Commentary Politics

There Is Nothing Progressive or Winning About a ‘Big Tent’ on Abortion

Erin Matson

This is no time to abandon the current Democratic Party platform in order to welcome with open arms those who vote to restrict reproductive rights, including votes against proactive advancements in access to care.

The election of Donald Trump is nothing short of a disaster for civil and human rights, including the right to bodily autonomy. The morally just response to this shift in power is resistance. We must stand up for freedom, justice, our humanity, our fellow human beings, and ourselves. And resistance will look like different things for different people.

I’d like to talk about what resistance looks like in a political context, particularly with regard to our position toward reproductive health care within the left. This is no time to abandon the current Democratic Party platform in order to create a so-called big tent on abortion that would welcome with open arms those who vote to restrict reproductive rights, including votes against proactive advancements in access to care.

I’ll say at the outset that comprehensive resistance to the targeting of marginalized communities is our moral obligation; no one should go to politics and horse trading first. But the fact remains that the central operations, core messaging, and strategy of the political left is up for grabs in the wake of Donald Trump’s stunning upset. This conversation is important, has tangible consequences, and must be taken seriously.

In the midst of conversations about necessary changes the left must make, including already spirited discussions about the Democratic National Committee leadership contest and troubling suggestions to ditch “identity politics” that appear to show little understanding of systemic inequality, there must be no equivocation about our commitment to reproductive health, rights, and justice. And there is no such thing as justice—economic justice, gender justice, racial justice—without reproductive justice, defined by SisterSong as the right to parent, the right not to parent, and the right to safe and healthy communities.

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A strong, proactive stance toward bodily autonomy embraced by the Democratic Party did not lose at the ballot box this presidential election. In fact, this progress is something to celebrate and continue. The party’s presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, embraced repealing the discriminatory Hyde Amendment that bans most abortion funding at home, a move that came only because of decades of bold activism led by reproductive justice advocates. She did the same for the Helms Amendment, which has effectively barred abortion funding abroad, and issued a strong, affirmative statement about abortion rights when finally asked a question about the topic at a presidential debate. What’s more, in 2016, the Democratic Party platform explicitly committed for the first time to repealing the Hyde Amendment.

Hillary Clinton’s stance on abortion and the Democratic Party platform were not trotted out as liabilities to voters because, frankly, they weren’t. An overwhelming majority of the general public supports access to abortion under some or all circumstances, regardless of whether they are aware of or take action against an onslaught of attacks on abortion access in the states.

Donald Trump didn’t really go there when it came to attacking Clinton on reproductive rights, save one incredibly non-factual performance at the final presidential debate in which he appeared to confuse cesarean sections with abortion care. The Republican communications apparatus didn’t really go there either. Most ads focused on Hillary Clinton’s emails, whisper campaigns about Benghazi, and her ties to President Obama, not her support for equitable access to health care.

While there was no broad mandate to attack abortion rights from conservatives during the election, the race is now over. The attacks on those rights are coming soon. The time has never been more important for the left to remain unified around our support for justice and access to reproductive health care.

Yes, there are a handful of anti-choice Democrats in positions of power, and they must be held accountable for their opposition to civil and human rights for people who are or who could become pregnant. First and foremost, we must remember that the numbers of anti-choice Democrats in power at the federal level are small, and they represent a dying breed of “blue-dog Democrats” increasingly less likely to be re-elected in our gerrymandered environment. In 2016, the Blue Dog Political Action Committee endorsed only 11 congressional candidates; four total won.

This doesn’t mean, however, fringe groups such as Democrats for Life of America aren’t still a threat as they advocate for a broad stance on abortion that would accommodate candidates and public officials who take stands in contradiction of the Democratic Party Platform. As revealed by the reporting of Christine Grimaldi and Ally Boguhn for Rewire, this group is duplicitous. It claims it supports contraception, for example, even though it has filed amicus briefs to the Supreme Court in opposition to it.

And this handful of anti-choice Democrats in elected office operate as pawns for right-wing priorities. With the current makeup of Congress, long-term anti-choice priorities depend on the participation of anti-choice Democrats. The strategy of a federal 20-week ban, for instance, is to quietly present a direct threat to the framework set by Roe v. Wade through junk science messaging and positioning directly targeted to secure the votes of anti-choice Democrats, such as Sens. Bob Casey (D-PA), Joe Donnelly (D-IL), and Joe Manchin (D-WV), who voted for it in 2015.

Anti-choice Democrats have also wreaked wild havoc in the past—as with the revolt former Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI) led that nearly blocked the Affordable Care Act, and that resulted in new attacks on abortion care in the private insurance market. Other examples include Vice President Joe Biden’s opposition to abortion and ongoing relationships with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which are intimately connected to the Obama administration’s failure to champion reproductive rights, above and beyond the good actions it did take such as standing with Planned Parenthood and dramatically increasing access to birth control. Gov. John Bel Edwards (D-LA), meanwhile, ran his campaign on an anti-abortion platform and signed several pieces of anti-choice legislation into law with less than one year in office.

The future of the left conversation should be had at all levels within our movements—from voters, to volunteers, to leadership. We lost. We need to know why we lost, and the only way to do so is open and honest inquiry.

At this critical moment for our nation, the left must ask open questions and reexamine our assumptions—while also remaining true to our core values of dignity, equality, fairness, justice, and respect. We should not internalize any portion of the Trump/Pence agenda, including their stated aims to send abortion back to the states and punish women. We must step back and point out that the logical consequence of all abortion bans is sending women to jail, whether or not their sponsors talk about it as freely as Mr. Trump once did, and those most likely to be hurt are poor women and women of color.

Liberals and progressives can and do respect personal viewpoints on abortion while standing firmly and without apology for funded, science-based access to reproductive health care for all people. There is no reason to compromise with opponents playing a systematic long game to eliminate reproductive rights. We must never welcome the strategies of a right wing seeking to undermine our liberal and progressive movements from within. It’s long past time to pack up the stakes and throw the misguided goal of a “big tent” on abortion in the trash.

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