Analysis Abortion

Gone Too Far? Reproductive Politics in the Time of Obama

On The Issues Magazine

What about abortion gives it staying power as the central issue in domestic politics, even in the period of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s? This is a question well worth pursuing.

Originally written by Carole Joffe for On The Issues Magazine.

UPDATE, 11:07AM, Monday, January 23, 2012: On January 20, 2012, to the relief of many reproductive health organizations, the Obama Administration announced that it would not grant most religious organizations the greatly expanded exemption from contraceptive coverage that had been sought by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For all our coverage of the 29th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade, click here.

What about abortion gives it staying power as the central issue in domestic politics, even in the period of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s? This is a question well worth pursuing.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

I sounded a much more hopeful note in my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. The book was started in the administration of George W. Bush, a particularly harsh time for the reproductive justice community. I finished the book in the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama, ending on a note of “cautious optimism” about a turnabout for the fortunes of reproductive health services and particularly for the provision of abortion. Candidate Obama, after all, had forcefully voiced his support for legal abortion, and nothing — at the time — seemed to be worse than the endless attacks on reproductive health services (not just abortion, but family planning , sex education, condom distribution for HIV patients and more) that were a key feature of the Bush presidency.

Quoting from the distinguished historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s work on an earlier period of abortion conflict in 19th century America, I even speculated that we might be entering a period in which abortion and related issues would no longer be “the central drama of (our) culture.” Given the devastating recession that had already become very evident around the time of the 2008 election, I, like many others, reasonably thought that the economy would in fact become the “central drama.”

But very soon after the 2008 election, it became very clear that social conservatives were not going away. On the contrary, they seemed more energized than ever. It also became clear that Obama the president was not going to be the forceful defender of reproductive rights that many of his supporters, including myself, had fantasized. Indeed, as early as January 2009, in his first weeks in office, reproductive politics emerged as a factor in the stimulus debates, and the new president blinked. The president’s proposal had included a modest provision that allowed states to spend more Medicaid funds on family planning. The Republican House of Representatives leader, John Boehner, publically mocked this provision, asking incredulously what “spending millions for contraceptives” had to do with “fixing the economy.” The provision was quickly dropped.

And, of course, many reproductive rights supporters are still smarting over Obama’s key concessions to anti-abortion forces, particularly the Catholic Church, in order to win support for his health reform legislation. By late 2011, it was still unclear whether Obama would again cave to the Church’s demands for very broad exemptions to the requirement that health insurance plans, under Obama’s health legislation, provide contraception without co-pays. But while that was pending, the reproductive health community was stunned when, in a clear bow to politics, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented step of overruling the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and rejecting the agency’s recommendation that Emergency Contraception be made available without a prescription to women under the age of 17.

How the Wedge Works

My purpose in this essay, however, is not to simply catalogue all the disappointments that reproductive health advocates have suffered in the Obama administration, an indictment that has been done very well by others. (For the record, an unequivocally positive step that has occurred in the Obama presidency is the Department of Justice’s vigorous enforcement of the FACE legislation that protects providers and patients from anti-abortion terrorism, an effort that far outstrips such activity by the Justice Department in the Bush years.)

Despite my hopeful predictions, abortion has maintained its dominance as a wedge issue. This is reflected in the various bills put forward by the new Republican majority in Congress after the November 2010 mid-term election, for example the Orwellian-named “Protect Life” Act, which stipulated that hospitals did not have to offer abortions to women, even in life-threatening situations.

Similarly, in state houses across the country after that pivotal election an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions were introduced by Republican legislators, including bans on abortion after 20 weeks, which clearly violate the Roe v. Wade decision and were intended, in the eyes of many observers, to lure pro-choice lawyers into a test case that could possibly overthrow that landmark ruling. Finally, as politicians compete to be the Republican nominee in the 2012 presidential race, the ante has been raised: in this election cycle, to be acceptable to the anti-abortion base, and to compete with each other, candidates must make clear their opposition to rape and incest exceptions and declare their agreement that “life begins at fertilization.”

It is actually not surprising that Republican politicians at all levels insist on keeping abortion front and center, the economic crisis notwithstanding. Abortion is not only the best arrow in these politicians’ quivers, in terms of pleasing a crucial segment of the Republican base — it is arguably the only arrow they have. The reality, as has become evident since Obama’s election, is that the Republican party is tied to economic policies — opposition to infrastructure spending, fanatical devotion to tax cuts for the most wealthy — that will not create jobs, but, in fact, will destroy them. So abortion has, once again, as I termed it in my book, become a “brilliant distraction” from pressing social problems.

For me, the more complicated — and fascinating — question is: Why do voters put up with this endless assault on abortion and contraception (and the corresponding neglect of the economy)? Why, for example, is there seemingly no price to be paid by a politician who is on record as saying its okay for a woman with an ectopic pregnancy to die?

The first, most conventional, answer is that the U.S. is a deeply apolitical country, with a notoriously low voting turnout, compared to other countries. Politicians therefore can take actions that speak to the minority of voters who are deeply engaged, and be confident that the rest of the country is not paying attention. A variant on this general political apathy is that the abortion issue, in particular, has been so divisive and raucous, for so long, that voters simply tune out abortion-related political news, assuming a “pox on both their houses” stance.

In contrast, a third intriguing possibility is that the public’s backlash against Right-wing overreach may, just may, finally be at hand. The recent defeat, by a substantial margin, of the “fertilized-egg-as-person”amendment in Mississippi, a highly conservative state where the measure was widely predicted to pass, is suggestive of this. Furthermore, the “defund Planned Parenthood” campaigns, avidly pursued by Republicans both in Congress and in a number of states, have polled very badly with the public. Certainly, in April 2011, when Obama refused to bend to John Boehner’s demand that cutting Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs be part of budget negotiations, the president gained — not lost — political capital.

It is, to be sure, demoralizing from a reproductive justice viewpoint, that it takes such surreal proposals as making fertilized eggs the moral and legal equivalent of living women, and the all-out demonization of birth control, nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court decision legalizing its use, to make the American people wake up to the threats posed by the fanatics of the Right, and the cynical politicians who do their bidding. And it may well be that these extremist proposals — rather than causing a backlash — will make more “normal” restrictions on abortion and contraception look reasonable.

So Bad That It’s Good?

But the favor that the zealots now in ascendancy in social conservative circles — that is, those who oppose all sexual activity except procreative sex within heterosexual marriage — may have given us is the broad sweep of their proposals. In a society that is marked by deep economic inequality, it is hardly surprising that those women most affected by the assaults on both abortion and contraception are disproportionately poor women of color — that is, those who have the least political, as well as economic power, and who are most vulnerable to cuts in public services. The unfortunate reality is that, while many of those in the reproductive justice movement work tirelessly on behalf of these women, most in this society — including other women who also use reproductive health services — worry little about these marginalized women. Nonpoor women have long been able to assume that contraception and abortion will always be available, as long as one has the means to purchase them.

In that sense, the Mississippi egg-as-person amendment, and similar efforts planned elsewhere, may truly be serving as wake-up calls for the electorate. For it was not just abortions (including lifesaving ones) that were on the line — but most forms of contraception and IVF treatments (a service that, almost by definition, implies a well-to-do clientele).

Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement has brilliantly framed the economic inequality in the U.S. as existing between the one percent of the super-wealthy and the remaining 99 percent of the population, the current battles in reproductive politics reminds us of another 99 percent — those American women who have ever used birth control in the context of heterosexual sex. The reproductive legacy of the Obama years may well be this huge group’s recognition of itself as a political community. Again, I am cautiously optimistic.


Carole Joffe a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of “Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us,” “Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion before and after Roe v Wade,” and numerous other writings on abortion provision. For Carole’s author profile, click here.

News Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats: ‘Open The Big Tent’ for Us

Christine Grimaldi & Ally Boguhn

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America gathered Wednesday in Philadelphia during the party’s convention to honor Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) for his anti-choice viewpoints, and to strategize ways to incorporate their policies into the party.

The group attributed Democratic losses at the state and federal level to the party’s increasing embrace of pro-choice politics. The best way for Democrats to reclaim seats in state houses, governors’ offices, and the U.S. Congress, they charged, is to “open the big tent” to candidates who oppose legal abortion care.

“Make room for pro-life Democrats and invite pro-life, progressive independents back to the party to focus on the right to parent and ways to help women in crisis or unplanned pregnancies have more choices than abortion,” the group said in a report unveiled to allies at the event, including Democratic National Convention (DNC) delegates and the press.

Democrats for Life of America members repeatedly attempted to distance themselves from Republicans, reiterating their support for policies such as Medicaid expansion and paid maternity leave, which they believe could convince people to carry their pregnancies to term.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Their strategy, however, could have been lifted directly from conservatives’ anti-choice playbook.

The group relies, in part, on data from Marist, a group associated with anti-choice polling, to suggest that many in the party side with them on abortion rights. Executive Director Kristen Day could not explain to Rewire why the group supports a 20-week abortion ban, while Janet Robert, president of the group’s board of directors, trotted out scientifically false claims about fetal pain

Day told Rewire that she is working with pro-choice Democrats, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, both from New York, on paid maternity leave. Day said she met with DeLauro the day before the group’s event.

Day identifies with Democrats despite a platform that for the first time embraces the repeal of restrictions for federal funding of abortion care. 

“Those are my people,” she said.

Day claimed to have been “kicked out of the pro-life movement” for supporting the Affordable Care Act. She said Democrats for Life of America is “not opposed to contraception,” though the group filed an amicus brief in U.S. Supreme Court cases on contraception. 

Democrats for Life of America says it has important allies in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Sens. Joe Donnelly (IN), Joe Manchin (WV), and Rep. Dan Lipinski (IL), along with former Rep. Bart Stupak (MI), serve on the group’s board of advisors, according to literature distributed at the convention.

Another alleged ally, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), came up during Edwards’ speech. Edwards said he had discussed the award, named for Casey’s father, former Pennsylvania Gov. Robert P. Casey, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court decision, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which opened up a flood of state-level abortions restrictions as long as those anti-choice policies did not represent an “undue burden.”

“Last night I happened to have the opportunity to speak to Sen. Bob Casey, and I told him … I was in Philadelphia, receiving this award today named after his father,” Edwards said.

The Louisiana governor added that though it may not seem it, there are many more anti-choice Democrats like the two of them who aren’t comfortable coming forward about their views.

“I’m telling you there are many more people out there like us than you might imagine,” Edwards said. “But sometimes it’s easier for those folks who feel like we do on these issues to remain silent because they’re not going to  be questioned, and they’re not going to be receiving any criticism.”

During his speech, Edwards touted the way he has put his views as an anti-choice Democrat into practice in his home state. “I am a proud Democrat, and I am also very proudly pro-life,” Edwards told the small gathering.

Citing his support for Medicaid expansion in Louisiana—which went into effect July 1—Edwards claimed he had run on an otherwise “progressive” platform except for when it came to abortion rights, adding that his policies demonstrate that “there is a difference between being anti-abortion and being pro-life.”

Edwards later made clear that he was disappointed with news that Emily’s List President Stephanie Schriock, whose organization works to elect pro-choice women to office, was being considered to fill the position of party chair in light of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.

“It wouldn’t” help elect anti-choice politicians to office, said Edwards when asked about it by a reporter. “I don’t want to be overly critical, I don’t know the person, I just know that the signal that would send to the country—and to Democrats such as myself—would just be another step in the opposite direction of being a big tent party [on abortion].” 

Edwards made no secret of his anti-choice viewpoints during his run for governor in 2015. While on the campaign trail, he released a 30-second ad highlighting his wife’s decision not to terminate her pregnancy after a doctor told the couple their daughter would have spina bifida.

He received a 100 percent rating from anti-choice organization Louisiana Right to Life while running for governor, based off a scorecard asking him questions such as, “Do you support the reversal of Roe v. Wade?”

Though the Democratic Party platform and nominee have voiced the party’s support for abortion rights, Edwards has forged ahead with signing numerous pieces of anti-choice legislation into law, including a ban on the commonly used dilation and evacuation (D and E) procedure, and an extension of the state’s abortion care waiting period from 24 hours to 72 hours.

News Law and Policy

Three Crisis Pregnancy Centers Served for Breaking California Law

Nicole Knight Shine

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act.

The Los Angeles City Attorney is warning three area fake clinics, commonly known as crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), that they’re breaking a new state reproductive disclosure law and could face fines of $500 if they don’t comply.

The notices of violation issued this month mark the first time authorities anywhere in the state are enforcing the seven-month-old Reproductive Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency (FACT) Act, advocates and the state Attorney General’s office indicate.

The office of City Attorney Mike Feuer served the notices on July 15 and July 18 to two unlicensed and one licensed clinic, a representative from the office told Rewire. The Los Angeles area facilities are Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

The law requires the state’s licensed pregnancy-related centers to display a brief statement with a number to call for access to free and low-cost birth control and abortion care, and for unlicensed centers to disclose that they are not medical facilities.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“Our investigation revealed,” one of the letters from the city attorney warns, “that your facility failed to post the required onsite notice anywhere at your facility and that your facility failed to distribute the required notice either through a printed document or digitally.”

The centers have 30 days from the date of the letter to comply or face a $500 fine for an initial offense and $1,000 for subsequent violations.

“I think this is the first instance of a city attorney or any other authority enforcing the FACT Act, and we really admire City Attorney Mike Feuer for taking the lead,” Amy Everitt, state director of NARAL Pro-Choice California, told Rewire on Wednesday.

Feuer in May unveiled a campaign to crack down on violators, announcing that his office was “not going to wait” amid reports that some jurisdictions had chosen not to enforce the law while five separate court challenges brought by multiple fake clinics are pending.

Federal and state courts have denied requests to temporarily block the law, although appeals are pending before U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

In April, Rebecca Plevin of the local NPR affiliate KPCC found that six of eight area fake clinics were defying the FACT Act.

Although firm numbers are hard to come by, around 25 fake clinics, or CPCs, operate in Los Angeles County, according to estimates from a representative of NARAL Pro-Choice California. There are upwards of 1,200 CPCs across the country, according to their own accounting.

Last week, Rewire paid visits to the three violators: Harbor Pregnancy Help Center, Los Angeles Pregnancy Services, and Pregnancy Counseling Center.

Christie Kwan, a nurse manager at Pregnancy Counseling Center, declined to discuss the clinic’s noncompliance, but described their opposition to the state law as a “First Amendment concern.”

All three centers referred questions to their legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), an Arizona-based nonprofit and frequent defender of discriminatory “religious liberty” laws.

Matt Bowman, senior counsel with ADF, said in an email to Rewire that forcing faith-based clinics to “communicate messages or promote ideas they disagree with, especially on life-and-death issues like abortion,” violates their “core beliefs” and threatens their free speech rights.

“The First Amendment protects all Americans, including pro-life people, from being targeted by a government conspiring with pro-abortion activists,” Bowman said.

Rewire found that some clinics are following the law. Claris Health, which was contacted as part of Feuer’s enforcement campaign in May, includes the public notice with patient intake forms, where it’s translated into more than a dozen languages, CEO Talitha Phillips said in an email to Rewire.

Open Arms Pregnancy Center in the San Fernando Valley has posted the public notice in the waiting room.

“To us, it’s a non-issue,” Debi Harvey, the center’s executive director, told Rewire. “We don’t provide abortion, we’re an abortion-alternative organization, we’re very clear on that. But we educate on all options.”

Even so, reports of deceit by 91 percent of fake clinics surveyed by NARAL Pro-Choice California helped spur the passage of the FACT Act last October. Until recently, a person who Googled “abortion clinic” might be directed to a fake clinic, or CPC.

Oakland last week became the second U.S. city to ban false advertising by facilities that city leaders described as “fronts for anti-abortion activists.” San Francisco passed a similar ordinance in 2011.