Democrats’ Waffling on Abortion Rights Isn’t Just Wrong, It’s a Huge Political Mistake

The party needs an uncompromising moral vision that will energize its base: pro-choice women.

Kathleen Geier

Demonstrators in front of the Thompson Center in Chicago voice their support for Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights on February 10. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Whenever the Democrats lose a major election, unhappy consequences are sure to follow. Among the most infuriating of these is the party’s unseemly haste to put women’s rights on the chopping block. It happened in 2004, following John Kerry’s presidential loss, when we were treated to Howard Dean blathering that I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats” and a flood of op-eds with titles like How pro-choice groups are hurting the Democrats.” Twelve years later, here we go again. We’re seeing the same avalanche of dreary op-eds by the fetus fancier contingent, including at least three in the New York Times.

"I understand how being poor and coming from a racially stigmatized group can threaten your sense of self-determination and agency. The woman who come to me for abortions are choosing a path different from what others would script for them."

Even more depressing is the stampede of prominent Democrats and progressives advertising their eagerness to compromise on choice. At a time when women’s reproductive rights are more vulnerable than they’ve been in decades, party leaders like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi have been pushing the weaselly message that being pro-choice is not a litmus test” for Democrats and that the party is a big tent.” Tom Perez and Bernie Sanders not only made similar comments, but also supported the anti-choice Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello (who lost). Perez, like the others, reaffirmed his support of choice, but his recent announcement that he would meet with Democrats for Life has done little to allay pro-choicers’ concerns.

Sanders’ and the Democrats’ shakiness on women’s reproductive freedom is a betrayal of progressive values, but it’s not just that. If Democrats wish to grow the party, going wobbly on its support of reproductive justice is counterproductive and remarkably short-sighted. Such a stance is wrong as a matter of principle and wrong as a matter of political pragmatism.

Many of those advocating that the Democrats abandon their commitment to choice urge Democrats to frame abortion as a moral issue. In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, Catholic theologian Thomas Groome argues that Democratic politicians should publicly acknowledge that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern.”

Like Groome, I agree that abortion is profound moral issue, but unlike him, I believe that progressives need to start embracing abortion as a positive moral good, rather than stigmatizing it as a necessary evil. A lot of reproductive rights messaging has been euphemistic, equivocating and terrible — e.g., the Clintonite formulation that abortion should be safe, legal and rare.” Then there is that old standby, choice,” which conjures up a neoliberal vision of women as consumers in a marketplace, rather than as political subjects making demands of society and the state. In recent years, the reproductive rights movement has eased up on the choice” language, but it still hasn’t found a compelling alternative. (For the sake of convenience, I still use choice” and its variants when writing about abortion).

As Groome suggests, Democrats need to find a way of talking about women’s reproductive rights in terms of morality and values. But the traditionalist Catholic doctrines he promotes are hardly the last word on morality. Supporters of reproductive justice also have a powerful moral vision, one rooted in progressive values like ending economic and gender oppression, expanding liberty and creating a society that serves human needs.

If there’s anyone who has shown the importance of values-based politics, that person is Bernie Sanders. Sanders came shockingly close to being elected the Democratic party’s presidential nominee because he campaigned on a powerfully articulated left economic vision, not incrementalist mush. His conviction-based politics have served him well; he is now the de facto leader of the Left and the most popular politician in America. I voted for Sanders in the presidential primary and continue to admire him for putting big progressive ideas (single payer, free college, etc.) back into political circulation and for the activism he has inspired. But his statements and actions — endorsing anti-abortion candidates such as Heath Mello and Marcy Kaptur even though there are many pro-choice progressives who are far more deserving, describing Mello as progressive,” referring to abortion as a social issue”—are disturbing reminders that he does not view reproductive justice as central to the progressive agenda. Dismissing abortion as only a social issue is objectionable, not only because it’s marginalizing but also because it’s simply not true. Abortion is, of course, also an economic issue. This is an idea we’re hearing a lot about these days, but since many progressives still have not fully integrated it into their worldview, it bears repeating.

The economic case 

Abortion is an economic issue in two senses: First of all, it is about what class of women gets an abortion, and thus is most profoundly affected when abortion access is denied. Poor women have a rate of unintended pregnancy five times the rate of higher-income women (those with incomes at least 200 percent of the poverty level), and fully 75 percent of women who have abortions are poor or low-income. The reasons for the class disparity in abortion rates are a bit murky, but we do know that low-income women are less likely to have access to contraception and more likely to experience rape. In any case, the demographics of abortion make one thing clear: the war on abortion rights is a class war on poor women, full stop.

When legislators pass laws that add unnecessary costs and delays to the abortion procedure, it is poor women who pay the price. Yet they are the group least able to afford an abortion in the first place. Anyone who thinks abortion is not economic issue should try paying for one, because they don’t come cheap. The median price of a first-trimester abortion is about $500, and a second-trimester procedure can cost over $1,500. That is a lot of money, especially for the nearly 60 percent of American households which say they would be unable to afford a $500 emergency expense. And those figures don’t even factor in travel expenses and the cost of taking unpaid time off work.

In addition to the stark class disparities of abortion, there is also the fact that having a child is among the most consequential economic decisions a woman will ever make. Because we live in a society that provides few resources to families, the burden of unpaid care work falls heavily on the shoulders of mothers. Decent child care is scarce and expensive, vanishingly few women have paid family leave (it’s available to only 12 percent of workers), and in contrast to many European countries, the U.S. does not provide families with a child allowance. Being a mother also takes a toll on women’s wages. Women who have children earn significantly less than women who don’t, even when controlling for education, experience, and other factors.

In surveys, women rank economic concerns as among their top reasons for getting an abortion. Over three-quarters of women having abortions cite their inability to afford a child and their concerns that having a child would interfere with work or school. Research has confirmed that abortion access has a powerful impact on women’s economic status. The landmark turnaway study” compared women who had abortions with similar women who were turned away” from the abortion care they requested. Two years later, the women who were denied an abortion had three times greater odds of ending up below the poverty line. But the women who had abortions were more likely to follow through on education and career plans.

It is clear that reproductive justice is one of the cornerstones of economic justice. The lack of reproductive rights perpetuates women’s, and especially poor women’s, economic oppression and is a serious structural obstacle to women’s advancement in our society. Anti-choice policies are a driver of economic inequality: both the economic inequality of women relative to men and of poor and working class families relative to more affluent households.

The moral case

Gender and economic justice arguments are central to the progressive moral case for abortion. The moral case for the antis rests on ideas about where life begins. Since that is a question that a secular framework can never settle, ultimately, the anti-abortion case depends on God.

Contrary to popular belief, however, religious arguments about abortion are not the exclusive property of the anti-choice side. In his fascinating new memoir Life’s Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, abortion doctor Willie Parker makes a forceful case for reproductive justice as both a progressive value and a Christian moral imperative. In the context of our endless national abortion debate, where the loudest voices are from pundits and politicians who have no experience whatsoever with abortion, and where nearly every religious point of view we hear comes down firmly on the side of the antis, Parker’s book is a refreshing departure from the usual stale perspectives. Parker, whom In These Times profiled in 2015, is an African-American ob-gyn who every day risks his life by performing abortions in the Deep South, where other doctors refuse because of violent threats. He is also a devout Christian who approaches his calling with a powerful sense of religious mission. I believe that as an abortion provider, I am doing God’s work,” he writes. For Parker, providing abortions for the women who need them is an act of radical Christian love, because alleviating needless suffering is a Christian’s most sacred responsibility.”

One of the book’s virtues is the human face Parker puts on the patients he serves, many of them women of color and most of them working class or poor. There’s the nationally ranked runner in training to qualify for the Olympics; the mother of three who just got divorced; the woman who just lost her job (and her health insurance); the 12-year-old impregnated by her foster father. Parker, who was born in rural Alabama to a family so poor their house lacked electricity, sees his work as a blow against the interlocking oppressions that shape these women’s lives:

I understand how being poor and coming from a racially stigmatized group can threaten your sense of self-determination and agency. The woman who come to me for abortions are choosing a path different from what others would script for them.

Parker’s sensitivity to the racial and economic dimensions of reproductive freedom ally him with reproductive justice, the visionary movement created by women of color that ties women’s reproductive rights to other vital social justice goals. Like the reproductive rights movement, reproductive justice activists strongly support keeping abortion legal and accessible and have fought against policies that infringe upon that right, such as mandatory waiting periods, parental notification laws, and bans on using public funds for abortion. But the reproductive justice vision expands beyond a narrow focus on the legal regime regulating abortion. It’s not just about the right to abortion and birth control, but it’s also about the right to have a child, and to parent a child in a safe, healthy environment. The mission of the reproductive justice movement is, in the words of Loretta Ross, one of the movement’s founders, to fight for the necessary enabling conditions to realize these rights.” Those conditions include, but are hardly limited to, everything from the social provision ­of child care, health care, and paid family leave to an end to welfare caps, police brutality, and environmental racism.

Reproductive justice activists understand that those goals require not just laws protecting choice, but far-ranging structural changes and some serious economic redistribution. The movement’s comprehensive focus on women’s lives and needs provide a more morally compelling framework for abortion rights than the traditional reproductive rights perspective, that turns abortion into an abstraction that’s about privacy or choice. And because its strategy is oriented toward organizing and coalition work with allied social justice groups, reproductive justice is a movement that is a natural fit for the kind of grassroots revolution Bernie Sanders is calling for. Reproductive justice activists are working for exactly the kind of changes that he has advocated. That’s why it’s been so disheartening that he and some other progressives have been treating reproductive freedom as a second-order concern.

The pragmatic case

It is understandable why, in the short-term, the Democratic Party chooses to funnel resources to anti-abortion candidates. At this low point in the party’s fortunes, it desperately needs to win some elections. And hey, if I lived in some of those districts, I would probably vote for some of those candidates too, because the alternatives are even worse. But the problem is that Democratic party establishment lacks the vision and imagination to think is beyond the short-term. Marinated in the Beltway conventional wisdom of 30 years ago, they seem unaware that our country has become so bitterly divided on partisan lines that most anti-choice voters would never dream of voting for a Democrat. This causes them to chronically underestimate support for pro-choice politics. But seven in ten Americans now support Roe v. Wade, and even in red America, support for choice is far stronger than many people realize.

Earlier this year in one of the most heavily Republican congressional districts in Kansas, a pro-choice Democrat with virtually no support from the DNC or DCCC came within 7 points of beating his GOP opponent — even though just a few months ago, Donald Trump carried the district by 27 points. John Ossoff, the pro-choice Democrat running for Newt Gingrich’s old seat in Georgia, won 48 percent of the vote, beating his nearest Republican opponent, vocal anti-choicer Karen Handel, by nearly 30 points and narrowly missing an outright victory. (The winner will be determined in a runoff election in June.) And voters in states as scarlet red as South Dakota and Mississippi have soundly rejected referendums that would have restricted abortion (in Mississippi, the pro-choice vote was 58 percent). These are encouraging outcomes. Why, then, are party leaders engaging in high-profile efforts on behalf of anti-abortion candidates like Mello while ignoring, until relatively late in the game, a pro-choice Democrat like Montana Congressional candidate Rob Quist? (Quist ultimately lost, but significantly outperformed benchmark expectations for Democrats in the district). In today’s deeply polarized political environment, turning out the base, which pro-choice groups are effective in doing, is a more promising strategy than misguided appeals to a (largely nonexistent) mushy middle. If the Democrats were smart, they would realize that mobilizing pro-choice politics could be a powerful strategy for rebuilding a party that in many areas of the country is flat on its back. 

A pro-choice message cannot be the only such strategy, because an inclusive economic vision must remain central. Running for the Senate in Colorado, Democratic candidate Mark Udall focused heavily on reproductive rights but ignored practically everything else; he lost. Nor should a reproductive freedom message be too narrowly focused. Georgia Democrat Jon Ossoff has been running for Congress on pro-choice themes, but his ads have stressed an austerity message. Austerity policies are economically disastrous and completely at odds with progressive values and reproductive justice.

In 2017, women’s reproductive rights are more fragile than at any time since 1973, the year of Roe v. Wade. Under the watch of Democratic president, Barack Obama, abortion rights continued to erode, as they did under the Democratic president before him, Bill Clinton. Provisions in the Affordable Care Act that Obama himself supported have forced more women to pay out of pocket for the procedure. Just in the last few years, women have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of humiliating, infantilizing state laws that whittled away their rights. Abortion providers are closing in record numbers, the number of women arrested for actions related to their pregnancy has skyrocketed, and Trump and the Republicans are threatening to defund Planned Parenthood. And yet, the Democratic party, which has a long history of elevating anti-choice politicians (e.g., former senate majority leader Harry Reid, Vice President Joe abortion is always wrong” Biden, Vice Presidential nominee Tim Kaine), is blithely continuing the practice. Many in the party are rallying behind so-called progressive hero” Tom Perriello, a Democrat with an anti-choice record who’s running for governor of Virginia.

What is so enraging is that while the Democrats have been busy selling out the cause of women’s rights, women have been busy saving the party’s sorry ass. It was the Women’s March, after all, that more than any other single post-election event launched the anti-Trump resistance movement. That movement is overwhelmingly female, a finding that’s been confirmed by surveys as well as reporting in the field. While the male Democratic establishment was still in deer-in-the-headlights mode, women were leading efforts to save the Affordable Care Act, protest Trump’s Muslim ban, and rally opposition to his cabinet nominees. In Democratic campaigns, women have been increasingly visible, both as foot soldiers and as candidates. According to Emily’s List, since the election, there’s been an astounding 1,000 percent increase in pro-choice women running for office.

That women are the ones spearheading these activist projects is not particularly surprising, when you consider that women in the Democratic Party significantly outnumber men. A 2016 survey found that 54 percent of women identify as Democrats or Democrat leaners, as opposed to only 41 percent of men. There’s also evidence that Democratic women’s support for choice, which was already strong, is getting even stronger. In less than a year, Democratic women’s support for choice shot up 18 points, to 85 percent (as compared to 71 percent for Democratic men).

But once again, the Democrats are continuing their long-standing practice of taking our concerns and our votes for granted. Women are the backbone of the party, so why is it that we are the ones perennially asked to sacrifice our rights? Sure, if Democrats continue to make damaging compromises on reproductive rights, they may win over a handful of anti-choice voters. But that gain would be more than offset by what they’d stand to lose — the enthusiasm and activist energies of their most valuable resource: women. For a party that is on life support and needs all the help it can get, that would be a dangerous road.

A condensed version of this piece will run in the July issue of In These Times.

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Kathleen Geier has written for The Nation, The Baffler and The New Republic. She lives in Chicago.
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