As Roe v. Wade Turns 45, Democrats Must Not Compromise On Abortion
Women’s rights should not be treated like bargaining chips. They should be treated like human rights.
Monday marks the 45th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court decision that made abortion—without undue burden and until the point of fetal viability—legal on the federal level. Prior to the decision, abortion remained commonplace; as long as childbirth and pregnancy have existed, so has abortion, in myriad form.
But Roe marked the beginning of a new era, nonetheless—one in which women would no longer be subjected to dangerous, sometimes fatal, back-alley terminations, one in which women would finally be recognized as autonomous human beings by their government.
But this weekend, the “March for Life”—ironically transpiring while 9 million children could lose their health care, undocumented families are being torn apart, and gun violence disproportionately targets children—and the Women’s March, took place in succession, indicating that Roe remains contentious, even 45 years later. And across the country, as different laws and loopholes chip away at the landmark ruling, the state of women’s health once again is at a tipping point.
With legislators increasingly taking it upon themselves to make decisions concerning women and their bodies, elections could decide the fate of abortion access in the United States. And where abortion once made for a neat divide along party lines, the political fabric around the issue has become increasingly nuanced. That nuance is the result of a biting reality: Democrats may not be actively attacking abortion rights, but nor are they fighting for abortion rights. And with women’s health at greater risk than any other time in recent history, that’s a serious problem.
2018 Is A Big Year For Elections?—?And Abortion.
This November, voters across the country will go to the polls to determine which party will control Congress and 36 governor’s seats. But before November, as early as March, special elections, and primaries to get on the November ballot promise to shake up the nation’s political scene—in other words, it’s only January, but expect things to move quickly.
The Washington Post has already called the 2018 midterms “ a referendum on President Trump and the GOP majority.” And indeed, Nov. 7 of last year was a day full of victories by women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community, one that seemed to rebuke the election of a president whose rhetoric and policies have had damning consequences for all of the aforementioned groups.
We have reason to be optimistic having witnessed the power of grassroots efforts and progressive voter turnout, the power of competing and investing in state-level races that the Democratic Party has traditionally ceded.
But we also have reason to be concerned.
The takeaway from Democratic victories like that of Doug Jones in Alabama last month should have been that progressives can stand by fundamentals and still win, that the key is not to abandon core values but mobilize their base. And yet, early last year, Democratic Party leadership offered controversial statements regarding how it would approach races in devoutly conservative regions with pretty much the opposite approach—most notably, by endorsing and funding anti-choice Democrats in red states.
From Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of an anti-abortion mayoral candidate in Nebraska—followed by an impassioned defense of anti-abortion politicians—to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s jarringly out-of-touch declaration of abortion as a “fading issue” Democrats must compromise on, it’s become a prevalent idea within the party that political victories in some races will require handling women’s rights as bargaining chips. And the problem runs far deeper than Sanders or Pelosi.
At a town hall in July, feminist icon Sen. Claire McCaskill said abortion was not a litmus test for Democratic candidates. In an August Meet the Press interview, progressive legend Gov. Jerry Brown suggested endorsing only pro-choice Democrats was an extension of stereotypical coastal elitist political attitudes.
Particularly concerning were DNC chairman Tom Perez’s meetings with “pro-life” Democratic groups and Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chairman Ben Ray Luján’s declaration of support for anti-choice candidates, signaling the party will offer crucial funding to candidates whose platforms will cost women not only basic rights but also perhaps even their lives.
In July, Luján said,
“As we look at candidates across the country, you need to make sure you have candidates that fit the district, that can win in these districts across America.”
And yet, there’s something crucial he excludes from this oversimplified portrait of America’s red districts: Their women are suffering.
In these regions, hostility to women’s bodily autonomy is encoded not only in the culture but also in the laws, and yet Democratic Party leaders seem willing to acknowledge this hostility only to the extent that it affects elections—not how it affects the lived experiences of the women who have to live in these parts of the country.
Indeed, in the red districts that Luján, Sanders, and Brown all reference, funding for the reproductive health services low-income women rely on is perpetually being slashed; abortion clinics are shutting down at staggering rates; and accordingly, women’s health as measured by maternal death rates reflect a widely ignored global crisis. (The United States has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the industrialized world, for context.)
And these situations affect a plurality of women—who notably constitute more than 50 percent of U.S. voters—with roughly one in four women likely to have an abortion before the age of 45.
Electing lawmakers who will either maintain or expand a status quo that is shaming, degrading and, yes, even killing women across the country is not some noble goal that should be worked toward in the name of picking up seats and spreading “ideological diversity.” In the same vein, pro-choice activists seeking to hold their candidates to a certain moral standard aren’t extremists—in fact, if you think that they are and those who support the government being able to force women to give birth are not, perhaps it’s time to reevaluate your priorities.
In an age of bipartisan hostility toward politicians who dare to focus on the human rights of marginalized groups—or, what many have scornfully labeled “identity politics”—abortion and its role in the timeless conflict between morality and electability are exactly what we’re not supposed to be talking about.
And yet, with the state of women’s health in crisis and a slate of upcoming elections that could potentially correct for this, it’s exactly what we need to be talking about.
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Moral Failures In The Age Of “Identity Politics”
The past years have witnessed a peacefully agreed upon relative silence on the issue of abortion among Democrats. Most stick to more diplomatic—and, of course, perfectly valid—talking points about funding Planned Parenthood, or dismiss nuanced questions about abortion by calling it an issue settled since Roe v. Wade in 1973. The term “pro-choice” itself emerged largely because even those who support abortion rights are too put off by the stigma of the word “abortion” to even say it; a term like “pro-choice” allows them not to.
And notably, most Democrats defend funding for Planned Parenthood by pointing out the organization is prohibited from using federal funds for abortion services—not by challenging this discriminatory law that jeopardizes low-income women’s health and safety.
In either case, one thing’s for sure: Abortion is anything but a settled issue. Policy choices about who will have access to the procedure and who won’t, the different methods and stages at which the procedure is available, and, ultimately, the state of women’s health and safety, are being made on every level of government, every day.
On the national level, every year, Congress makes the choice about whether to renew the Hyde amendment, a law that prohibits federal funding from covering abortions with few exceptions. For those who have never heard of it, Hyde is the reason the United States treats one legal medical procedure differently from all others and denies low-income women basic human rights. The intent is to not offend taxpayers who are incidentally unfazed by taxpayer-funded military operations and the killings of born, living humans.
On a state level, the dominance of Republicans in the majority of state legislatures have yielded a terrifying trend: Between 2011 and 2015, 27 percent of the roughly 1,074 restrictions on abortion enacted since 1973 were passed in those five short years alone.
To be certain, restrictions on abortion often fail to stop the procedure from happening, according to research that indicates the abortion rate remains the same despite barriers conservatives put in place. Instead, they’ve resulted in higher maternal death rates—notably higher in states with more restrictions—and economic burdens placed on women who are blocked from insurance coverage of the procedure or forced to pay for travel fees, miss work, or jump through other degrading, expensive hoops to access what should be a human right to all women.
The irony of it all is the proven power of affordable family planning resources to reduce the abortion rate by addressing unwanted pregnancy, and the extent to which this is undermined by conservative attacks on women’s health organizations that provide birth control, simply because some of them provide abortion access, too.
The militancy of the Republican Party, which has structured its platform around a war on women’s health, has been the sole driver of the desperate state of women’s rights across the country. But silence and dismissiveness from many Democrats have been another factor. To go from complicity to offering support and funding for politicians who would enable or expand these devastating outcomes for women is a moral outrage that Democratic voters must take a stand against.
Rather than take a step backward, Democrats should be taking steps to correct for years of silence on an issue that affects every aspect of women’s lives. And yet, disappointing as this strategy of embracing “both sides” on abortion may be, it’s a predictable direction for a party embroiled in conflict over “identity politics.”
In the wake of the 2016 election, voices ranging from liberal New York Times columnists to Bernie Sanders attributed the party’s loss to the attention it paid to identity-related topics, calling for the party to focus itself on economic issues and ignore the struggles of marginalized groups to avoid offending those with greater social privilege.
This strategy has rested on the well-meaning idea that progressive economic measures are the great equalizer that will unilaterally eliminate the struggles of low-income men, women, people of color, LGBTQ people and white people alike; that steering away from issues that offend white people will result in electoral victories of lawmakers whose policies will help marginalized people.
But it’s also rested on the dangerous and cruel idea that we live in a post-racial and post-gender society that no longer oppresses the LGBTQ community, that these groups have no struggles beyond the economic, and internet “social justice warriors” are exaggerating the injustices these groups face.
And yet, here’s a fun side note: In most states, gay and trans people can lose their jobs or be evicted on the basis of their orientation or gender identity. Racially charged police brutality, racial policing and a broken criminal justice system continue to devastate black and brown families. Immigration policies are tearing immigrant families apart and subjecting immigrant women and those with disabilities to severely inhumane treatment. And all while this is happening, President Trump and the rhetoric and policies of him and his appointees have only expanded on this oppression.
We’ve increasingly come to characterize issues related to diversity and marginalized people as soft and tangential to the larger national political dialogue. Universal healthcare, tuition-free public college, and a $15 minimum wage might disproportionately help the aforementioned groups who are more likely to suffer from poverty; however, talking about these platforms can’t be used as a fallback to ignore the real, all-encompassing issues that affect minorities and underrepresented groups. It’s this very strategy that’s ultimately steered Democratic Party leaders to distance the party from abortion, at an alarming cost to women’s rights.
And there’s only one solution to this endemic of silence from those in power, and the suffering of women.
Candidates who outright oppose abortion rights are obviously detrimental to women’s health. But candidates who are silently pro-choice, who support abortion rights but refuse to acknowledge the current state of the war on women and act, are harmful to women, too. Today, circumstances around reproductive rights require not only candidates who support abortion, but those who will position themselves at the forefront of a national conversation about abortion access, take concrete action to fight for it, and, perhaps most importantly, have the courage to say that word: abortion.
Bad Political Strategy
More than a month after Doug Jones’ victory in Alabama, at this point, his race has been referenced as an anecdote that pro-choice Democrats can actually win in deep red states innumerable times. And yet, it seems worth referencing one more time.
Poll numbers show us voter turnout—most notably among people of color and, in particular, women of color—was a decisive factor in the race. Based on this alone, it seems fair to suggest Democrats could win seats not by abandoning women of color, but by reaching out to and mobilizing them. Part of this comes from strong campaign outreach, and part of this comes from offering policies and stances that benefit them.
Perhaps majority-conservative districts will elect conservative representatives, but another reality is that in places like this, the Democratic Party often isn’t even putting an effort to invest or compete in these races. And even if the party offers candidates who oppose abortion, it’s a possibility these candidates will lose more votes from progressives than they would gain from conservative voters, who would more likely vote Republican, anyway.
Of course, that’s merely a hypothesis; but I do know for a fact that women, not only in red states but also across the country, have little incentive to stay committed to a party that doesn’t commit to them, and take an active role in combating a Republican agenda that’s hurting their living standards. As for members of any marginalized group, if the party continues to demonstrate its willingness to abandon women’s fundamental rights in exchange for a few votes (and perhaps at the cost of much more), why trust Democrats to stand by other fundamentals? Believe it or not, whether or not the party stands firm on abortion is about more than abortion; it could even mark the beginning of a great migration of key Democratic voting blocs if the party doesn’t soon come to a moral reconciliation.
At any rate, sure, let’s say for argument’s sake that backing anti-abortion candidates wins the party a seat or two—what would the long-term consequences be? With 2018 underway, the Democratic Party is staring in the face of its destiny: It can draw lines around fundamental human rights and show the country it’s a party driven by core values of equality and dignity for all. Or it can go down another path altogether: a slippery slope of compromises that will have untold costs—all of which will be paid by America’s most vulnerable.
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We Can’t Compromise On Abortion Rights, And We Shouldn’t Try To.
Contrary to Democratic leaders’ idealistic soundbites, abortion isn’t about compromise.
We can’t talk about abortion and compromise without acknowledging the vastly disproportionate power dynamic governing the issue. If a lawmaker “agrees to disagree” with their female constituents, they’ll retain the power to pass laws that will wholly deprive women of their bodily autonomy.
Ultimately, in this exchange, one group but not the other is accorded decision-making power. One group but not the other is told that their right to control their bodies is less important than someone else’s moral superiority complex. And notably, the group making decisions about what will never directly affect them is male—80 percent of Congress and 75 percent of state legislators are men.
Of course, the conflict isn’t limited to women and lawmakers—it includes scientists and medical professionals, who seem to side with women every time. The aforementioned conflict isn’t limited to a battle of morals, and nor is there a shred of morality in anti-choice politicians staying true to their personal values by hurting women.
Rather, it’s the pitting of discredited abortion junk science and the personal sentiments of politicians that adult women are less deserving than fetuses of basic rights, against fetal science and public health. How can we compromise on what should be recognized as objective facts, demand equal respect for fundamentally unequal, opposing views? Simply put, we can’t—and we shouldn’t try to.
A key talking point in favor of supporting anti-choice Democratic candidates is the idea of ideological inclusivity in the party. But we can’t talk about ideological inclusivity without considering the groups whom certain ideologies would hurt and deprive of rights.
Historically and to this day, it’s always been poor women of color and immigrants who, often having more limited access to reliable birth control and sexual health education due to their socioeconomic positions, have struggled with unwanted pregnancy and accessing safe, affordable, and, at times life-saving, abortion care. It’s 2018, and black women are still 243 percent more likely to die of pregnancy or childbirth-related complications.
If a compromise requires Democrats to abandon the vulnerable and endorse their suffering, it’s not a compromise the party should be making. Liberals and conservatives alike may harp on about the purported destructiveness of ideological exclusivity among “coastal elitists,” but there’s nothing wrong with ideological exclusivity if this means maintaining basic moral standards for the people and policies Democrats support.
There is, however, something wrong with exclusivity when it comes to whose rights and dignities the Democrats choose to protect—and whose they treat as political bargaining chips.