Analysis Abortion

Anti-Choice Advocates Seize on West Virginia Democrats’ Support of 20-Week Abortion Ban

Sofia Resnick

When West Virginia’s legislature voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation in March, West Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed the ban, deliberately defying the national party’s support of abortion rights.

When West Virginia’s legislature voted to ban abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation in March, West Virginia Democrats overwhelmingly backed the ban. Not only did 33 out of 53 Democratic delegates and 19 out of 24 Democratic senators vote for the measure, but all 11 sponsors of the original house bill were Democrats.

That move deliberately defied the national party’s support of abortion rights.

“We’re not on the same step with the national party platform,” Rep. David G. Perry (D-Oak Hill), the bill’s primary sponsor, told Rewire. “It doesn’t reflect the majority of West Virginians.”

To be sure, West Virginia Democrats—the dominant party in state government and among registered voters—lean conservative on a range of issues, including energy, environmental, and social issues. Writing at the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight blog leading up to the 2012 presidential election, Micah Cohen noted that in recent years (really since 2000), “[j]ust like Georgia … West Virginia has gone from solid blue to solid red on presidential electoral maps. But unlike Georgia, West Virginia still elects Democrats in statewide races.” Cohen also mentioned West Virginian politicians’ pride in their independence from the national Democratic Party.

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Still, the West Virginia Democrats’ wide support of a 20-week abortion ban sent ripples of delight throughout the anti-choice establishment.

West Virginia’s governor last month vetoed the ban, but not before the state Democrats’ decision to vote in favor of it led the Susan B. Anthony List—a leading anti-choice organization—to claim the Democrats’ move was evidence that a 20-week abortion ban is “modest legislation.”

An analysis by Rewire—using our newly released Rewire Data tool—shows that West Virginia’s Democrats were not alone. A handful of Democratic lawmakers in at least five states have recently broken with the national party and voted against reproductive rights. The anti-choice votes—which include support for some of the most extreme anti-choice bills in the nation—are noteworthy because of the traditionally strong relationships between women’s groups and the Democratic Party.

Erika West, political director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, a nonpartisan reproductive rights advocacy group in Washington, D.C., told Rewire that voters in conservative, mostly anti-choice districts have not been engaged enough by advocates on reproductive rights issues, and thus Democrats in these districts vote anti-choice without much political risk.

“I think unfortunately there are a lot of districts and states in this country where we haven’t proactively—and by we, I mean anybody who’s interested in advancing reproductive freedom for women and families, whether that’s the Democratic Party, which says that they do, or organizations like us—done really deep voter engagement on the issue in a long time and what is at stake,” West said.

The national Democratic Party platform from 2012 contains strong statements in favor of reproductive rights. It says that the party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay” and “oppose[s] any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”

The West Virginia Democrats’ support for the 20-week ban defied not only the national party’s stance on abortion rights, but their own.

The Mountain State’s Democratic Party platform says:

The Democratic Party of West Virginia is concerned about the attacks on women’s reproductive health and health services in the US and West Virginia. Although we have made significant gains in women’s health in West Virginia, much remains to be done to improve quality of care and access to comprehensive health services, including family planning.

Asked where West Virginian voters who support abortion rights are supposed to turn, Perry—who said he plans to re-introduce the 20-week abortion ban next term—simply emphasized that they are in the minority in his state.

“I’d say it’s about 10 percent,” he said, estimating the percentage of voters whom he believes support abortion rights in West Virginia, for which he provided no evidence.

Margaret Chapman Pomponio—executive director of WV Free, a nonpartisan nonprofit advocates for reproductive rights in West Virginia—said Perry’s 10 percent estimate is laughable.

“Unfortunately, there’s a perception that West Virginians are anti-choice,” Pomponio told Rewire. “That’s actually not the case at all when you talk to West Virginians about the individual circumstances a woman is facing when she needs abortion care.”

Indeed, in a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling on behalf of Planned Parenthood Health Systems (a Planned Parenthood affiliate, with offices and health centers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia) released in early March, 51 to 62 percent of voters surveyed across three West Virginia Senate districts said abortion should be legal at 20 weeks’ gestation in the event that severe fetal abnormalities are predicted. And 47 to 62 percent of voters in these districts said abortion should generally be legal in all or most cases. (The public poll and accompanying memo were provided to Rewire by Planned Parenthood Health Systems.)

In her 12 years of lobbying on reproductive justice issues in West Virginia, Pomponio said she has seen the Democratic leadership consistently embracing abortion rights in its party platform but trying to skirt away from the issue in the legislature.

“It’s really the only issue that will bring out the worst in people under the capitol dome,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Susan B. Anthony List seized on West Virginia’s Democratic support to try to push for bipartisan backing of the federal 20-week abortion ban—which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year but has stalled in the Senate—by targeting U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Earlier this month, the group announced a $20,000 radio ad buy to encourage Manchin “to become the first Democratic senator to cosponsor the federal Pain Capable Unborn Child Act.”

“Momentum is growing for this popular measure to move forward in Washington as well, where Senate Democrats should take a cue from their West Virginia counterparts,” said Susan B. Anthony List President Marjorie Dannenfelser in a press release published after West Virginia’s legislature passed the ban last month. “We encourage Senator Joe Manchin to embrace his self-avowed pro-life position and become the first Democratic cosponsor of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.”

But West Virginia is not the only state where Democrats are flouting their party’s official policy.

In Texas in 2013, the openly anti-choice Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. (D-Brownsville) authored one and co-authored three anti-abortion measures (he sponsored multiple versions of the same bills in different special sessions).

Lucio authored SB 17, which, had it passed, would have required a woman to complete a three-hour adoption course at least 24 hours before she could have an abortion, excepting a pregnant woman with a life-threatening medical condition or a minor whose pregnancy was the result of sexual assault or incest.

And Lucio co-authored:

  • SB 1, an omnibus abortion bill that included a 20-week abortion ban, admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center requirements, and restrictions on medication abortions. SB 1 was the senate companion bill of HB 2, which was passed and signed into law during the second special legislative session called by Gov. Rick Perry in July 2013. Challenged portions of the law were recently upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

  • SB 24, which would have required abortion clinics to comply with the minimum standards for an ambulatory surgical center. The bill failed, but its provisions are included in the omnibus abortion bill that was signed into law last summer.

  • SB 521, which would have prevented abortion providers such as Planned Parenthood from giving sex education or family planning instruction at public schools.

In Florida last year, openly anti-choice Rep. Daphne D. Campbell (D-Miami Shores) co-sponsored HB 845, or the “Florida Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act,” which, had it passed, would have banned abortions sought because of a child’s anticipated sex or race. The law would have required abortion providers to sign an affidavit attesting that they are not performing the abortion because of the fetus’ sex or race.

Campbell and Rep. Joe Saunders (D-Orlando) co-sponsored HB 1129, the “Florida Infants Born Alive Bill,” which stipulates that infants born alive after an attempted abortion are “entitled to the same rights, powers, and privileges as any other child born alive in the course of natural birth.” The bill requires that health-care practitioners who have knowledge of violations to this law report the violations to the state health department.

In Michigan last year, Reps. Terry L. Brown (D-Pigeon) and Charles M. Brunner (D-Bay City)—who claims to have been “Right to Life from the start”—co-sponsored HB 4187, which would have amended Michigan’s informed consent statute to require a physician to perform an ultrasound at least two hours prior to an abortion and offer the patient an opportunity to see the sonogram and hear the fetal heartbeat.

In Pennsylvania last year, Sen. Richard A. Kasunic (D-Dunbar), who recently announced his plans to retire from the state senate, co-sponsored SB 275, which, had it passed, would have prohibited state municipalities from using any public money to pay for abortion, with the limited exceptions of reported rape and incest and life-endangerment of the mother.

Rep. Thomas R. Caltagirone (D-Reading) co-sponsored HB 818, signed into law last summer, which prohibits insurance providers from offering abortion coverage in the state’s health exchange set up under the Affordable Care Act, with the exception of reported rape and incest and life-endangerment of the mother.

But NARAL’s Erika West said the vast majority of Democrats around the country are still advocates for reproductive rights, despite the anti-choice votes of a small number of lawmakers.

Coming into this election season, she said she is heartened to see candidates embracing their pro-choice views in campaigns, a strategy she said was proven effective by Terry McAuliffe’s gubernatorial win in Virginia last November.

“What we’re seeing is a lot more Democratic candidates leaning in,” West said, referring to the issue of abortion rights and reproductive freedom. “We wish we had some Republican folks as well doing the same, but more Democratic candidates are leaning into the issue and using it effectively as an attack point against anti-choice opponents.”

Check out Rewire Data for more information on anti-abortion laws introduced in the last legislative cycle, including 20-week abortion bans.

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.