women can afford, to have that taken away from us," Jacobs said.

'Clear break'

Lara Putnam, a professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh, says that from the moment the Supreme Court decision dropped, Democrats have slightly outnumbered Republicans in the number of net voters gained by each party on the voter rolls.

"This marks a clear break" and temporarily reverses a structural trend in the state, where Democrats have seen their old industrial-era base shrink for decades, she told AFP.

But is it enough to tip the vote?

Randy Charlins, a bar manager who lives near Doylestown, doesn't think so.

The 61-year-old Republican says that while the race is "very close," he's confident that Mehmet Oz, the celebrity doctor running for Senate there, will best his Democratic opponent John Fetterman, the former mayor of a struggling steel town.

"I think there is a silent majority," Charlins said, standing on the porch of his house where a pile of decorations is already out in preparation for Christmas.

"There's a lot of conservatives that are not saying anything for fear," he said.

Swing state

For the bar manager, inflation remains a core concern.

"I see my customers who come in maybe three times a week, a year ago, year and a half ago, they're only coming in once a week," he said. "Now, that affects my income."

He's far from alone: a national poll conducted by The New York Times/Siena College released Monday shows that 18 percent of voters consider inflation their top priority, as opposed to five percent who ranked abortion rights their number one concern.

Across the country, Republican candidates have quieted down on the issue of abortion, aware that taking an extreme position could cost them votes.

Right-wing campaign ads have mostly focused on crime or inflation, brandishing the threat of drug legalization.

Democrats are regularly recalling that Dr. Oz and Doug Mastriano, the ultra-conservative candidate for governor in Pennsylvania, have stood for restricting abortion access or a near-total ban on the medical procedure.

Pennsylvania is well-known for tight races, having given Trump a narrow win in 2016, before barely turning Democratic for Biden in 2020.

© Agence France-Presse