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 May 30, 2017

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 régime 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.

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

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH