Commentary Abortion

Abortion Access Is an Economic Justice Issue, and Democrats Should Remember That

Atima Omara

Access to reproductive health care, specifically abortion, is not a wedge issue.

Editor’s note: This piece is part of a critical debate on how progressives and Democrats talk about protecting abortion care, and we welcome others who want to engage it. You can email pitches to [email protected]

Recently, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), known for his laserlike focus on economic justice, was asked in an MSNBC interview whether Democrats can “be open to candidates that may not be rigidly pro-choice, may not be rigidly pro-gun control.”

His response: “Yes.”

This frequent perspective in the Democratic Party is one that concerns and agitates many progressive women, particularly progressive women of color. Access to reproductive health care, specifically abortion, is not a
wedge issue. Rather, it is fundamentally important to economic justice for women. While searching for the missing ingredient that led to losses in the 2016 presidential election and in key states, Democrats would do well to remember that.

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Studies show that poor women have significantly higher rates of unintended pregnancy, which in turn leads to a higher rate of unintended births. Nearly 70 percent of women who obtain abortions have incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty line (roughly $48,000 income annually or less for a family of four). One of the top reasons women choose to have abortions is because they are unable to take on the expense of having a child. Many already have families and can’t afford to add another child. And the majority of those seeking abortions are women of color, mostly Black and Latina.

At the same time, legislatures across the country are enacting increasing numbers of mandatory waiting periods, regulations that shut down abortion clinics, policies banning insurance coverage of abortion, and other laws that restrict women’s ability to access care. The long-term economic effects are not promising. The Turnaway Study, a landmark longitudinal survey from the University of California at San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health that ran from 2008 to 2015, highlights what happens to women who seek but are “turned away” from the abortion care they request. The study tracked 30 abortion facilities in 21 states, comparing women who did not get their abortion with those on similar financial footing who did. The women who were denied were three times more likely to be below the federal poverty line two years later.

That’s why it’s not enough for Democrats concerned with economic justice to only talk about parental leave, equal pay, paid sick leave, and raising the minimum wage, without including access to reproductive health care and abortion. While all of these are critical to raising women out of poverty no matter their decisions, being able to determine when and if you want to raise a family is a crucial factor to determining economic stability.

The “When Women Succeed, America Succeeds” platform from congressional Democrats in 2012 was true, but it was incomplete without naming the full range of reproductive rights—including affordable contraceptive services and abortion—as essential.

Meanwhile, in the 2016 election, the “reproductive rights is an economic justice” message seemed to make inroads. Hillary Clinton was the first Democratic candidate running for president to affirm her commitment to repealing the Hyde Amendment, a legislative provision barring the use of federal funds to pay for abortion. Reproductive health, rights, and justice advocates scored another victory working with supportive Democratic National Committee members to get support for the Hyde Amendment’s repeal in the 2016 platform for the first time. Given that the cost of an abortion averages about $500 in the first trimester, the Hyde Amendment means that, among other people, many individuals who qualify for Medicaid will often struggle to come up with the extra money to pay for the procedure.

But since the 2016 elections, there has been much chatter—such as in a recent op-ed in the New York Timesabout Democrats wooing the working-class whites and white evangelicals who voted for Trump, many of whom who are staunchly opposed to abortion. That would be a mistake.

Pro-choice voters, particularly pro-choice women voters, make up the base of the Democratic Party. As reproductive rights have been under assault from the GOP, the issue has been a key motivator. In the 2013 Virginia governor’s election, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) ran largely on the issue, beating Ken Cuccinelli (R) by highlighting Republicans’ anti-choice legislative agenda. Polling revealed most women voters—especially those of color—decided the race in a state that was once solidly red but is now considered a political battleground.

As someone who has worked in Democratic politics, I understand the reality that pro-choice Democrats aren’t always going to be elected in conservative parts of the country. There will be elected Democrats who aren’t 100 percent pro-choice. But the foundation of the pro-choice movement is understanding those beliefs should not be translated into policy that controls the personal decision making of others.

I also understand that not everything in a campaign is about reproductive rights. In Colorado, then-Sen. Mark Udall (D) focused on his opponent Cory Gardner’s anti-choice legislative agenda to the exclusion of everything else; Udall did not spend time clearly defining himself and his campaign, and lost.

But Democrats should not back away from fighting to protect reproductive health-care access. The party should not pass over qualified candidates with strong pro-choice values in winnable areas because it is trying to avoid a so-called wedge issue to focus on economic security issues, when reproductive rights are key to that economic security.

In a Pew Research Center study at the end of the 2016 election, 85 percent of women who identify as Democrats thought abortion should be legal in all or most cases, up 18 points from March 2016. This is the highest level of support for legal abortion among Democratic women in the past two decades. The Democratic Party cannot neglect its base, especially when the issue can be discussed in a way that is consistent with the party’s economic values.

The Republican Party now is doing everything it can to defund Planned Parenthood, which has provided critical care—including abortion—to women, especially lower-income women in areas where the health-care organization runs the only clinic. Republicans have tried to strip support for affordable contraceptive services that would prevent unintended pregnancies; they almost succeeded in passing a health-care bill that would have gutted maternity health-care coverage, another expensive item for expectant and new mothers. And they continue to try to pass federal and local anti-choice laws, such as bans on abortion after 20 weeks and various regulations making it harder for clinics to operate.

Democratic activists and elected officials must fight against these Republican maneuvers, advocate for reproductive rights and justice on the state and local level, and work to elect pro-choice candidates. Because if the Democratic Party wants to retain its authority on working for economic justice, it must remain the party that empowers and defends women’s right to determine their reproductive destiny.

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