Democrats Need To Be Even Better on Abortion To Win the “Blue Tsunami” They Need
An interview about the midterms with reproductive justice pioneer Loretta Ross.
The pundits agree: The abortion vote spared the Democrats a bruising. CNN exit polls found that 27% of voters ranked abortion as their top concern, and those voters broke 3-to-1 for Democrats.
The party of Biden managed to successfully coalesce its talking points by linking the Dobbs decision to Trumpism and the far-right January 6 attacks. “It was not just theoretical on what it would mean to have Republicans in charge; it was actually in front of voters,” said political commentator Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Cook Political Report, on PBS Newshour.
A record number of states — five — had abortion-related propositions on the ballot to support Democrats’ case to the voters. Montanans and Kentuckians (like Kansans in August) staved off bills enshrining anti-abortion codes in state law, while Vermonters, Michiganders and Californians fortified their constitutions to protect reproductive freedom. Special mention goes to North Carolinians for making sure the Republicans didn’t win a veto-proof supermajority, which let Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper block abortion restrictions and safeguard the state as a hub for abortion access in the Southeast.
What the pundits didn’t catch is that two of those winning pro-choice state propositions are peak “reproductive justice,” which goes broader than the “pro-choice” focus on accessing safe and legal abortion historically advanced by cis white feminists. Reflecting the struggles of people of color — as well as working-class and poor white people — for autonomy around parenting, the SisterSong website defines reproductive justice as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities.” In reproductive justice, what happens after a baby is born is important, too — like access to safe water and safe neighborhoods.
That call for bodily autonomy is echoed in Michigan’s bill to “to make and effectuate decisions about all matters relating to pregnancy, including but not limited to prenatal care, childbirth, postpartum care, contraception, sterilization, abortion care, miscarriage management and infertility care.” Vermont similarly drew on the reproductive justice language of “autonomy” and the ethos of maintaining bodily autonomy — which queer communities added to the definition of reproductive justice in 2004 — by enshrining “that an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course and shall not be denied or infringed unless justified by a compelling State interest achieved by the least restrictive means.”
The concept of reproductive justice dates back to 1994, when the group Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice took out a historic, 800-signatured, full-page statement in the Washington Post and Roll Call that defined the movement.
We can thank visionary MacArthur Genius grantee Loretta Ross, who co-founded the group (and who co-founded SisterSong three years later), for helping midwife the social-justice framework. Twenty-eight years later — and four months after Roe v. Wade fell — the MacArthur Genius committee in October recognized Ross for her achievement.
In These Times conversed with the still-stunned Ross over two days about how the Democrats can build a “blue tsunami” to reinstate abortion rights by broadening the abortion conversation and taking a stand against a morally bankrupt GOP. The conversation has been edited for space and clarification.
What are your overall thoughts about the midterms?
Loretta Ross (LR): My thoughts about the midterm elections are not about what was achieved, which was the elevation of abortion rights as an electoral issue and some very astonishing victories, but how it could have been better if there wasn’t a suppression of the Black vote, of youth votes, of women’s votes. The GOP cheats because they can’t compete. So, as good as it was, it could have been better.
I’m deeply disappointed that Stacey Abrams didn’t win, but I’m not surprised because I live in the deep South and getting white Southerners to vote against white supremacy has always been a problem. That’s one reason why [conservatives] are so afraid of young white voters; the 18-to-29-year-olds are vacating white supremacy and are voting for a progressive agenda. That’s why [the GOP] removed voting precincts from predominantly white campuses that are progressive, but they put them in at the conservative white campuses. So, they’re very targeted and strategic to keep us disenfranchised. It’s not about a “blue wave”; we need a blue tsunami to overturn this drive to neo-fascism in U.S. politics.
One of the groups you said that we need to call in to our coalition politics is the white pro-choice Republicans.
LR: The most surprisingly overlooked group is pro-choice white Republicans. It’s not so much that the pro-choice movement missed them, but the Republicans forgot about them. This overlooked group is the one who delivered the victories in Kansas and Kentucky because we [liberals and progressives] don’t have enough Democratic voters to have swung either of those states on abortion rights. That the Republicans so deeply ignored that part of their base — and actually drove some of them to support abortion rights through the overreach of Dobbs—is an unreported story. But, then, you don’t interfere with your enemy when they are making mistakes.
We need to understand how to read those who call themselves pro-life because, even within communities of color, we have people who define themselves as pro-life but do so from a very nuanced position. They say, “I wouldn’t have an abortion, but I wouldn’t stop you from having one.” That’s a pro-life position that I can agree with, and that’s why I call them pro-life as opposed to anti-abortion. The anti-abortion position is, “I wouldn’t have an abortion — and I’m going to stop you, too,” instead of understanding that it’s an individual’s moral choice on what they’re going to do in terms of family planning.
Another thing for me on how abortion is framed is that we tend to understate its economic implications. If nothing else, it has an impact on your life, such as whether or not you can afford to have a child or not, that you have a bed to put the child in, if you live in a neighborhood where there’s gun violence where your child has to dodge bullets on their way to school or in the school. So, when it’s only framed as a women’s issue, it misses the boat. It’s an economic-justice issue as well.
Would you say it’s a labor issue?
LR: Of course, because managing your fertility determines your relation to the workforce, such as whether you can experience economic security or economic precarity. Even the people who consider themselves relatively well-off — let’s say Google employees who have a benefit where they can store their eggs and have babies later — that’s an overpromise that can’t be realized. What the companies don’t tell you is that if you’re in your 40s and you try to retrieve those eggs and have a successful pregnancy, there’s only an 11% success rate. So, we have women who are being persuaded to delay their childbearing — and they want children — in the overpromise of reproductive technology that may not be true. An 11% success rate isn’t something you should bet your reproductive future on.
What else do you want to say about the midterm election?
LR: The key issue is the people who are trying to attach to the Right but sell themselves as centrists and moderates — they’re the ones who largely lost on the Democratic ticket. Nobody wants a fake Republican when they can vote for the real thing. The voters want someone who can articulate a vision that is different from the Republican Party. So, those who said they’re going to be tough on crime but want to be a Democrat, those who ran against student loan relief but still wanted to be a Democrat, those candidates who wanted to avoid talking about abortion rights and still wanted to be a Democrat — those are the ones who lost!
The Republican Party is composed of cowards and grifters. And it’s very difficult for me to imagine how you can run with an “R” behind your name without repudiating the cowards and the grifters in your midst. Like we say, you may not be a racist, but if you hang out with racists, that tells you who you prefer to be identified with. If you don’t want to be seen as a coward or a grifter, then you need to either repudiate them or stop hanging out with them.
It seems that President Biden is still trying to appeal to this imagined conservative or Republican — the William F. Buckley conservative. But does Biden realize that Buckley et al. created the Republicans he’s dealing with? The Republicans have been revealing their agenda for 40 years; who is Biden and his administration negotiating with, really?
LR: The problem is, in our imagination, we like to think there’s a strong difference between the two political parties. They share more in common than they don’t. They’re both beholden to corporate America. They both focus to a fault on the white voting public to the neglect of other constituencies. They both only seem to feel the pain of white people to the neglect of the pain of the rest of us.
But I also don’t assume that they’re the same. The Democratic Party will at least negotiate with us, and the Republican Party only wants to annihilate us. So, I do understand the difference between someone you can talk to and not win and someone who doesn’t even want to have the conversation.
Andrea Plaid’s work on race, gender, sex and sexuality has appeared at Newsweek.com, Vogue.com, Bitch.com and Rewire, among others. She is writing the forthcoming stylebook, Penning with the People, for the TFW/University of Arizona Press. She lives in Detroit.