Martha F. Davis


When the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization referred future decisions about abortion policies to “elected representatives and the people,” there is no doubt that local governments were included in the designation. In fact, since the 1970s, local governments have been active in pursuing a range of abortion policies in their jurisdictions—both for and against abortion access—that may be in tension with their state governments. Because the ideological orientations of state and local governments often conflict, state preemption is a frequent threat hanging over these local initiatives. There are examples from both sides of the political spectrum, but it is more often conservative state legislatures that act to preempt more progressive policymaking by municipalities. Yet, recent history shows that aggressive preemption by states has not stopped, and will not stop, local governments from weighing in and pursuing policies that reflect local values. Even when local pro-choice policies have no legal effect, they can educate, support organizing, provide moral support, and assuage fear of seeking critical healthcare. On the anti-abortion side, symbolic local policies are often part of a strategic national agenda. The breadth and depth of interest in abortion access after Dobbs provides an occasion for local debates that can engage, energize, and mobilize voters to challenge state preemption practices. If pro-choice advocates lean into democracy and show up “down where the grass grows,” their efforts could have a substantive impact as well.