Pro-Life Women, Voting Dilemma

Amie Newman

As Melinda Henneberger writes in Slate today, pro-life women are facing a dilemma this year. How can you vote based on a single issue - abortion - in the midst of a severe economic crisis, and a war? The answer is you don't.

Just what does it mean to be "pro-life"?

Melinda Henneberger has a fascinating piece in Slate today examining the pro-life female voters – both Democrat and Republican – for whom abortion will not be the deciding issue in their vote for a presidential candidate this year. 

Henneberger writes of one woman she interviewed who puts it philosophically:

These days, just the mention of abortion or gay marriage by a politician makes her want to scream: In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, she says, "I don’t want to hear about questions for which there are no answers."

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Sure, on the face of it, it seems logical enough. We’re in the midst of one of this country’s worst economic environments in the lives of most all Americans and we’re still, as a nation, figuring out how to extricate ourselves from Iraq, while saying good-bye to the president who led us in under false pretenses – a president who, according to MSNBC today, claims the lowest approval ratings for any in recorded history – lower even than Richard Nixon. Why then would women vote based on a presidential candidate’s position on abortion in times like these?

Well, President Bush surely has something to do with it. Henneberger writes about one pro-life woman who, though she is voting for McCain this time around, will not use abortion access as a wedge issue as she was coerced into doing by her church in the last election:

Two years ago, she told me she blamed her church for Bush’s election—and felt she’d been conned into voting for him: "It was the church’s fault … I talked to several priests and they all said, ‘There’s only one issue in this election.’ I said, ‘What about the poor, and Social Security?’ And they said, ‘There is only one issue.’ Oh, it was hard to push that button for Bush; I think I was just used, and that’s what really grinds me."

Now what she says is "I never did like George Bush, and he’s turned out to be a disaster I contributed to."

Another woman Henneberger spoke to said that "the last eight years have convinced her that abortion should be off the table for good" because she thinks that "Iraq will go down as the worst political decision of the century." This woman, in fact, has decided that she will not vote for either candidate – a feeling that likely many Americans share. Have anti-choicers been duped?

Henneberger spoke with a handful of women who consider themselves pro-life, who voted for George W. Bush in the last two elections, but who are either not voting for McCain this time around or who are voting for Obama. But these women have asked for anonymity in the article and in fact were scared to reveal themselves for fear of recrimination from their church leadership and fellow congregants. Henneberger reminds readers, as we have done many times here at Rewire, that Doug Kmiec, a pro-life scholar, was denied communion after daring to announce his support for Barack Obama earlier this year. As well, there have been many voters this campaign season who are choosing a more critical approach to voting, unburdening themselves from single-issue voting

Henneberger interviews Marlene Turnbach, a pro-life Democrat, who has felt increasingly alienated by a Democratic party that she feels has "increasingly marginalized" her based on her perspective on abortion access. Turnbach, now, however is supporting Barack Obama:

Like others who told me they had based their vote on the single issue of abortion the last two times around, Turnbach’s says her ’08 calculus takes other matters—like the economy, the economy and the economy—into account: "McCain was on my nerves the other night, prancing around" at the debate in Nashville, she says, while Obama" strikes her as "level-headed, intelligent, and someone who doesn’t fly off the handle; I like him." Age is another strike against McCain in her view: "McCain is so old," says Turnbach, who is retired. "If he passed away, we’d have someone so inexperienced it’s scary…Most of her pro-life friends who went for Bush in 2000 and 2004 are also Obama grandmamas now, she says, including one who is really sweating the switch but "doesn’t think McCain is mentally stable."

The anti-abortion movement is not veering off message this time around-  it is pushing the same ideological perspectives it always has – strict adherence to criminalizing abortion, chipping away at Roe v. Wade via state laws that attempt to bestow full citizen’s rights onto a fetus, enacting barriers to women’s access to legal abortion services, distracting from the real issues of women’s health care through creation of bogus procedures like "partial birth abortion" and undermining women’s and family’s abilities’ to make private and personal decisions without government interference. 

And it’s not as if the anti-choice movement isn’t trying hard to rally that anti-choice base to vote against Senator Obama, who they see as extremely harmful to their cause. The National Right to Life Committee has thrown out charges of "infanticide",  accusing Obama of lying to cover up the fact that he supports infanticide. Jill Stanek, an activist and blogger who has worked tirelessly in service to the anti-choice mission, has pulled out stories of "abortion survivors" and attempted to unify anti-choice voters primarily using Obama’s votes on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act – but to little avail.

Even Sarah Palin, having likely been instructed to stop whipping supporters into a frenzy by linking Obama to Bill Ayers, has tried to fall back on abortion as a rallying cry, as Emily wrote about on this site. At a recent rally, Henneberger reports Palin as saying:

"In times like these with wars and financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent kind of hopes you will forget that."

But the cries seem to fall upon deaf ears. More and more pro-life supporters are just saying no.

It’s hard to justify, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, a vote solely based on what the anti-choice movement likes to call "life" but which most voters know affects a range of reproductive and sexual health issues for women, young people and their families. Ultimately, it seems that the anti-choice movement has some explaining to do. How is it that the anti-choice movement can raise and use hundreds of thousands of dollars to run television advertisements featuring a young woman who has "survived an abortion" while there are millions of children in this country without basic health insurance, unable to see a doctor or provider? How is that the anti-choice movement can justify working daily to restrict women’s access to basic reproductive health care services proven to lower the rate of unintended pregnancy – like contraception and family planning – while simultaneously attempting to restrict access to abortion? The "right to life" has resulted in a set of failed policies that target our young people, a distressing downturn in maternal health in this country, and severe disregard for how U.S. family planning funding impacts women’s lives and status worldwide. 

The anti-choice movement’s myopic focus, while families are struggling to feed their children, retain their homes, and keep their jobs, seems out of step and irrelevant.

However, let’s not forget that the anti-choice policies created and perpetuated by conservative, anti-choice presidents and politicians are not forgotten – even in times like these –  by the women and families most affected by these harsh policies. No matter what else is happening – through economic downturns and unjust wars, bailouts and unethical behavior – there are still and always will be women who cannot access legal abortion services, who are victims of health care providers who decide they are not deserving of emergency contraception after having been raped, who cannot get their family planning and contraceptive services covered by their health insurance, who rely on U.S. funding to international health centers for their birth control that can mean the difference between life and death or health and sickness. How can helping these women not be considered pro-life?

Whether pro-life women decide to take a break and eshew the vote for abortion in favor of a vote for a range of other issues, we’ll see. There certainly are more and more pro-life voters who are speaking out for a true and expanded vision of what is means to be pro-life. As one commenter on an Andrew Sullivan post puts it:

"For the record, I consider myself "pro-life" when it comes to abortion. But after eight years of Bush, I think it’s time to redefine what it means to be pro-life. Among other things, it should at the very least mean the following: To be pro-life is to be against unnecessary wars, and to be pro-life is to be against torture."


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