The New Anti-Choice Democrats: Can We Work With Them?

Dana Goldstein

Reassuring Southern voters about core social issues like abortion was likely the only way Democrats could have won recent special elections in Mississippi and Louisiana. So how can reproductive health advocates get newly-elected anti-choice Dems to work with us?

In a campaign TV advertisement, Don Cazayoux, the Louisiana Democrat
who won a hotly contested Congressional seat in a May 3 special election,
introduced voters to his parents, Don Sr. and Ann. "We thought you
should know what he learned growing up," Ann Cazayoux said. As photographs
of Don Jr. with babies flashed across the screen, she continued, "We
taught him every life is precious." The words "Pro-life" appeared
in the bottom left hand corner.

Indeed, trumpeting broad opposition
to abortion rights was a key strategy of Cazayoux’s campaign. His
improbable three-point win occurred in a district where 59 percent of
the electorate had voted for George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.
Meanwhile, in north Mississippi, Democrat Travis Childers was making
a similar case. "Keep this in mind," Childers said matter of factly
in one ad. "I’m pro-life and pro-gun."
On May 14, Childers, too, was elected to Congress, in a district where
62 percent of voters had supported Bush’s reelection. Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, The AdvocateCazayoux, Photo by Arthur D. Lauck, The Advocate

Though both candidates ran
primarily on a platform of creating jobs and providing universal health
care, the media was fascinated by their anti-choice stances, calling
them "conservative," "Blue Dog" Democrats, despite their strong
pro-labor, antiwar positions. In part that’s not surprising; the mainstream
media has long identified politicians more by their statements on divisive
social issues than by their records on more complex economic ones.

But it would be naïve to downplay
Cazayoux and Childers’ anti-choice ideologies. As a state legislator,
Cazayoux voted for one of the harshest anti-abortion laws in the country,
outlawing abortion in every case except when the mother’s life is
at stake — including in cases of rape, incest, or if the woman’s
physical or emotional health is at risk. Cazayoux says he’d support similar legislation
at the federal level.

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Childers, whose previous job was as Prentiss County chancery clerk — a mostly administrative
position — doesn’t have a record on abortion. But when the National
Republican Campaign Committee attacked Childers by linking him to Barack
Obama’s opposition to so-called "partial birth abortion" bans
and support for comprehensive sex-ed, Childers hit back hard, claiming
he "didn’t know" and "had never even met" Obama.

In a reproductive health dream
world, pro-choice Democrats would have been elected in Lousiana’s
eighth district and Mississippi’s first. Given widespread anger with
the Bush administration and its conservative policies, maybe Childers
and Cazayoux could have moderated their abortion positions and still
cruised to victory. But in reality, reassuring conservative Southern
voters about core social issues was likely the only way Nancy Pelosi
could have added these two seats to her total. And by preserving a continued
Democratic majority in the House, Cazayoux and Childers, whatever their
personal opinions on abortion, ensure that bills restraining choice
will largely stay off the legislative docket. The last major Congressional
vote seeking to restrict American women’s reproductive rights occurred
in 2006, when Republicans were still in control.

Of course, pro-choicers want
to do much more than just keep existing reproductive rights from being
rolled back; we want to expand upon those rights and make them more
uniform throughout the country. We want women in cities, suburbs and
rural places to enjoy the full range of reproductive health education, information,
care, and yes, access to abortion, regardless of their ability to pay,
their age, or any other facet of their identity. Can anti-choice Democrats
be allies in those goals?

For some of those goals, the
answer is yes. Since 2005, anti- and mixed-choice Democrats have been
pushing the 95-10 initiative, which seeks to reduce the abortion rate
(which is, in fact, already going down) by 95 percent over the next
decade. While the plan would expand federal support for family planning
and access to contraceptives, it also includes parental notification
laws and a ban on certain later-term abortion procedures. Those aren’t
policies many Democrats who identify as pro-choice will get behind.

But Congressional advocates
for reproductive health, as well as pro-choice interest groups, should
be aggressively reaching out to anti-choice Democrats on issues such
as comprehensive sex education and access to birth control. When it
comes to pharmacists’ responsibility to provide women with The Pill,
for example, even those who support restricting abortion rights can
agree that women have the right not to face discrimination when filling
a prescription.

This year, House Democrats
continued funding President Bush’s abstinence-only program. That should
change during the next Congress, but it won’t be possible without
the support of a core group of socially conservative Democrats and socially
moderate Republicans. These centrists should agree to put aside their
ideology on abortion to ensure that our children’s’ education is
medically and scientifically sound.

On later-term abortions, parental
notification, and federal funding for abortion, pro-choicers may need
to part ways with the Cazayouxs and Childerses of the world. We should
do so respectfully and without alienating them or their supporters.
Just by being Democrats from the South, these politicians are giving
reproductive rights a major lift. By rebuilding progressivism in that
region, they ensure that more Democrats — some of them pro-choice —
will receive a fair hearing when they run for office. Stay tuned, for
example, to Josh Segall, a 29-year old pro-choice Dem running
for Congress in a traditionally Republican Alabama district. Candidates
like Segall have the potential to de-stigmatize pro-choice
politics in the South. But for that to happen, "Democrat" can’t
be a scary word. Guys like Cazayoux and Childers help make that transition
happen.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Republicans Can’t Help But Play Politics With the Judiciary

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

Republicans have a good grip on the courts and are fighting hard to keep it that way.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Linda Greenhouse has another don’t-miss column in the New York Times on how the GOP outsourced the judicial nomination process to the National Rifle Association.

Meanwhile, Dahlia Lithwick has this smart piece on how we know the U.S. Supreme Court is the biggest election issue this year: The Republicans refuse to talk about it.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is urging doctors to fill in the blanks left by “abstinence-centric” sex education and talk to their young patients about issues including sexual consent and gender identity.

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Good news from Alaska, where the state’s supreme court struck down its parental notification law.

Bad news from Virginia, though, where the supreme court struck down Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s executive order restoring voting rights to more than 200,000 felons.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) will leave behind one of the most politicized state supreme courts in modern history.

Turns out all those health gadgets and apps leave their users vulnerable to inadvertently disclosing private health data.

Julie Rovner breaks down the strategies anti-choice advocates are considering after their Supreme Court loss in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.   

Finally, Becca Andrews at Mother Jones writes that Texas intends to keep passing abortion restrictions based on junk science, despite its loss in Whole Woman’s Health.

Commentary Politics

Democrats’ Latest Platform Silent on Discriminatory Welfare System

Lauren Rankin

The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

While the Republican Party has adopted one of the most regressive, punitive, and bigoted platforms in recent memory, the Democratic Party seems to be moving decisively in the opposite direction. The current draft of the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains some of the most progressive positions that the party has taken in decades. It calls for a federal minimum wage of $15; a full repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits the use of federal Medicaid funding for abortion care; and a federal nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of LGBTQ people.

All three of these are in direct response to the work of grassroots activists and coalitions that have been shifting the conversation and pushing the party to the left.

But there is a critical issue—one that affects millions in the United States—that is missing entirely from the party platform draft: fixing our broken and discriminatory welfare system.

It’s been 20 years since President Bill Clinton proudly declared that “we are ending welfare as we know it” when he signed into law a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. welfare system. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996 implemented dramatic changes to welfare payments and eligibility, putting in place the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. In the two decades since its enactment, TANF has not only proved to be blatantly discriminatory, but it has done lasting damage.

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In one fell swoop, TANF ended the federal guarantee of support to low-income single mothers that existed under the now-defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. AFDC had become markedly unpopular and an easy target by the time President Clinton signed welfare reform legislation into law, with the racist, mythic trope of the “welfare queen” becoming pervasive in the years leading up to AFDC’s demise.

Ronald Reagan popularized this phrase while running for president in 1976 and it caught fire, churning up public resentment against AFDC and welfare recipients, particularly Black women, who were painted as lazy and mooching off the government. This trope underwrote much of conservative opposition to AFDC; among other things, House Republican’s 1994 “Contract with America,” co-authored by Newt Gingrich, demanded an end to AFDC and vilified teen mothers and low-income mothers with multiple children.

TANF radically restructured qualifications for welfare assistance, required that recipients sustain a job in order to receive benefits, and ultimately eliminated the role of the federal state in assisting poor citizens. The promise of AFDC and welfare assistance more broadly, including SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps) benefits, is that the federal government has an inherent role of caring for and providing for its most vulnerable citizens. With the implementation of TANF, that promise was deliberately broken.

At the time of its passage, Republicans and many Democrats, including President Bill Clinton, touted TANF as a means of motivating those receiving assistance to lift themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, meaning they would now have to work while receiving benefits. But the idea that those in poverty can escape poverty simply by working harder and longer evades the fact that poverty is cyclical and systemic. Yet, that is what TANF did: It put the onus for ending poverty on the individual, rather than dealing with the structural issues that perpetuate the state of being in poverty.

TANF also eliminated any federal standard of assistance, leaving it up to individual states to determine not only the amount of financial aid that they provide, but what further restrictions state lawmakers wish to place on recipients. Not only that, but the federal TANF program instituted a strict, lifetime limit of five years for families to receive aid and a two-year consecutive limit, which only allows an individual to receive two years of consecutive aid at a time. If after five total years they still require assistance to care for their family and themself, no matter their circumstances, they are simply out of luck.

That alone is an egregious violation of our inalienable constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Still, TANF went a step further: It also allowed states to institute more pernicious, discriminatory policies. In order to receive public assistance benefits through TANF, low-income single mothers are subjected to intense personal scrutiny, sexual and reproductive policing, and punitive retribution that does not exist for public assistance recipients in programs like Social Security and Supplemental Security Income disability programs, programs that Democrats not only continue to support, but use as a rallying cry. And yet, few if any Democrats are crying out for a more just welfare system.

There are so many aspects of TANF that should motivate progressives, but perhaps none more than the family cap and forced paternity identification policies.

Welfare benefits through the TANF program are most usually determined by individual states based on household size, and family caps allow a state to deny welfare recipients’ additional financial assistance after the birth of another child. At least 19 states currently have family cap laws on the books, which in some cases allow the state to deny additional assistance to recipients who give birth to another child. 

Ultimately, this means that if a woman on welfare becomes pregnant, she is essentially left with deciding between terminating her pregnancy or potentially losing her welfare benefits, depending on which state she lives in. This is not a free and valid choice, but is a forced state intervention into the private reproductive practices of the women on welfare that should appall and enrage progressive Democrats.

TANF’s “paternafare,” or forced paternity identification policy, is just as egregious. Single mothers receiving TANF benefits are forced to identify the father of their children so that the state may contact and demand financial payment from them. This differs from nonwelfare child support payments, in which the father provides assistance directly to the single mother of his child; this policy forces the fathers of low-income single women on welfare to give their money directly to the state rather than the mother of their child. For instance, Indiana requires TANF recipients to cooperate with their local county prosecutor’s child support program to establish paternity. Some states, like Utah, lack an exemption for survivors of domestic violence as well as children born of rape and incest, as Anna Marie Smith notes in her seminal work Welfare Reform and Sexual Regulation. This means that survivors of domestic violence may be forced to identify and maintain a relationship with their abusers, simply because they are enrolled in TANF.

The reproductive and sexual policing of women enrolled in TANF is a deeply discriminatory and unconstitutional intrusion. And what’s also disconcerting is that the program has failed those enrolled in it.

TANF was created to keep single mothers from remaining on welfare rolls for an indeterminate amount of time, but also with the express goal of ensuring that these young women end up in the labor force. It was touted by President Bill Clinton and congressional Republicans as a realistic, work-based solution that could lift single mothers up out of poverty and provide opportunities for prosperity. In reality, it’s been a failure, with anywhere from 42 to 74 percent of those who exited the program remaining poor.

As Jordan Weissmann detailed over at Slate, while the number of women on welfare decreased significantly since 1996, TANF left in its wake a new reality: “As the rolls shrank, a new generation of so-called disconnected mothers emerged: single parents who weren’t working, in school, or receiving welfare to support themselves or their children. According to [the Urban Institute’s Pamela] Loprest, the number of these women rose from 800,000 in 1996 to 1.2 million in 2008.” Weissmann also noted that researchers have found an uptick in “deep or extreme poverty” since TANF went into effect.

Instead of a system that enables low-income single mothers a chance to escape the cycle of poverty, what we have is a racist system that denies aid to those who need it most, many of whom are people of color who have been and remain systemically impoverished.

The Democratic Party platform draft has an entire plank focused on how to “Raise Incomes and Restore Economic Security for the Middle Class,” but what about those in poverty? What about the discriminatory and broken welfare system we have in place that ensures not only that low-income single mothers feel stigmatized and demoralized, but that they lack the supportive structure to even get to the middle class at all? While the Democratic Party is developing strategies and potential policies to support the middle class, it is neglecting those who are in need the most, and who are suffering the most as a result of President Bill Clinton’s signature legislation.

While the national party has not budged on welfare reform since President Bill Clinton signed the landmark legislation in 1996, there has been some state-based movement. Just this month, New Jersey lawmakers, led by Democrats, passed a repeal of the state’s family cap law, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican Gov. Chris Christie. California was more successful, though: The state recently repealed its Maximum Family Grant rule, which barred individuals on welfare from receiving additional aid when they had more children.

It’s time for the national Democratic Party to do the same. For starters, the 2016 platform should include a specific provision calling for an end to family cap laws and forced paternity identification. If the Democratic Party is going to be the party of reproductive freedom—demonstrated by its call to repeal both the federal Hyde and Helms amendments—that must include women who receive welfare assistance. But the Democrats should go even further: They must embrace and advance a comprehensive overhaul of our welfare system, reinstating the federal guarantee of financial support. The state-based patchwork welfare system must be replaced with a federal welfare assistance program, one that provides educational incentives as well as a base living wage.

Even President Bill Clinton and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton both acknowledge that the original welfare reform bill had serious issues. Today, this bill and its discriminatory legacy remain a progressive thorn in the side of the Democratic Party—but it doesn’t have to be. It’s time for the party to admit that welfare reform was a failure, and a discriminatory one at that. It’s time to move from punishment and stigma to support and dignity for low-income single mothers and for all people living in poverty. It’s time to end TANF.