How will we defend choice after Kavanaugh?

October 15, 2018

Leela Yellesetty and Elizabeth Schulte explain where supporters of reproductive rights should focus their efforts after the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh.

THE TRUMP administration and the Republicans succeeded in getting Brett Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court last week, and our side — the people who stand with the sexual assault survivors who stood up to Kavanaugh — is coming to grips with the reality of a conservative-packed Court and the threat it poses to women’s rights.

Thanks to the bravery of Christine Blasey Ford and others who came forward with their allegations, and the tens of thousands who are part of a growing movement around sexual harassment and violence, it was not like the hearings Anita Hill had to endure decades ago.

These charges are finally being taken seriously, and women are being believed.

Even though we didn’t win, the right wing had a fight on its hands — with the power of #MeToo showing itself in protests on the steps of the Capitol, walkouts at schools, occupations of senators’ offices and protests in front of the elite Yale Club.

Protesters stand up for women’s rights in Chicago
Protesters stand up for women’s rights in Chicago (Charles Edward Miller | flickr)

We showed our potential power to mobilize people in the streets against the right wing, and to also pressure the Democrats to do the right thing, even while they dragged their feet during the nomination process and one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, showed in the end what side he was really on.

Now with the Court stacked with right-wingers, Trump’s campaign promise to go after women’s right to choose is further along than ever, as several cases concerning abortion rights are scheduled to come before the Court.

For many people, the next most important step in pushing back the right will be electing Democrats in the midterm elections — and the fact that Kavanaugh was voted onto the Court is one more urgent reason for them to focus on this.

But there is a bigger lesson that came out of the Kavanaugh confirmation — that our side needs to be bigger and stronger, and if we want to be stronger, we can’t compromise on what we believe in. And we can’t let Democrats make us compromise either.


SOME ACTIVISTS are pinning their hopes on the expected “blue wave” coming this November, when Democrats are expected to regain majority control in the House, and even possibly the Senate, though this is a far longer shot.

All that is a big if — but there’s probably a bigger if about whether or not we can count on the Democrats to stand up for our rights when they have the chance.

As a recent editorial in Socialist Worker argued, looking at Democratic failures to halt or reverse any number of right-wing attacks when they won back a majority: “No one is going to save us but ourselves.”

A look back at history shows that this couldn’t be truer when it comes to the question of abortion rights.

In every presidential election, one of the most oft-repeated arguments in favor of voting Democrat is to think about the Supreme Court. Whatever other issues you may have with the candidate at hand, we’re told that a Democratic president is our only line of defense to preserve Roe v. Wade.

Operating under this assumption, most mainstream women’s rights groups have poured countless millions of dollars into Democratic campaigns in the past few decades.

But it’s worth pausing to ask exactly how well this strategy has worked out. In the first half of 2018 alone, 11 states passed 22 new abortion restrictions, and 29 states are now considered “hostile” or “extremely hostile” to abortion rights, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

While the fate of legal abortion hangs on by a thread, for millions of Americans, abortion may as well be illegal already. This despite the fact that support for abortion rights actually stands at record highs, with 71 percent of Americans opposed to overturning Roe, according to recent polls.

How did we get here?


A NEW Netflix documentary, Reversing Roe, paints a devastating portrait of the relentless campaign to roll back the ruling starting almost immediately after its passage.

A coalition of evangelicals built an impressive grassroots campaign around an issue that previously had not been a central concern for religious votes (indeed, the film rightly highlights the important activism of the Clergy Consultation Service and other religious groups in being at the forefront of the fight to legalize abortion).

At the same time, strategists in the Republican Party seized on an opportunity to crystalize a voting bloc around this issue that could also be relied on to support their otherwise less-than-popular right-wing agenda. Formerly pro-choice Republicans like Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush quickly changed their tune (a pattern that continued with Donald Trump).

The anti-choice movement did not simply rely on friendly politicians to push through their agenda, but mobilized mass demonstrations, pickets and blockades of clinics and constant threats, harassment and violence, including firebombing clinics and murdering abortion providers.

On the legislative front, they pursued a strategy of relentlessly picking away at abortion access through an endless series of restrictions, with the aim of ultimately chipping away at the legal foundation of Roe. They also successfully reframed the public debate around abortion from one of the right of women to control their own bodies to the hypothetical rights of fetuses.

The success of this strategy can be seen right now in that despite the fact that Kavanaugh increasingly seemed to be a liability, Republicans remained committed to supporting him for fear of alienating evangelical voters in the upcoming midterms.

The Democrats, for their part, sounded a defense of abortion rights in the lead-up to Kavanaugh’s nomination. But we shouldn’t forget that just last year, a heated controversy erupted over party leaders’ insistence that support for abortion rights should not be a “litmus test” for candidates running on the Democratic ballot line. Even the progressive Bernie Sanders argued at the time:

If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day, we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.

Even by its own craven logic, there’s no evidence that dropping support for abortion will help Democrats win elections. But this is just the latest in a long history of Democratic compromises, concessions and betrayals when it comes to defending abortion.


FOR STARTERS, there’s the Hyde Amendment, passed in 1976 with the support of Democratic President Jimmy Carter, which bans low-income women from obtaining abortions using federal Medicaid funding. This amendment has been reaffirmed every year since, regardless of which party has been in power.

Bill Clinton, who campaigned on repealing Hyde, instead signed off on it every year in office. It was under Clinton that the Democrats popularized the slogan that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” in an effort to seek “common ground” with a right wing determined to overthrow Roe altogether.

Obama continued this tradition when he offered to throw abortion rights under the bus in order to win pro-life Democrats to support the Affordable Care Act by pledging to uphold the federal ban on abortion funding.

Unlike their anti-choice counterparts, the pro-choice movement has accepted all these compromises as the price for maintaining a “seat at the table” with Democratic Party politicians.

Beginning in the 1980s, the mainstream pro-choice groups have pursued a conscious strategy of moving activism out of the streets and into electoral campaigns. This has meant accepting the Democrats’ logic that compromising on abortion was necessary to save it.

As Lichi D’Amelio concluded at Socialist Worker, describing an Arkansas campaign against an anti-choice bill in which pro-choice strategists focused on talking points against “big government” meant to court racist voters:

So in order to prevent a bill that would constitutionally ban public funding, abortion rights supporters ended up making an argument against public funding. This seems to be a classic case of winning a battle, but losing the war.

And this wasn’t a one-off. The Arkansas victory was seen as the model for “keeping Roe“ going forward. This was a conscious decision to shift towards an electoral strategy aimed at disassociating abortion rights from its emancipatory origins in the women’s movement. And it meant compromise after compromise on all kinds of questions that should have been non-negotiable.


KNOWING THE Democrats’ record has another important implication for today — and that’s understanding that it’s what we do that makes the difference in defending abortion rights.

In 1989 and 1992, the Supreme Court heard two cases, Webster v. Reproductive Health and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which Roe v. Wade also hung in the balance. The Court had just shifted its balance with George H.W. Bush’s appointments, and many were predicting that Casey in particular would spell the end of Roe, but it didn’t.

This passage from the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) website reminds us what it took to pressure the Court to do the right thing in both these cases:

NOW’s April 1989 March for Women’s Lives drew crowds that had not been seen in Washington since the Vietnam protests of 1969 and 1971. After organizing a recording-breaking crowd of 600,000 in April, we followed up with a rally of 350,000 that fall — the November 1989 “Mobilize for Women’s Lives” at the Lincoln Memorial — then broke our own record by bringing 750,000 abortion rights supporters for a massive April 1992 March for Women’s Lives as another threatening case, Casey v. Planned Parenthood, was pending in the Supreme Court.

During the March for Women’s Lives in 2004, Hillary Clinton boasted from the stage that there was no need to march during the years her husband was in office. If only that were true!

Now, as we face yet another existential threat to legal abortion in the courts, the forces needed to mobilize the response needed are severely atrophied after years of committing to a failed electoral strategy. This was seen in the relatively meager forces NARAL was able to turn out at the August 26 day of action.

Luckily, there have been promising signs of renewed activism around abortion rights in recent years, including vibrant clinic defenses in many cities, and Shout Your Abortion and other campaigns aimed at putting women’s voices and experiences back at the center of the abortion debate.

The #MeToo networks that were built to protest the Kavanaugh nomination can be used for the basis of greater opposition to opponents of women’s rights — working to include all the people who were horrified by his nomination in organizing.

These campaigns are being built at a moment where the opportunity to tie the fight for abortion rights to a broader movement for women’s liberation and against all of the right’s attacks against working and oppressed people couldn’t be greater.

But if one thing is clear, it’s that we can’t afford to wait for our fair-weather friends in the Democratic Party to do it for us.

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