Advice Sexuality

Get Real! Can I Start Dating When I Have a Mental Illness?

Heather Corinna

Does having a mental illness mean you can't have healthy sexual or romantic relationships, or that someone else can't have them with you? Nope.

Published in partnership with Scarleteen
 
Steelflower asks:

I’m a seventeen-year-old girl and ten months ago, I was diagnosed with a light form of pseudologica fantasia, usually known as mythomania. The basis of this illness is an addiction to telling lies. I’m seeing a therapist for this and she’s a very kind and competent woman, but she has warned me that this illness is usually hard to cure and there are few known cases where the therapy was actually able to get rid of the problem. I’m doing a better job at keeping it under control than I used to but the urge is still there. I just keep it under wraps and tackle the illness on my own, with the support of my nuclear family. The thing is, one of my friends has recently expressed a romantic interest in me, and I would very much like to get involved in a relationship with him, but this would mean disclosing my problem to him, because of course I’m not going to enter a relationship without telling the other person involved about this first.

I’m deadly frightened to tell him because this is something I am really ashamed of. I trust him and know my secret would be safe with him, but I’m terrified that he’ll suddenly find me disgusting, or frightening, or that he’ll never be able to trust me again – because honestly, who would fully trust someone who’s a compulsive liar? There’s so much stigma attached to lying that I sometimes feel broken. Like a leper, almost. This is getting a bit too dramatic for my taste, but that’s the only way to express how I feel. Do you have any advice about this situation and/or about being in a relationship when suffering from a mental illness? Thanks in advance.

Heather Corinna replies:

You’re right, there certainly is social stigma attached to lying. Really, it’s the usual motives for dishonesty which have the big bad rap, and we can probably agree that’s actually sound, but even though you know you don’t have an intent to deceive or manipulate anyone, and you have an illness that can compel you to lie, rather than lying being something you actively choose to do, I can understand why you feel the weight of all that regardless. Add that to the stigma attached to nearly any mental illness, and it’s unfortunately all too easy to feel very isolated, ashamed, scared about social interactions, and vulnerable. On top of all of that? Starting to date, period, can be mighty daunting too. I’m so sorry that you’re feeling the way that you are right now; it sounds pretty overwhelming.

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If it helps, I don’t think mental illness is something anyone needs to feel ashamed about.

I also think it’s important to try to keep in mind that the fact it’s stigmatized doesn’t mean that stigma is sound or right. Often what stigma demonstrates most is a lack of education, understanding, or compassion on behalf of those applying stigma. Mental illness is not a choice, just like having freckles, autism, or cerebral palsy aren’t choices. It’s something that happened to you entirely outside your control, something that doesn’t make you any less a good or valuable person than anyone without mental illness. It also sounds like you’ve been doing all you can and working hard to manage it well, which is the best anyone can do. No shame in any of that. And if you need an extra little boost right now, this page might be a help too. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think Abe Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Vincent Van Gogh, John Keats, or Issac Newton—all people who had mental illnesses—were disgusting or frightening. I think that the fact they did the amazing things they did with mental illness makes them more awesome and exceptional, not less.

I also think someone thinking this deeply about these things, as you are, who is considering taking a pretty big emotional risk by disclosing something she’s scared about for the other person’s benefit? That person sounds very trustworthy to me, and like someone very invested in building trust and being very mindful about it—more mindful than most.

Whether we’re talking about a condition like yours, depression, borderline personality disorder, anxiety, or any other mental illness or mood disorder, the very first thing I’d always recommend is doing all you can to get a good mental healthcare provider to work with—you’ve already got that covered.

That person, I think, should be your lead point person for these questions about intimate relationships.

If you haven’t already talked about all of this with your therapist, that’s the first thing I’d suggest. I think the best first step is a fact-finding mission and an in-depth talk with someone educated about your condition who also knows you and how you have dealt with it so far. That way, you can have plenty of reliable information to consider in making choices with dating and disclosure.

If you’re unsure about what to ask her, I’d suggest questions like:

  • What is your opinion about someone with my illness, in the place I’m at with managing it, and romantic relationships?
  • What challenges do you feel I’ll face when it comes to an intimate relationship? What about a person I’m involved with? What might their challenges be?
  • Do you feel like I’m yet in the place where I can successfully pursue and maintain an intimate relationship? If you don’t think now is the right time for me to be dating, can you give me some things I can work on so I can work toward getting there?
  • What are some things you suggest people with my condition tell potential partners or even just people they’re dating? When do you suggest they tell them?
  • What are some tools you’ve seen other people with my condition use in their intimate relationships to deal with some of the particular challenges it might pose?
  • This (you describe this guy to her, your relationship with him so far, and what he says he’s looking for with you right now) is the opportunity I’m presented with. Does it sound like one you think could be beneficial and manageable for me?
  • What, if anything, do you think I need to accept I can’t do right now in terms of relationships? What do you think I can do?
  • How do you think I need to go about starting to date differently—if you do think I need to do anything differently—than someone without my condition might?
  • What are things you think I’d need someone I’m dating to be able to handle and manage when it comes to me, and vice versa? What kinds of people might not be a great fit? (For example, I’d imagine someone who already has a hard time trusting people would probably be a poor fit.)
  • If you do think it’s OK for me to try dating right now, can we come up with some tools and check-ins together so I can feel more confident, and less fearful, about trying this?

Once you have that information, I’d then take a look at how you feel in general when it comes to feeling up to dating. After all, figuring out if we’re ready to date in general, and then if we’re in the right head space right now, or with a given person, to do that, is something for everyone to do, not just someone with mental illness.

For instance, you voice what sounds like a big fear of rejection. That’s understandable, but if we’re going to start dating, rejection—or even people just taking a pass on being with us at some point—is something that’s always going to be a possibility, something we will always need to be up to dealing with, because it could always happen. I’d also do a self-check on how able you feel to take a pass on someone’s interest or not move things forward when that’s not really what you want. If and when someone feels like someone dating them would be doing them some monumental favor, it can be all too easy to have a hard time setting limits and boundaries. Pursuing intimate relationships likely to be healthy involves the self-esteem of everyone involved being in a good place; we’ve got to think well of and value ourselves as much as we do others, have some measure of resilience, and not be in the spot where we’re so emotionally hungry, we’ll eat anything, if you catch my drift.

Sometimes we’re in the right places in ways like that for dating or more serious relationships, and sometimes we’re just not. Sometimes, too, we’ll meet someone awesome, have great chemistry, and have an interest in exploring things further, but the timing is just off. It might be a bad time because we don’t feel up to possible rejection, because they’re in a last, tough year of school, or because someone is in the thick of a family crisis. And if and when that happens, everything else can be golden, but we might—or they might—take a pass and maybe just try again later when the timing is better.

By all means, I’d also consult your guts. What’s your instinct about all of this? Our intuitive feelings are feelings we can usually trust and do well giving a lot of weight to.

That all said, is this a close friend? It sounds like he is. I wonder if you’ve thought about telling him about your illness regardless?

Like you already voiced, having mental illness can make a person feel isolated, and all the more so if it’s something you’re not sharing with any friends so that you’ve got them as an extra support sometimes, or just feel like your friends really know you. Keeping this a secret from everyone also might be making those feelings of shame feel a lot bigger than they would without the silence.

Having at least one trusted friend who you can tell about this, and who knows about this, would probably be very good for you. This has got to feel like a pretty big burden to carry around without support outside your family and therapist. It might be that the simplest (which is not to say the easiest, or magically not at all scary for you) answer to all of this is to tell this guy either way. Another option, if you have more than this one friend, might be to first try telling a different—but still deeply trusted—friend about this first, rather than starting with a disclosure to someone where there’s romantic interest too, since that can obviously bump up the pressure and the fears around telling considerably.

If you do decide to share this information with this guy, and, in alignment with some of your fears here, it turns out he either can’t handle that information, or decides he isn’t OK dating you because of your illness, I want to tell you something.

I know, and you know, that this is something you can’t separate from yourself. In other words, it’s part of who you are, it doesn’t live neatly in some box separate from you. But not only is this something that is more of who you are than anything else—you’re a whole, big person made up of lots of things, not just your illness—someone else’s reaction to it, if they feel afraid, intimidated, or even really negative, also isn’t just about you.

Someone who decides that they either feel they can’t or just don’t want to deal with dating you because of your illness, specifically, is a lot like someone deciding they don’t want to or can’t handle being with someone who, for example, has a serious physical illness or has had some big trauma in their past. Sure, that’s about those things, but it’s also about the other person.

Not everyone is always going to be up to extra or specific challenges with a relationship, and that’s at least as much about them as it is about you. I hear and understand that you feel negatively about yourself because of this, but I’d encourage you to try and own those feelings as your own and not assume that someone who didn’t want to date you because of your condition think the things about you and it that you do. Someone who pans on dating you when they know about this, and because of this, may well not think any of those things. Those are your thoughts and feelings, but they may not be theirs.

They might instead be thinking things like, “That sounds like I’m going to have to spend time educating myself about this, and I don’t feel like I have that time,” or “I’m really worried that it’s something I won’t be able to handle, and I might hurt this already vulnerable person,” or “I really wanted something more light, this feels heavy right from the start,” or “If myself and her family and therapist are the only people who know, I’m not sure I’m going to be able to get what I need in terms of support or help I might need with parts of this. I get why she keeps it very private, but I don’t know if that would work for me.” They might pan because of your illness, because they have one of their own to deal with, and someone else’s feels like too much right now, or because they have someone in their family with mental illness and feel like they can only deal with that one right now. The point is, there are so very many reasons this might be an issue for someone, if it is, so many different things they might think, and none of them may be about being disgusted or frightened by you.

It’s tough, I know, to walk into parts of life feeling like a person who is “more work” than other people without illness might be or might seem to be. Let’s be real: It does suck, especially since you probably know (I hope you know) that any relationship with anyone can be challenging, or “more work,” or that something with anyone could seem to be light fare and wind up not being that at all. There’s really no denying that that feeling or perception stinks.

At the same time, someone might take a pass on pursuing a relationship with us for any number of reasons; this is just one. And if you do try to pursue something with this guy and it doesn’t progress or wind up happening after all, it might be because of your mental illness and his feelings about it, but it might be for any other number of reasons, like him realizing maybe he didn’t have the feelings he thought he did (or you realizing that), you two finding out you’re just a better fit as non-romantic friends, one or both of you discovering you don’t have enough time for a dating relationships, radically different politics or ideas about relationships, or one of you finding out that the other absolutely cannot stand your very favorite thing in the world.

By all means, I think taking the time to assess all of this as best you can first is a good move on your part, and I certainly do think it’s a big thing to think about and carefully consider, and not just for the other person’s sake, but for your own. You also need to take care of you. But it also isn’t all of who you are, nor is it the only potential thing that could cause a relationship conflict or someone to take a pass. So in the case that this is something you really want to pursue, your therapist is on board too, and you feel up to dating, period (again, mental illness or no), and with this particular person, I don’t see any reason not to pursue it.

I wish you the very best, and will leave you with some extra links that might help you out:

Culture & Conversation Family

‘Abortion and Parenting Needs Can Coexist’: A Q&A With Parker Dockray

Carole Joffe

"Why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place?"

In May 2015, the longstanding and well-regarded pregnancy support talkline Backline launched a new venture. The Oakland-based organization opened All-Options Pregnancy Resource Center, a Bloomington, Indiana, drop-in center that offers adoption information, abortion referrals, and parenting support. Its mission: to break down silos and show that it is possible to support all options and all families under one roof—even in red-state Indiana, where Republican vice presidential candidate Gov. Mike Pence signed one of the country’s most restrictive anti-abortion laws.

To be sure, All-Options is hardly the first organization to point out the overlap between women terminating pregnancies and those continuing them. For years, the reproductive justice movement has insisted that the defense of abortion must be linked to a larger human rights framework that assures that all women have the right to have children and supportive conditions in which to parent them. More than 20 years ago, Rachel Atkins, then the director of the Vermont Women’s Center, famously described for a New York Times reporter the women in the center’s waiting room: “The country really suffers from thinking that there are two different kinds of women—women who have abortions and women who have babies. They’re the same women at different times.”

While this concept of linking the needs of all pregnant women—not just those seeking an abortion—is not new, there are actually remarkably few agencies that have put this insight into practice. So, more than a year after All-Options’ opening, Rewire checked in with Backline Executive Director Parker Dockray about the All-Options philosophy, the center’s local impact, and what others might consider if they are interested in creating similar programs.

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Rewire: What led you and Shelly Dodson (All-Options’ on-site director and an Indiana native) to create this organization?

PD: In both politics and practice, abortion is so often isolated and separated from other reproductive experiences. It’s incredibly hard to find organizations that provide parenting or pregnancy loss support, for example, and are also comfortable and competent in supporting people around abortion.

On the flip side, many abortion or family planning organizations don’t provide much support for women who want to continue a pregnancy or parents who are struggling to make ends meet. And yet we know that 60 percent of women having an abortion already have at least one child; in our daily lives, these issues are fundamentally connected. So why should someone have to go to one place for abortion care or funding, and to another place—one that is often anti-abortion—to get diapers and parenting resources? Why can’t they find that support all in one place? That’s what All-Options is about.

We see the All-Options model as a game-changer not only for clients, but also for volunteers and community supporters. All-Options allows us to transcend the stale pro-choice/pro-life debate and invites people to be curious and compassionate about how abortion and parenting needs can coexist .… Our hope is that All-Options can be a catalyst for reproductive justice and help to build a movement that truly supports people in all their options and experiences.

Rewire: What has been the experience of your first year of operations?

PD: We’ve been blown away with the response from clients, volunteers, donors, and partner organizations …. In the past year, we’ve seen close to 600 people for 2,400 total visits. Most people initially come to All-Options—and keep coming back—for diapers and other parenting support. But we’ve also provided hundreds of free pregnancy tests, thousands of condoms, and more than $20,000 in abortion funding.

Our Hoosier Abortion Fund is the only community-based, statewide fund in Indiana and the first to join the National Network of Abortion Funds. So far, we’ve been able to support 60 people in accessing abortion care in Indiana or neighboring states by contributing to their medical care or transportation expenses.

Rewire: Explain some more about the centrality of diaper giveaways in your program.

PD: Diaper need is one of the most prevalent yet invisible forms of poverty. Even though we knew that in theory, seeing so many families who are struggling to provide adequate diapers for their children has been heartbreaking. Many people are surprised to learn that federal programs like [the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children or WIC] and food stamps can’t be used to pay for diapers. And most places that distribute diapers, including crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), only give out five to ten diapers per week.

All-Options follows the recommendation of the National Diaper Bank Network in giving families a full pack of diapers each week. We’ve given out more than 4,000 packs (150,000 diapers) this year—and we still have 80 families on our waiting list! Trying to address this overwhelming need in a sustainable way is one of our biggest challenges.

Rewire: What kind of reception has All-Options had in the community? Have there been negative encounters with anti-choice groups?

PD: Diapers and abortion funding are the two pillars of our work. But diapers have been a critical entry point for us. We’ve gotten support and donations from local restaurants, elected officials, and sororities at Indiana University. We’ve been covered in the local press. Even the local CPC refers people to us for diapers! So it’s been an important way to build trust and visibility in the community because we are meeting a concrete need for local families.

While All-Options hasn’t necessarily become allies with places that are actively anti-abortion, we do get lots of referrals from places I might describe as “abortion-agnostic”—food banks, domestic violence agencies, or homeless shelters that do not have a position on abortion per se, but they want their clients to get nonjudgmental support for all their options and needs.

As we gain visibility and expand to new places, we know we may see more opposition. A few of our clients have expressed disapproval about our support of abortion, but more often they are surprised and curious. It’s just so unusual to find a place that offers you free diapers, baby clothes, condoms, and abortion referrals.

Rewire: What advice would you give to others who are interested in opening such an “all-options” venture in a conservative state?

PD: We are in a planning process right now to figure out how to best replicate and expand the centers starting in 2017. We know we want to open another center or two (or three), but a big part of our plan will be providing a toolkit and other resources to help people use the all-options approach.

The best advice we have is to start where you are. Who else is already doing this work locally, and how can you work together? If you are an abortion fund or clinic, how can you also support the parenting needs of the women you serve? Is there a diaper bank in your area that you could refer to or partner with? Could you give out new baby packages for people who are continuing a pregnancy or have a WIC eligibility worker on-site once a month? If you are involved with a childbirth or parenting organization, can you build a relationship with your local abortion fund?

How can you make it known that you are a safe space to discuss all options and experiences? How can you and your organization show up in your community for diaper need and abortion coverage and a living wage?

Help people connect the dots. That’s how we start to change the conversation and create support.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to clarify the spelling of Shelly Dodson’s name.

Analysis Politics

Anti-Choice Democrats Employ ‘Dangerous,’ Contradictory Strategies

Ally Boguhn & Christine Grimaldi

Democrats for Life of America leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradict each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party's platform is newly committed to increasing abortion access for all.

The national organization for anti-choice Democrats last month brought a litany of arguments against abortion to the party’s convention. As a few dozen supporters gathered for an event honoring anti-choice Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards (D), the group ran into a consistent problem.

Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) leaders, politicians, and rank-and-file supporters often contradicted each other, and sometimes themselves, exposing a lack of coherent strategy at a time when the Democratic Party’s platform is newly committed to increasing access to abortion care for all.

DFLA leaders and politicians attempted to distance themselves from the traditionally Republican anti-choice movement, but repeatedly invoked conservative falsehoods and medically unsupported science to make their arguments against abortion. One state-level lawmaker said she routinely sought guidance from the National Right to Life, while another claimed the Republican-allied group left anti-choice Democrats in his state to fend for themselves.

Over the course of multiple interviews, Rewire discovered that while the organization demanded that Democrats “open the big tent” for anti-choice party members in order to win political office, especially in the South, it lacked a coordinated strategy for making that happen and accomplishing its policy goals.

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Take, for example, 20-week abortion bans, which the organization’s website lists as a key legislative issue. When asked about why the group backed cutting off abortion care at that point in a pregnancy, DFLA Executive Director Kristen Day admitted that she didn’t “know what the rationale was.”

Janet Robert, the president of the group’s executive board, was considerably more forthcoming.

“Well, the group of pro-life people who came up with the 20-week ban felt that at 20 weeks, it’s pretty well established that a child can feel pain,” Robert claimed during an interview with Rewire. Pointing to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, which protected the right to legal abortion care before the point of fetal viability, Rogers suggested that “more and more we’re seeing that children, prenatal children, are viable around 20 to 22 weeks” of pregnancy.

Medical consensus, however, has found it “unlikely” that a fetus can feel pain until the third trimester, which begins around the 28th week of pregnancy. The doctors who testify otherwise in an effort to push through abortion restrictions are often discredited anti-choice activists. A 20-week fetus is “in no way shape or form” viable, according to Dr. Hal Lawrence, executive vice president of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

When asked about scientific findings that fetuses do not feel pain at 20 weeks of pregnancy, Robert steadfastly claimed that “medical scientists do not agree on that issue.”

“There is clearly disagreement, and unfortunately, science has been manipulated by a lot of people to say one thing or another,” she continued.

While Robert parroted the very same medically unsupported fetal pain and viability lines often pushed by Republicans and anti-choice activists, she seemingly acknowledged that such restrictions were a way to work around the Supreme Court’s decision to make abortion legal.

“Now other legislatures are looking at 24 weeks—anything to get past the Supreme Court cut-off—because everybody know’s it’s a child … it’s all an arbitrary line,” she said, adding that “people use different rationales just to get around the stupid Supreme Court decision.”

Charles C. Camosy, a member of DFLA’s board, wrote in a May op-ed for the LA Times that a federal 20-week ban was “common-sense legislation.” Camosy encouraged Democratic lawmakers to help pass the abortion ban as “a carrot to get moderate Republicans on board” with paid family leave policies.

Robert also relied upon conservative talking points about fake clinics, also known as crisis pregnancy centers, which routinely lie to patients to persuade them not to have an abortion. Robert said DFLA doesn’t often interact with women facing unplanned pregnancies, but the group nonetheless views such organizations as “absolutely fabulous [be]cause they help the women.”

Those who say such fake clinics provide patients with misinformation and falsehoods about abortion care are relying on “propaganda by Planned Parenthood,” Robert claimed, adding that the reproductive health-care provider simply doesn’t want patients seeking care at fake clinics and wants to take away those clinics’ funding.

Politicians echoed similar themes at DFLA’s convention event. Edwards’ award acceptance speech revealed his approach to governing, which, to date, includes support for restrictive abortion laws that disproportionately hurt people with low incomes, even as he has expanded Medicaid in Louisiana.

Also present at the event was Louisiana state Rep. Katrina Jackson (D), responsible for a restrictive admitting privileges law that former Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) signed into law in 2014. Jackson readily admitted to Rewire that she takes her legislative cues from the National Right to Life. She also name-checked Dorinda Bordlee, senior counsel of the Bioethics Defense Fund, an allied organization of the Alliance Defending Freedom.

“They don’t just draft bills for me,” Jackson told Rewire in an interview. “What we do is sit down and talk before every session and see what the pressing issues are in the area of supporting life.”

Despite what Jackson described as a commitment to the constitutionality of her laws, the Supreme Court in March blocked admitting privileges from taking effect in Louisiana. Louisiana’s law is also nearly identical to the Texas version that the Court struck down in June’s Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt decision.

Jackson did not acknowledge the setback, speaking instead about how such measures protect the health of pregnant people and fetuses. She did not mention any legal strategy—only that she’s “very prayerful” that admitting privileges will remain law in her state.

Jackson said her “rewarding” work with National Right to Life encompasses issues beyond abortion care—in her words, “how you’re going to care for the baby from the time you choose life.”

She claimed she’s not the only Democrat to seek out the group’s guidance.

“I have a lot of Democratic colleagues in my state, in other states, who work closely with [National] Right to Life,” Jackson said. “I think the common misconception is, you see a lot of party leaders saying they’re pro-abortion, pro-choice, and you just generally assume that a lot of the state legislators are. And that’s not true. An overwhelming majority of the Democrat state legislators in our state and others are pro-life. But, we say it like this: We care about them from the womb to the tomb.”

The relationship between anti-choice Democrats and anti-choice groups couldn’t be more different in South Dakota, said state house Rep. Ray Ring (D), a Hillary Clinton supporter at DFLA’s convention event.

Ring said South Dakota is home to a “small, not terribly active” chapter of DFLA. The “very Republican, very conservative” South Dakota Right to Life drives most of the state’s anti-choice activity and doesn’t collaborate with anti-choice Democrats in the legislature, regardless of their voting records on abortion.

Democrats hold a dozen of the 70 seats in South Dakota’s house and eight of the 35 in the state senate. Five of the Democratic legislators had a mixed record on choice and ten had a pro-choice record in the most recent legislative session, according to NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota Executive Director Samantha Spawn.

As a result, Ring and other anti-choice Democrats devote more of their legislative efforts toward policies such as Medicaid expansion, which they believe will reduce the number of pregnant people who seek abortion care. Ring acknowledged that restrictions on the procedure, such as a 20-week ban, “at best, make a very marginal difference”—a far cry not only from Republicans’ anti-choice playbook, but also DFLA’s position.

Ring and other anti-choice Democrats nevertheless tend to vote for Republican-sponsored abortion restrictions, falling in line with DFLA’s best practices. The group’s report, which it released at the event, implied that Democratic losses since 2008 are somehow tied to their party’s support for abortion rights, even though the turnover in state legislatures and the U.S. Congress can be attributed to a variety of factors, including gerrymandering to favor GOP victories.

Anecdotal evidence provides measured support for the inference.

Republican-leaning anti-choice groups targeted one of their own—Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC)—in her June primary for merely expressing concern that a congressional 20-week abortion ban would have required rape victims to formally report their assaults to the police in order to receive exemptions. Ellmers eventually voted last year for the U.S. House of Representatives’ “disgustingly cruel” ban, similarly onerous rape and incest exceptions included.

If anti-choice groups could prevail against such a consistent opponent of abortion rights, they could easily do the same against even vocal “Democrats for Life.”

Former Rep. Kathy Dalhkemper (D-PA) contends that’s what happened to her and other anti-choice Democrats in the 2010 midterm elections, which resulted in Republicans wresting control of the House.

“I believe that pro-life Democrats are the biggest threat to the Republicans, and that’s why we were targeted—and I’ll say harshly targeted—in 2010,” Dahlkemper said in an interview.

She alleged that anti-choice groups, often funded by Republicans, attacked her for supporting the Affordable Care Act. A 2010 Politico story describes how the Susan B. Anthony List funneled millions of dollars into equating the vote with support for abortion access, even though President Obama signed an executive order in the vein of the Hyde Amendment’s prohibition on federal funds for abortion care.

Dalhkemper advocated for perhaps the clearest strategy to counter the narrative that anti-choice Democrats somehow aren’t really opposed to abortion.

“What we need is support from our party at large, and we also need to band together, and we also need to continue to talk about that consistent life message that I think the vast majority of us believe in,” she said.

Self-described pro-choice Georgia House Minority Leader Rep. Stacey Abrams (D) rejected the narratives spun by DFLA to supporters. In an interview with Rewire at the convention, Abrams called the organization’s claim that Democrats should work to elect anti-choice politicians from within their ranks in order to win in places like the South a “dangerous” strategy that assumes “that the South is the same static place it was 50 or 100 years ago.”

“I think what they’re reacting to is … a very strong religious current that runs throughout the South,” that pushes people to discuss their values when it comes to abortion, Abrams said. “But we are capable of complexity. And that’s the problem I have. [Its strategy] assumes and reduces Democrats to a single issue, but more importantly, it reduces the decision to one that is a binary decision—yes or no.”

That strategy also doesn’t take into account the intersectional identities of Southern voters and instead only focuses on appealing to the sensibilities of white men, noted Abrams.

“We are only successful when we acknowledge that I can be a Black woman who may be raised religiously pro-life but believe that other women have the right to make a choice,” she continued. “And the extent to which we think about ourselves only in terms of white men and trying to convince that very and increasingly narrow population to be our saviors in elections, that’s when we face the likelihood of being obsolete.”

Understanding that nuances exist among Southern voters—even those who are opposed to abortion personally—is instead the key to reaching them, Abrams said.

“Most of the women and most of the voters, we are used to having complex conversations about what happens,” she said. “And I do believe that it is both reductive and it’s self-defeating for us to say that you can only win if you’re a pro-life Democrat.”

To Abrams, being pro-choice means allowing people to “decide their path.”

“The use of reproductive choice is endemic to how we as women can be involved in society: how we can go to work, how we can raise families, make choices about who we are. And so while I am sympathetic to the concern that you have to … cut against the national narrative, being pro-choice means exactly that,” Abrams continued. “If their path is pro-life, fine. If their path is to decide to make other choices, to have an abortion, they can do so.”

“I’m a pro-choice woman who has strongly embraced the conversation and the option for women to choose whatever they want to choose,” Abrams said. “That is the best and, I think, most profound path we can take as legislators and as elected officials.”

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