Commentary Politics

Abortion Rights Advocates Working to Turn the Tide in States and Localities

Gloria Totten

A good offense really is the best defense.

Many of us have been fixed to our screens, watching in horror as President Trump and his colossally unqualified administration roll back progress at an unprecedented pace.

But, let’s remember this political moment came, in part, because of relentless attacks by conservatives in the states on the full range of issues: encouraging discrimination against immigrants and LGBTQ individuals, limiting collective bargaining and the right to sue corporations for wrongdoing, encouraging the carrying and use of guns, tearing down environmental and health-care protections, and using voter ID and gerrymandering to tilt elections. This moment was built on a foundation of divisiveness that was sown in the states.

The right wing’s broadest attacks, of course, have targeted reproductive rights. Over the past six years, state lawmakers have passed more than 300 restrictions on abortion. Their tactics have been designed to do more than just change state policy. They have used every bill and amendment introduced to stoke their base in preparation for this moment—an anti-choice president with a U.S. Supreme Court nomination under consideration.

At the state and local levels, it is time for progressives to go on the offensive.

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It’s time to make the development of proactive policy a central component of our work. It’s time to train advocates to drive bold, proactive policy agendas in the states, even those conservatives control. It’s time to arm our activists with policies that represent their values, and that can energize them to fight for something instead of being repeatedly asked to simply defend the status quo.

Only a proactive strategy makes news, frames the debate, and dictates timing. Only a proactive strategy can force opponents to shift their resources and time defending unpopular positions. A good offense really is the best defense.

So, when it comes to reproductive rights, it is not enough to engage in defensive battles. It is important for our lawmakers and advocates to grab the initiative, framing the issue with our own legislation—to expand access to abortion, protect patients who are trying to access clinics, make abortion affordable through insurance coverage, prevent discrimination against women who choose abortion, and crack down on deceptive activities by fake pregnancy centers.

To be more specific, here are three crucial tactics to build proactive policy campaigns and how the Public Leadership Institute (PLI) has employed them for abortion rights.

Make it easy for policymakers to champion your issue. Too often, progressives hold their ideas close to their chest, worried that if they put them out there the other side will co-opt them. Well, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Conservatives are too busy thinking up new ways to restrict our rights—churning out model bills of their own, and spoon-feeding those bills to legislators at lavish conferences—to worry about our tactics. The only effect of holding ideas close is to keep them out of the public discourse. And it does a great disservice to the terrific champions who are in office and want to fight to improve people’s lives but could use a little more support to do it.

Recognizing that lawmakers and advocates are generally unaware of proactive policy options, PLI worked with 23 other organizations to publish in January 2016 the Playbook for Abortion Rights, a compendium of model bills. We distribute it to legislators and advocates in all 50 states, conduct webinars on the content, and offer technical and policy support to anyone who wants to introduce an abortion rights bill.

Conduct research to understand who supports your ideas. In the near term, our lawmakers and advocates should drive proactive policies that contrast progressives with conservatives, make real improvements in people’s lives, and are popular. In the long term, we should drive policies that are not immediately popular, as long as we are willing to engage in sustained organizing on them in ways that shift the public’s understanding of the issue over time and grow a base of supporters. It takes both strategies to create major change, and it requires public opinion testing to understand who supports what and why, or why not.

On abortion, PLI commissioned a nationwide poll, which found that ten of the bills in the Playbook are favored by at least 60 percent of U.S. voters. Even better, seven of those models are supported by at least 75 percent. This data helped us make the case for a proactive abortion rights strategy in the states, emboldened advocates, and gave policymakers the information they needed to select the right policies for their states.

Advocates and policy champions must join together from the start. It’s not uncommon for issue experts to sit in a room and cook up policies, nailing down every last detail before bringing the legislative champions into the process. Yet, it’s those very champions who are the legislative experts, who understand their colleagues, constituents, and chamber rules. The issue experts and the legislative experts must move beyond “inside-outside” roles and work together from the beginning of the strategy to the end, drawing on the skills and strengths of all involved.

With more than 13,000 progressive policymakers and thousands of activists in our network, my organization has been uniquely positioned to drive a proactive policy strategy in states and cities nationwide. And in support of abortion rights, that’s what we’ve done.

When PLI started pursuing a proactive abortion rights strategy in 2016, we reached out to coalitions in ten strategically selected states. We worked with them to develop their organizing plans and provided financial support, to great success. And, because we know we have some amazing legislative leaders in our network, we also went directly to lawmakers. This joint leadership—advocates and lawmakers together—is helping to fuel, for perhaps the first time, a massive, multi-state proactive policy strategy for abortion rights.

Over the past two weeks, lawmakers and advocates from 18 states jointly announced that they have, or will, introduce more than 85 abortion rights policies—standing up in the face of the right wing’s anti-choice agenda emboldened by the presidential election. The states publicly participating include: Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Mexico, Ohio, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Other states are moving forward too and, overall, we expect policymakers in at least 25 different states and five municipalities to introduce more than 100 abortion rights measures. States across the country are now fighting to expand the numbers of providers, protect clinics from violence and patients from harassment, and regulate so-called crisis pregnancy centers and the lies they promulgate. Resolutions that declare “Abortion Is Health Care” are being introduced all over the country and have already passed legislative bodies in Colorado, Vermont, the City of Austin, and Travis County, Texas.

We are not going to magically enact abortion rights, or any bold progressive reform, in the many states where conservatives have control. But I can guarantee you that we will never address people’s desire for change, never affect the climate in any state, if we do not begin to pursue policies that address people’s real problems and show them that we are fighting for them.

As Sen. Paul Wellstone (D), from my home state of Minnesota, said, “If we don’t fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don’t really stand for them.”

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