WMC News & Features

Winning with choice—good politics and good policy

Wmc Features Un Abortion Protest Chuck Fishman Getty Images

Last month, Representative Ben Ray Lujan, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Hill that the Democratic Party will not take a candidate’s stance on abortion into account when determining funding for 2018 races. Virtually every national Democratic leader has made a similar statement, despite personally advocating for pro-choice policies throughout their careers. In May, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, one of the most powerful voices in the Democratic Party, said that Democrats should not use abortion as a “litmus test” on its candidates, arguing that the Democratic Party is “not a rubber-stamp party.” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer used similar rhetoric, suggesting Democrats are a “big-tent party.” And Senator Bernie Sanders, 2016 presidential hopeful, campaigned for an anti-choice mayoral candidate in Nebraska.  

Democratic leaders repeatedly defend this choice, citing pragmatism ahead of 2018 midterms as their purported rationale. I get it. I too want Democrats to pick up seats in Congress. We need more Democrats fighting for the American values that the GOP won’t stand up for. President Trump has called Mexicans rapists, suggested that he can sexually assault women because of his power, and morally equated white supremacists with those working for racial justice (to name just a few of his ever-growing list of degrading attacks on those who differ from him). But what’s more outrageous is the complicity of Republican members of Congress. It has become clear that electing more Democrats to Congress is the only way to move our country in a different direction.

But where is it that we want to go? What are the values that are the backbone of the Democratic Party? According to their own platform, Democrats have said they want “a more just economy and more equal society.” They also believe that the protection of “rights and opportunities for women and girls is essential for security and economic growth.” And yet, to insinuate that abortion isn’t fundamental to creating a more just economy and equal society for women and girls suggests a lack of understanding by Democratic leaders about the inherent connectedness of these issues. A woman’s autonomy over her body should be reason enough for the Democratic Party to be strongly and insistently pro-choice; but the truth is that abortion is not an isolated social issue. It’s not a fringe issue based in ideology about religion, choice, or life. Abortion is deeply tied to economic issues like reducing poverty, supporting working families, and building the middle class. Access to abortion is essential to a woman’s economic opportunity, security, and prosperity.

The research shows us this is true. The University of California San Francisco conducted a longitudinal study known as the Turnaway Study, which tracked what happens to women who seek abortion but are “turned away.” The researchers found that 1) most women who were seeking abortion were already struggling financially, 2) financial concerns were the main reason women wanted an abortion, and, significantly, 3) the women who were denied an abortion were three times more likely than those who obtained an abortion to be living under the poverty line two years later.

An important analysis of this data by the Reproductive Health Technologies Project, a nonprofit that focuses on ensuring all women can access safe reproductive health technologies, found that “for a woman who is already struggling to make ends meet, being able to end an unintended pregnancy is a critical component to her and her family’s ability to get out of poverty, become economically self-sufficient, and maintain employment … it is undeniable that being cut off from abortion care only increases the economic distress of those already living in poverty.” The implication of these findings can’t be understated: A lack of access to abortion keeps poor women poor. If the Democrats want to lift women out of poverty, they can’t compromise on abortion, because abortion access is foundational to economic justice.

There is also a strong body of research confirming that a lack of access to abortion harms women of color more severely than white women, making abortion access a racial justice issue, too. In general, there are significant disparities in health care access between white women and women of color. But this is especially apparent in reproductive care. For example, black women die in pregnancy or childbirth at a rate of three to four times the rate of white women. Regarding abortion, a 2016 University of Buffalo study found that about half of the women who tried to obtain funding for an abortion from the National Network of Abortion Funds were black, indicating that women of color face more barriers when trying to obtain an abortion. This can be explained in large part due to anti-choice policies like the Hyde Amendment, which blocks federal funds from paying for abortion services. These policies disproportionally affect women of color since a higher percentage of women of color are covered by Medicaid than white women. Consequently, women on Medicaid are often forced to carry to term, or pay out of pocket for their abortion, which can cost anywhere from $450 to $1,750.

In order for the U.S. to make progress toward more just policies, Democrats need to win more Congressional seats in 2018. But what will happen if there is a Democratic majority with an increasing proportion of anti-choice members? Will those anti-choice members vote to protect Planned Parenthood and to repeal the Hyde Amendment? Will they fight against TRAP laws and work tirelessly to open new women’s health clinics in their home states? If it comes to it, will they cast the deciding vote in favor of women?

The answer is no. Just take a look at the six anti-choice Democrats on the Hill (it’s no coincidence that they are all men). All six of these men have voted to defund Planned Parenthood or restrict abortion access in some shape or form. Speaking about litmus tests, anti-choice Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly told the Atlantic, “We ought to be able to include everyone, as opposed to saying, ‘No, we don’t want these folks, even though they fight with us on jobs, even though they fight with us for economic rights, even though they fight with us on health care.’ It just seems to me to be very, very short-sighted.” In the past, Donnelly supported a 20-week abortion ban, co-sponsored legislation that would prohibit transporting minors across state lines to get an abortion, and voted to defund Planned Parenthood in 2015. This strikes at the heart of the very reason Democrats shouldn’t support anti-choice candidates. Anti-choice Democrats, like Donnelly, repeatedly vote against women and their reproductive rights. They don’t see (or apparently care) that their anti-choice votes perpetuate a system of inequality whereby women, particularly women of color, will never be economically equal to their male counterparts.

It’s one thing to be against abortion personally, in that you would never have one or want your partner to have one. It’s another thing to be anti-choice politically, failing to protect a woman’s legal right to choose, where your vote impacts millions of women around the country. Legislators can be personally anti-abortion and still vote for pro-choice policies. Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Tim Kaine exemplify this belief. In the 2012 vice presidential debate, Biden said, “I accept my church's position that life begins at conception. That's the church's judgment. I accept it in my personal life. But I refuse to impose it on equally devout Christians and Muslims and Jews and—I just refuse to impose that on others … I do not believe that we have a right to tell other people that women can't control their body.” Kaine has also vocalized his personal opposition to abortion, while remaining an ally to the reproductive rights movement, with a 100 percent pro-choice voting record while in the U.S. Senate. Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood, argues that “people can distinguish between their own personal feelings and what they believe government or politicians should do. And people even in some of the most conservative areas of the country who may themselves personally say, ‘I would never choose to have an abortion,’ or, ‘That’s not something that’s right for me,’ also absolutely do not believe politicians should be making decisions about pregnancy for women.”

The fight for gender equality will be a long one, which is why Democrats can’t wait until after 2018 is over to fight for women. What if the Democrats lose again in 2018—will they keep supporting anti-choice candidates then? What if they lose the presidential election in 2020? The Democratic Party needs to gear up for a long fight ahead and keep the pressure on candidates like Donnelly (who is up for re-election in 2018), by threatening to withhold campaign funding unless they come around on abortion and women’s health. Megadonor Tom Steyer has already said he won’t financially support anti-choice candidates. Now, the party needs to find the right candidates who support a platform centered around comprehensive economic policies that include full access to reproductive care, including abortion. Those pro-choice Democrats look like Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a newly elected member in the House who is one of the few officials to say that candidates who want Democratic support should have to uphold the right to choose.

We need to move our country forward, and we can’t do that by selling out women to win.  

More articles by Category: Politics
More articles by Tag: Abortion, Elections



Sign up for our Newsletter

Learn more about topics like these by signing up for Women’s Media Center’s newsletter.