Commentary Contraception

Charmaine Yoest Tries to Give the War on Women a Pleasant Face

Amanda Marcotte

Emily Bazelon profiles Charmaine Yoest in the New York Times Magazine. Yoest knows that the anti-choice movement needs to improve its reputation, but despite this, she can't give up on the overt sexism and the anti-contraception sentiments.

Emily Bazelon published a fascinating profile of anti-choice leader Charmaine Yoest, head of Americans United for Life, in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine. Bazelon’s theory, which I fully agree with, is that Yoest has set out to put a friendly face on the anti-choice movement, mainly by putting on a patient smile instead of resorting to the heated anger anti-choicers quickly exhibit towards the vast majority of American women who reject the idea that our bodies are not our own. According to Bazelon, Yoest also intends to sell the agenda of rolling back women’s gains by being more careful not to mention less politically popular anti-choice policy goals, such as restricting access to contraception, even while continuing to work towards those goals.

Politically, it’s a smart idea. In fact, it’s such a smart idea, it used to be the governing mantra of the anti-choice movement, which coasted for decades with the mainstream media taking their bad faith claims to be motivated by “life” at face value, and generally not looking too hard at the ways the anti-choice movement attacked sex education and contraception, even though these lower the abortion rate. Indeed, as recently as 2008, you had politicians like Barack Obama talking about finding “common ground” on contraception with the anti-choice movement. Since then, years of relentless attacks on previously non-controversial policies like federal subsidies and insurance coverage of contraception have made it impossible to ignore the militant misogyny of the anti-choice movement. Add to that the parade of ill-informed comments on rape and abortion, and you have a perfect storm of incidents waking the public up to the true nature of the anti-choice movement, which is, as it’s always been, a movement whose sole purpose is to take away women’s ability to control their fertility and therefore their lives.

Yoest is smart to know that this looks bad, and that the anti-choice movement better start looking nicer if they want to start getting their mainstream media pass again. But it’s a sign of how loose anti-choicers have gotten with misogynist rhetoric that Yoest fails to make it through the interview pretending that she’s only in this for “life,” instead of restoring retrograde gender roles. Right at the top of the article, Bazelon quotes Yoest expressing a deeply offensive, incredibly sexist view of women.

“We’re fighting Planned Parenthood to protect women,” she said. “When those babies aren’t born, that is a loss for their mothers, and that’s part of why they need a chance to live.”

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Anti-choicers are trying to evade charges of misogyny by claiming they intend to “protect” women, but as Yoest makes clear here, “protecting” women means nothing more than telling women they have to have babies whether they want to or not. Yoest couldn’t be clearer here about her view of women’s basic ability to decide for themselves about when to have children: She believes they are incapable of making that call. It’s a worldview based around the idea that women are for baby-making, as an oven is made for baking. A woman has no more right to say no to baby-making than an oven has a right to say no to bread-baking. It’s a sexist view, but the fact that it’s backed up by denial of health services and abortion bans that drive women to self-harm moves it right into the realm of misogyny.

Yoest knows it’s politically unpalatable to oppose contraception, but she does it anyway.

Nor does Yoest advocate for reducing abortion by increasing access to birth control. When I asked what she thought about a study, published in October, which found a 60 to 80 percent drop in the abortion rate, compared with the national average, among women in St. Louis who received free birth control for three years, she said, “I don’t want to frustrate you, but I’m not going to go there.”

She also repeats the scientifically false claim that the IUD has “life-ending properties,” a belief that is clearly a rationalization for hostility to a form of contraception that gives women a great deal of control over their fertility. Yoest reflexively fights any kind of expansion of health care that could improve contraception use, not just with her war on Planned Parenthood but also on the Affordable Care Act. This is a woman who may claim to refuse to talk about it, but it’s not hard to figure out how she feels about contraception, especially forms that give women a great deal of control over when and if  they get pregnant. 

It’s fascinating, because the easiest way for the anti-choice movement to get its reputation back, besides reining in the politicians who get loose lips about what they really think of rape victims, would be to give up on the war on contraception. Strained claims that contraception doesn’t work don’t fly with the public at large that has intimate experience with contraception, nor does it comport with the actual evidence. Focusing on contraception gives the angry hoards more opportunities to say things—like Rush Limbaugh calling Sandra Fluke a “slut”—that give the whole game away. Politically, it’s just a failure. So why does someone as smart as Yoest refuse to give up the war on contraception, even as she acknowledges to reporters that it’s politically toxic?

My guess is this: Because they don’t have much choice if they want to keep women from controlling their own lives. In the past, fighting abortion rights was quite probably enough to keep women as second class citizens. For cultural and historical reasons, women didn’t use contraception as consistently as they could on average. But two generations after the invention of the pill, the mental barriers to using contraception have fallen away. We see this in the way that abortion rates have cratered among women with economic and educational privileges, while declining access for poor women has made their abortion rates go up. The share of teenagers who use contraception the first time they have sex is at an all-time high and likely to go up. If you want women’s lives to be derailed by unwanted childbirth, attacking abortion isn’t going to get the job done anymore. You really have to attack contraception. Which is why, no matter how politically inconvenient it is, anti-choicers will continue to do so. 

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.