Commentary Politics

The War on Women: Back to the Future?

Patricia Miller

The Republicans seem to think they can erase the past four months and their “war on women,” but if history is any guide, this is wishful thinking. In fact, the historical record suggests we may be witnessing a reawakening of the reproductive rights movement.

Republican strategists and political prognosticators are quick to assure us that Romney’s gender gap—which at 19 points is now more like a gender chasm—will evaporate as general election campaigning gears up and the attention of voters returns to bread-and-butter issues like the economy. Even Romney seems to think it’s just a blip—assuring reporters that women are talking about “the debt that we’re leaving the next generation” and “the failure of this economy to put people back to work,” not access to reproductive health care.

The Republicans seem to think they can erase the past four months and their “war on women,” but if history is any guide, this is wishful thinking. In fact, the historical record suggests we may be witnessing a re-awakening of the reproductive rights movement, especially among groups where concern about access to contraception and abortion has languished: young women and independent women. There is an eerie parallel between the awakening that is currently happening and the beginning of the reproductive rights revolution that resulted in the legalization of abortion in the early 1970s.

It all comes back to a scene that was unimaginably galling to women: a group of men sitting solemnly before microphones at a committee table testifying about whether women should have access to reproductive health care that they could never need. This may sound like the already infamous Issa congressional hearing that was ostensibly about “religious freedom,” but it wasn’t. This hearing happened more than 40 years ago and helped to light a revolution.

The late 1960s were still the dark ages for reproductive health. The Supreme Court had only just given married couples the right to use contraception; states could still ban unmarried people from buying birth control. Abortion was illegal in every state except to save a woman’s life. There was a small reform movement underway, run mostly by men, to make abortion more available under limited conditions:  in cases of rape or incest, if a fetus was severely deformed, or if a woman’s health was at risk. However, even under these reforms doctors would still control access to abortion — a woman would have to get the permission of two doctors, who in those days were usually men, to have an abortion.

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These reformers were interested in making abortion more “humane” because of the extraordinary high toll of the one million illegal abortions that were performed every year. In 1967 alone, 10,000 women were admitted to New York City municipal hospitals suffering from botched abortions. Some were left infertile from their run-ins with back alley butchers; others died. Nearly half of all maternal deaths in the city were caused by illegal abortions. Other big cities also had whole hospital wards full of women recovering from botched illegal abortions.

By 1969, a dozen states had passed bills making abortion more available in limited circumstances with a doctor’s permission. That year New York State began considering a reform bill. On February 13, the joint Public Health Committee held an hearing on the legislation in New York City. The panel consisted of 14 men and one woman—a Catholic nun, who represented her religion’s position that all abortions should be illegal. The panelists dutifully presented their positions—some against any liberalization of abortion law and some in favor of limited reforms. Women sat mutely in the audience watching men discuss their reproductive lives. But then, just as a white-haired former judge finished speaking, a woman named Kathy Amatniek stood up in audience and shouted: “All right, now let’s hear from some real experts — the women.”

The men on the panel “stared over their microphones in amazement,” according to the New York Times, apparently like Congressman Issa, astonished that women actually wanted to have a say about what happened to their bodies. Then Amatniek made a demand that was just gaining currently among feminists: “Repeal the abortion law, instead of wasting more time talking about these stupid reforms.” A handful of women were demanding the end of abortion laws that left doctors as gatekeepers to the procedure.

Amatniek’s outburst ensured that the otherwise staid hearing got media coverage. Women were so incensed over their exclusion from the hearing that the feminist group Redstockings organized an all-women abortion “speak-out” at the Washington Square Methodist Church. There women on the panel did something that no women had done before: they went public about their abortions. They told of the fear, pain, and humiliation they endured. Then a really extraordinary thing happened. Women in the audience stood up and, unprompted, began talking about their abortions. Irene Peslikis, who was at the hearing, told historian Ninia Baehr that it was like a “bomb” went off in the audience. “All of the sudden they realized that this was something that had been bothering them for the longest time,” she said.

The publicity from the speak-out galvanized women across the country. They held abortion speak-outs in their living rooms. They questioned why they disproportionately suffered the consequences of sexual activity, why they had to risk their lives or health to get an illegal abortion or beg a man for a legal abortion. The result of this consciousness-raising was a sea change in how women perceived the politics of abortion. They started to see access to abortion as a right, an expression of their full personhood, not a favor to be granted by men. Members of New York’s feminist movement found a Republican woman legislator, Connie Cook, who was on their side and she introduced a bill in the New York Assembly to completely remove abortion from the state’s criminal code, making it an entirely personal decision. It failed, but it moved the debate from just broadening the circumstances under which doctors could dole out abortions to making women the center of the abortion decision. A compromise measure was proposed that would allow women to make the decision about abortion up through the first 24 weeks of pregnancy but banned it thereafter except to save a woman’s life. This law passed and became the model for Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion nationally three years later.

It was the anger of women excluded from the abortion hearing that created the impetus for the widespread decriminalization of abortion. Forty-three years later, a similar outrage has woken women up to the implication of men who want to make reproductive decisions for them. From the furor over Virginia’s vaginal ultrasound bill, which is reverberating in states like Idaho that just killed a similar measure, to the continuing fallout from the Komen Foundation’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood, it’s a good bet that this issue isn’t going away any time soon.

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.

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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 Politics

NARAL President Tells Her Abortion Story at the Democratic National Convention

Ally Boguhn

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates.

Read more of our coverage of the Democratic National Convention here.

Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told the story of her abortion on the stage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) Wednesday evening in Philadelphia.

“Texas women are tough. We approach challenges with clear eyes and full hearts. To succeed in life, all we need are the tools, the trust, and the chance to chart our own path,” Hogue told the crowd on the third night of the party’s convention. “I was fortunate enough to have these things when I found out I was pregnant years ago. I wanted a family, but it was the wrong time.”

“I made the decision that was best for me — to have an abortion — and to get compassionate care at a clinic in my own community,” she continued. “Now, years later, my husband and I are parents to two incredible children.”

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Hogue noted that her experience is similar to those of women nationwide.

“About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have,” she said. “You see, it’s not as simple as bad girls get abortions and good girls have families. We are the same women at different times in our lives — each making decisions that are the best for us.”

As reported by Yahoo News, “Asked if she was the first to have spoken at a Democratic National Convention about having had an abortion for reasons other than a medical crisis, Hogue replied, ‘As far as I know.'”

Planned Parenthood Federation of America President Cecile Richards on Tuesday night was the first speaker at the DNC in Philadelphia to say the word “abortion” on stage, according to Vox’s Emily Crockett. 

Richards’ use of the word abortion was deliberate, and saying the word helps address the stigma that surrounds it, Planned Parenthood Action Fund’s Vice President of Communication Mary Alice Carter said in an interview with ThinkProgress. 

“When we talk about reproductive health, we talk about the full range of reproductive health, and that includes access to abortion. So we’re very deliberate in saying we stand up for a woman’s right to access an abortion,” Carter said.

“There is so much stigma around abortion and so many people that sit in shame and don’t talk about their abortion, and so it’s very important to have the head of Planned Parenthood say ‘abortion,’ it’s very important for any woman who’s had an abortion to say ‘abortion,’ and it’s important for us to start sharing those stories and start bringing it out of the shadows and recognizing that it’s a normal experience,” she added.

Though reproductive rights and health have been discussed by both Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) while on the campaign trail, Democrats have come under fire for failing to ask about abortion care during the party’s debates. In April, Clinton called out moderators for failing to ask “about a woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health care” over the course of eight debates—though she did not use the term abortion in her condemnation.