Are Democrats Backpedaling on Abortion Rights?

Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling

It's an official quadrennial tradition: Every four years, self-described moderates advise the Democratic Party that its long-standing and electorally successful pro-choice position is the reason that "values voters" are deserting the party. We are told these voters could be brought into the fold if Democrats would temper their defense of women's freedom with tacit condemnation of the choices many women make.

This article originally appeared in Salon written by Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling and is reprinted here with permission from its authors. Following the article is an addendum written by Frances Kissling alone, and appearing for the first time on Rewire.

It’s an official quadrennial tradition: Every four years, self-described moderates advise the Democratic Party that its long-standing and electorally successful pro-choice position is the reason that "values voters" are deserting the party. We are told these voters could be brought into the fold if Democrats would temper their defense of women’s freedom with tacit condemnation of the choices many women make.

John Kerry’s defeat in 2004, and exit poll claims that values were central to mainstream voters who went for George W. Bush, gave the idea new traction (although the meaning and the makeup of those value voters were subject to a lot of post-election debate). But 2008 presents Democrats with a new dilemma. The Democrats’ troubles with so-called values voters raise concern. But even more worrisome is a wildfire of women’s anger over the sexism faced by Hillary Clinton in the primaries. The discontent is largely focused on the media, but also on what is seen as the Democratic Party’s lack of a vigorous public rejection of that sexism. It goes deeper than one candidacy, and has its roots in a more quiet anger that politically engaged Democratic women have felt about the party’s taking women for granted for many years.

Suddenly, almost unexpectedly, with many Democratic women restless and anxious, the concerns of women are once again important. So far the party’s strategy in dealing with disaffected Clinton supporters, in particular, involves focusing on women’s understandable fears that a John McCain administration would limit abortion rights and even overturn Roe v. Wade, and promising that Democrats will clearly do better.

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That’s why it’s so remarkable that in recent weeks, Democrats, including Sojourners founder Jim Wallis, have suggested that the party may need to take another crack at tempering its strong platform support for abortion rights by making "abortion reduction … a central Democratic Party plank in this election." In a recent interview with ABC News, Wallis said he planned to talk to his "good friend" Barack Obama about an abortion reduction plank, and said he had discussed the idea with party chairman Howard Dean and had the support of at least one member of the Platform Committee, the Rev. Tony Campolo. "Abortion reduction should be a central Democratic Party plank in this election," Wallis told ABC News. "I’ll just say that flat out."

While a Wallis spokesperson quickly backpedaled and said Wallis was "not actively campaigning" for an abortion reduction plank, the idea of a Democratic "third way" on abortion is bound to come up again. This time around, party officials and Democratic candidates will be well advised to tread carefully.

As two strong feminist Obama supporters, we know women are well aware that Democratic policies, as well as Democratic leaders, are far less sexist and far more likely to empower women than the policies and leaders of the GOP. For those reasons, we believe, even the most frustrated Hillary Clinton supporters will come around. But telling women that the Democrats’ commitment to abortion rights is what should drive their vote, while simultaneously suggesting, as Wallis and his allies do, that given the choice, having a baby is a more moral choice than abortion, will be understood for what it is: condescending and sexist. It is likely to stoke, not slake, the flames of anger, since women are well aware of the moral dimensions of pregnancy; they were not a novel discovery made circa 2004.

Let us be clear: Reducing the need for abortion is sound policy,
and we have both worked in our careers to do so. The pro-choice
movement has been promoting such an agenda for the better part of two
decades — often, and ironically, over the opposition of the very
people who now claim to espouse it. In fact, Sojourners, the
organization headed by Wallis, does not include contraception as part
of its abortion reduction strategy, and Democrats for Life, the
political group most vocal about abortion reduction, refused to endorse
the family-planning provisions of the bill it initiated, "Reducing the
Need for Abortion Initiative," also known as the Ryan-DeLauro bill.

Why should the Democratic Party platform be framed by such groups,
who also seem ignorant of the fact that the platform already contains
all the elements necessary to reduce the need for abortion? The
platform supports access to family planning, the single most important
factor in preventing pregnancy, and promotes an economic program,
heathcare reform and protections for women’s equality that would, if
enacted, make it more possible for women who become pregnant and wish
to continue those pregnancies to keep and raise their children in a
secure environment.

What more could be meaningfully proposed? Going further down the
path of moral pandering on abortion is only likely to erase the gender
gap advantage that Democratic nominees had enjoyed among women in three
straight presidential elections — which plummeted in the Kerry-Bush
contest, resulting in George W. Bush’s second term and the appointments
of John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. The stakes for
women could not be higher, and Democrats need to do better in defending
the moral right of women to choose, in every way: to choose to have a
baby, to choose to prevent an unwanted pregnancy, to choose to
terminate a pregnancy.

What then should Democrats and Sen. Obama do?

We need not wait for either the Democratic convention or the
election to move forward on reducing the need for abortion. Two
perfectly good bills are languishing in Congress. One, the Prevention
First Act, was introduced by Sen. Clinton; the other, the Reducing the
Need for Abortion Initiative by Rep. Rosa DeLauro and Rep. Tim Ryan, a
pro-life Democrat. These bills need to move forward and perhaps be
consolidated. (The Clinton bill does more for family planning, and the
Ryan-DeLauro bill more for women who want to continue pregnancies.)
Sen. Clinton is in a perfect position to make that happen, and we will
work with her on that goal. Moving these bills before the election will
give us a yardstick by which to measure members of Congress’
commitments to meeting women’s needs while recognizing their rights.

Sen. Obama will also have opportunities to show leadership. If and
when Wallis approaches him to talk about abortion reduction, Obama
should point him to the record of the Democratic Party on preventing
pregnancy, honoring a woman’s right to choose and supporting women who
need economic help in raising children. That’s worthy of praise, not
criticism. He could call on Wallis to become a supporter of family
planning for all women, and to defend the progress women have made on
their journey to full and equal rights.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Wallis’ self-described search
for a moral statement on abortion is his apparent ignorance of the
moral basis of a pro-choice position. Thirty-five years of safe and
legal abortion, and solidarity with the millions of American women who
have had abortions, have led to pro-choice values that are sweeping in
their scope. Women of color, in particular, have had a profound impact
in defining "choice" by insisting on situating reproductive choice
within the much larger context of jobs, healthcare, human dignity,
child care and educational opportunities for low-income women — to
make pregnancy and motherhood a real choice for everyone; to make sure
abortion is a choice and never a grim default and, when it is a choice,
is safe and legal and never stigmatized by Democrats. Obama’s skills
could be used to enlist Wallis and others to support this expansive
vision of women’s rights and well-being.

Finally, Sen. Obama needs to set the tone within the Democratic
National Committee as well as within his campaign and reach out to
women. The development of a women’s rights policy must be as high a
priority as a plan for world peace and an economic agenda. While both
men and women have a stake in women’s well-being, women’s preeminent
role in developing policies that affect their lives must be a central
commitment of the senator and the party.

As feminists who have proudly and enthusiastically supported Obama
for some time, we are convinced that this is exactly the approach he
will take. And while this approach is as old as feminism, it will be a
breath of fresh air in the party.

Frances Kissling’s Addendum

When Kate and I wrote this piece Obama’s comments in
Relevant Magazine on mental distress and late term abortions had not been
published. Speaking only for myself, I was troubled by them. Not
because Obama holds that late term abortions (and I assume he means
those in the third trimester) should be the legal exception rather than
the rule. Roe holds that the states can prohibit third trimester
abortions to health reasons, although it does not specifiy a method for
determining this. Several pro-choice members of Congress are on record
as supporting limiting such abortions to circumstances where there are
serious health risks for the woman. These members have never suggested
excluding mental health risks.

It is not clear if Obama is further narrowing the meaning of
serious mental health risks or simply saying that mild "distress" is
not a serious diagnosable condition and would not qualify as an
exception. That would leave open what other mental health conditions
would be serious health grounds for a third trimester abortion. I hope
this is what he meant.

At the same time the remark smacks of the kind of pandering I
am worried about. To satisfy those opposed to all abortions, candidates
are willing to make remarks that diminish women’s moral sensibilities
as well as rights and feed into right wing anti-abortion beliefs that
women and doctors will find a loophole to allow abortion under any
circumstance at any time in pregnancy. For Obama to feed into that
sentiment, even unwittingly, is unacceptable.

The limits or boundaries to a pro-choice position are not
carved in stone. Some supporters have absolutely no limits and believe
abortion should be purely the decision of the woman whatever stage of
pregnancy. They are in a distinct minority numbering about 17% of the
population. Most pro-choice supporters, including me, believe some
limits are reasonable especially if one believes that some balance
between women’s autonomy and rights and fostering a soicety in which
life in all its forms is respected would be wise. It would take more
space than I have now to flesh that concept out but at a minimum,
viewing abortion in the third trimester as an exception over which
medical evaluation is appropriate is beyond the pale of pro-choice views.

What is actually most absurd about the way we talk about third trimester abortions is the sqeamishness about acknowledging that the most frequent reason for such abortions has little to do with women’s health and more to do with fetal health and child survival. These abortions occur when women discover late in wanted pregnancies that the fetus is so severely damaged that birth would result in a condition that is incompatible with child survival and well being.

News Abortion

Anti-Choice Leader to Remove Himself From Medical Board Case in Ohio

Michelle D. Anderson

In a letter to the State of Ohio Medical Board, representatives from nine groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Anti-choice leader Mike Gonidakis said Monday that he would remove himself from deciding a complaint against a local abortion provider after several groups asked that he resign as president of the State of Ohio Medical Board.

The Associated Press first reported news of Gonidakis’ decision, which came after several pro-choice groups said he should step down from the medical board because he had a conflict of interest in the pending complaint.

The complaint, filed by Dayton Right to Life on August 3, alleged that three abortion providers working at Women’s Med Center in Dayton violated state law and forced an abortion on a patient that was incapable of withdrawing her consent due to a drug overdose.

Ohio Right to Life issued a news release the same day Dayton Right to Life filed its complaint, featuring a quotation from its executive director saying that local pro-choice advocates forfeit “whatever tinge of credibility” it had if it refused to condemn what allegedly happened at Women’s Med Center.

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Gonidakis, the president of Ohio Right to Life, had then forwarded a copy of the news release to ProgressOhio Executive Director Sandy Theis with a note saying, “Sandy…. Will you finally repudiate the industry for which you so proudly support? So much for ‘women’s health’. So sad.”

On Friday, ProgressOhio, along with eight other groupsDoctors for Health Care Solutions, Common Cause Ohio, the Ohio National Organization for Women, Innovation Ohio, the Ohio House Democratic Women’s Caucus, the National Council of Jewish Women, Democratic Voices of Ohio, and Ohio Voice—responded to Gonidakis’ public and private commentary by writing a letter to the medical board asking that he resign.

In the letter, representatives from those groups shared comments made by Gonidakis and said he lacked the objectivity required to remain a member of the medical board. The letter’s undersigned said the board should take whatever steps necessary to force Gonidakis’ resignation if he failed to resign.

Contacted for comment, the medical board did not respond by press time.

The Ohio Medical Board protects the public by licensing and regulating physicians and other health-care professionals in part by reviewing complaints such as the one filed by Dayton Right to Life.

The decision-making body includes three non-physician consumer members and nine physicians who serve five-year terms when fully staffed. Currently, 11 citizens serve on the board.

Gonidakis, appointed in 2012 by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, is a consumer member of the board and lacks medical training.

Theis told Rewire in a telephone interview that the letter’s undersigned did not include groups like NARAL Pro-Choice and Planned Parenthood in its effort to highlight the conflict with Gonidakis.

“We wanted it to be about ethics” and not about abortion politics, Theis explained to Rewire.

Theis said Gonidakis had publicly condemned three licensed doctors from Women’s Med Center without engaging the providers or hearing the facts about the alleged incident.

“He put his point out there on Main Street having only heard the view of Dayton Right to Life,” Theis said. “In court, a judge who does something like that would have been thrown off the bench.”

Arthur Lavin, co-chairman of Doctors for Health Care Solutions, told the Associated Press the medical board should be free from politics.

Theis said ProgressOhio also exercised its right to file a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission to have Gonidakis removed because Theis had first-hand knowledge of his ethical wrongdoing.

The 29-page complaint, obtained by Rewire, details Gonidakis’ association with anti-choice groups and includes a copy of the email he sent to Theis.

Common Cause Ohio was the only group that co-signed the letter that is decidedly not pro-choice. A policy analyst from the nonpartisan organization told the Columbus Dispatch that Common Cause was not for or against abortion, but had signed the letter because a clear conflict of interest exists on the state’s medical board.

News Politics

Missouri ‘Witch Hunt Hearings’ Modeled on Anti-Choice Congressional Crusade

Christine Grimaldi

Missouri state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) said the Missouri General Assembly's "witch hunt hearings" were "closely modeled" on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans' special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life.

Congressional Republicans are responsible for perpetuating widely discredited and often inflammatory allegations about fetal tissue and abortion care practices for a year and counting. Their actions may have charted the course for at least one Republican-controlled state legislature to advance an anti-choice agenda based on a fabricated market in aborted “baby body parts.”

“They say that a lot in Missouri,” state Rep. Stacey Newman (D) told Rewire in an interview at the Democratic National Convention last month.

Newman is a longtime abortion rights advocate who proposed legislation that would subject firearms purchases to the same types of restrictions, including mandatory waiting periods, as abortion care.

Newman said the Missouri General Assembly’s “witch hunt hearings” were “closely modeled” on those in the U.S. Congress. Specifically, she drew parallels between Republicans’ special investigative bodies—the U.S. House of Representatives’ Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives and the Missouri Senate’s Committee on the Sanctity of Life. Both formed last year in response to videos from the anti-choice front group the Center for Medical Progress (CMP) accusing Planned Parenthood of profiting from fetal tissue donations. Both released reports last month condemning the reproductive health-care provider even though Missouri’s attorney general, among officials in 13 states to date, and three congressional investigations all previously found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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Missouri state Sen. Kurt Schaefer (R), the chair of the committee, and his colleagues alleged that the report potentially contradicted the attorney general’s findings. Schaefer’s district includes the University of Missouri, which ended a 26-year relationship with Planned Parenthood as anti-choice state lawmakers ramped up their inquiries in the legislature. Schaefer’s refusal to confront evidence to the contrary aligned with how Newman described his leadership of the committee.

“It was based on what was going on in Congress, but then Kurt Schaefer took it a step further,” Newman said.

As Schaefer waged an ultimately unsuccessful campaign in the Missouri Republican attorney general primary, the once moderate Republican “felt he needed to jump on the extreme [anti-choice] bandwagon,” she said.

Schaefer in April sought to punish the head of Planned Parenthood’s St. Louis affiliate with fines and jail time for protecting patient documents he had subpoenaed. The state senate suspended contempt proceedings against Mary Kogut, the CEO of Planned Parenthood of St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, reaching an agreement before the end of the month, according to news reports.

Newman speculated that Schaefer’s threats thwarted an omnibus abortion bill (HB 1953, SB 644) from proceeding before the end of the 2016 legislative session in May, despite Republican majorities in the Missouri house and senate.

“I think it was part of the compromise that they came up with Planned Parenthood, when they realized their backs [were] against the wall, because she was not, obviously, going to illegally turn over medical records.” Newman said of her Republican colleagues.

Republicans on the select panel in Washington have frequently made similar complaints, and threats, in their pursuit of subpoenas.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), the chair of the select panel, in May pledged “to pursue all means necessary” to obtain documents from the tissue procurement company targeted in the CMP videos. In June, she told a conservative crowd at the faith-based Road to Majority conference that she planned to start contempt of Congress proceedings after little cooperation from “middle men” and their suppliers—“big abortion.” By July, Blackburn seemingly walked back that pledge in front of reporters at a press conference where she unveiled the select panel’s interim report.

The investigations share another common denominator: a lack of transparency about how much money they have cost taxpayers.

“The excuse that’s come back from leadership, both [in the] House and the Senate, is that not everybody has turned in their expense reports,” Newman said. Republicans have used “every stalling tactic” to rebuff inquiries from her and reporters in the state, she said.

Congressional Republicans with varying degrees of oversight over the select panel—Blackburn, House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI), and House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Fred Upton (MI)—all declined to answer Rewire’s funding questions. Rewire confirmed with a high-ranking GOP aide that Republicans budgeted $1.2 million for the investigation through the end of the year.

Blackburn is expected to resume the panel’s activities after Congress returns from recess in early September. Schaeffer and his fellow Republicans on the committee indicated in their report that an investigation could continue in the 2017 legislative session, which begins in January.


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