Why voting Democratic hasn't preserved choice

Elizabeth Schulte makes the case that a woman's right to choose abortion won't be defended by subordinating our struggle to the needs of the Democratic Party.

The Clintons on parade for Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1997 (White House)The Clintons on parade for Bill Clinton's inauguration in 1997 (White House)

DONALD TRUMP gave abortion rights supporters a frightening glimpse of what an administration he commands might do when he told MSNBC's Chris Matthews earlier this month that "[t]here has to be some form of punishment" for women who have illegal abortions.

Trump had to backtrack on his comments pretty quickly--evidently no one told him that even anti-choice Republicans don't call for punishing women, but instead pretend to oppose abortion in the interests of protecting women.

Ted Cruz claimed to be shocked at Trump's comments--which you have to take with a grain of salt considering that Cruz opposes abortions even in in cases where the woman was raped. That's a position no U.S. president has held since the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion.

With Trump or Cruz looking to be the most likely Republican presidential nominee at this point, it's understandable why people who support reproductive rights would be motivated to vote for any Democrat for president, no matter how imperfect.

This is a regular feature of elections, especially for the presidency: The Democrats win votes from people who want to make sure abortion remains safe and legal, because no matter what, the Democrats are better than the Republicans on this issue, right?

The problem with this reasoning isn't the answer, but the question. With only two choices available, the Democrats can get away with doing nothing at all to protect the right to choose abortion--or worse, giving up more ground to the right--and still be certain of getting the support of pro-choice voters, because they'll always be a little less bad than the Republicans.

This is the pitfall of "lesser evilism" in general: Voting for the "lesser evil" in order to stop the "greater evil" typically produces a combination of both evils.

In the case of abortion rights, the whittling away of access and reproductive choice--restriction by restriction, at the state and federal level--is a product of both the Republican-led assault and Democratic concessions, if not outright support for elements of the anti-choice offensive.

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IT'S WORTH pointing out that the Republicans didn't always have the position it does now on women's right to abortion. Until 1980, the party was split between a faction that agreed women should be able to obtain an abortion, as laid out in the Roe decision, and those who opposed legal abortion.

In fact, for decades before that, the Republicans avoided using the word "conservative" to describe their party. The 1960 Republican platform plank on women's issues talked about "progressive Republican policies," and throughout the 1960s and '70s, the GOP supported an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). In 1968, the Republican platform included planks opposing discrimination, supporting punishment for polluters and proposing to lower the eligibility for Social Security from 72 to 65 years old.

How could this be? The overall political climate in the U.S. had shifted to the left after the McCarthy era, most of all as an effect of the civil rights movement and the other social movements to come in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The entire mainstream political spectrum, including the Republican Party representing the right end of it, became more liberal under pressure from social discontent. The same effect was felt, only in reverse, in the era that followed--both Republicans and Democrats moved rightward from the late 1970s on.

Specifically, the Republicans struggled in the '70s to find a new base of support after an era of Democratic political dominance. Party leaders saw an opportunity to bring in a more socially conservative, religious voter base--especially in the South, where there was an audience opposed to many of the demands of the social movements of the time.

In this way, the Republicans could be a party that continued to serve the interests of big business, first and foremost, but still attract a loyal following among conservative voters.

This is how the GOP went from being split on the issue of abortion to staunch opposition. Take Ronald Reagan, who signed several bills in support of abortion rights as California's governor in the 1960s, well before Roe v. Wade. By 1980, he was anti-abortion and campaigned for the presidency on that basis.

At the 1976 GOP convention, delegates approved a platform plank stating that abortion "is undoubtedly a moral and personal issue" on which Republicans disagree.

By 1980, that had all changed. Now the party said it sought a constitutional amendment protecting "the right to life for unborn children." It also dropped its support for the ERA.

Four years later, the fanatical anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly was helping to craft the Republican Party position on abortion, and pro-choice Republicans were iced out. Along with this came the mobilization of anti-abortion forces at the grassroots--with "right to life" protesters trying to shut down clinics across the country.

All of this went along with more conservative language that played to bigotry, but also distanced the GOP from its moneyed image. The party of Corporate America and Wall Street began referring to "Washington's governing elite." To pander to racists, the Republicans emphasized that they were "tough on crime"--a coded message based on the prejudice among supporters that Blacks were responsible for crime and violence.

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A SIMULTANEOUS shift was taking place within the Democratic Party, though it took a different form. The Democrats maintained their support for keeping abortion legal--and used this commitment at every election to win votes--while making more and more concessions to the escalating attack on abortion rights, especially on laws restricting access.

In 1980, the convention vote in support of abortion in the party platform was two-to-one in favor. But by 1988, Kate Michelman, then the executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL), was calling for support for the vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen, even though the Texas Democrat opposed federal funding for abortion for poor women.

The 1992 presidential election illustrated the particular shifts going on in each party. Bill Clinton, who six years earlier told the president of the Arkansas Right to Life Committee that he was "pro-life," now stated his support for keeping legal abortion--while incumbent President George H.W. Bush, who once supported Planned Parenthood, had reversed his position.

But the hollowing out of Democratic support on the issue was also clear. At the party's 1992 convention, six pro-choice Republicans spoke while "Pro-Choice, Pro-Clinton" signs were passed out on the convention floor. "Their presence emphasized the fact that the Democrats no longer see the issue as a matter of principle or even as deference to one of its constituency groups," writes Jo Freeman, author of We Will Be Heard. "Democrats are now convinced that it's the way to win elections."

Then-National Women's Political Caucus Political Director Alice Travis told Freeman, "The Democratic Party is a feminist organization. We don't have to lobby and march outside any more. We march together. It's not Us versus Them. The Party stands for the same things the movement stands for."

In other words, mainstream women's rights organizations were abandoning any kind of independent position that would allow them to criticize or even pressure the Democrats--by simply identifying their interests with the success of the Democratic Party within the mainstream political system.

Patricia Ireland, the president of the National Organization for Women (NOW) bucked the tide somewhat, explaining that the group would not attended either party's convention in 1992, but would participate in the founding convention of the "21st Century Party," which committed to supporting candidates that took up the rights of women.

"Politicians come and sweet-talk us every election and then they don't respect us in the morning," NOW President Patricia Ireland told supporters in 1992. But this stance was largely symbolic. NOW said it would endorse 21st Century candidates only in places where no major-party candidate already supported their aims--in most cases, Democrats could be portrayed as backers.

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THE 1992 election was supposed to usher the "Year of the Woman" after a number of Democratic women were elected to Congress, including 48 members of the House of Representatives.

But the "Year of the Woman" starting the following January got off to a pretty dismal start when a Democratic-controlled House voted to reauthorize the Hyde Amendment, the 1976 bill that banned federal funding to poor women who wanted to obtain an abortion, in a 255-to-178 vote.

While Bill Clinton won the White House with the endorsement of supporters of women's rights, he didn't return the favor. During the campaign, he vowed to help enact the Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), which would have codified Roe v. Wade in federal law. In the first year of his administration--and with Democrats controlling both the Senate and House--the measure died without reaching the floor of either chamber.

The rightward shift continued. Without federal legislation like FOCA standing in the way, states continued to pass restrictions on abortion, such as waiting periods and parental consent. Even the way that Democrats talked about legal abortion accommodated more and more to the right, including an emphasis on finding common ground with the anti-choice side.

The rhetoric of both Bill and Hillary Clinton about keeping abortion "safe, legal and rare" became the mantra among Democrats--and rather than challenge this compromised position, women's organizations in turn adapted their own message. Instead of putting pressure on the Democrats, the Democrats were putting pressure on them.

A decade and a half later, the Freedom of Choice Act got the same treatment under newly elected President Barack Obama--enthusiastic support during the campaign, but no action afterward. Obama stated at a Planned Parenthood gathering that in order to confront state-level anti-choice laws, "The first thing I'd do as president is sign the Freedom of Choice Act."

But this wasn't the first thing he did, nor the second or third. In fact, the Freedom of Choice Act didn't seem to be on the list at all--as he said explicitly as early as 2009:

[T]he Freedom of Choice Act is not my highest legislative priority. I believe that women should have the right to choose, but I think that the most important thing we can do to tamp down some of the anger surrounding this issue is to focus on those areas that we can agree on. And that's where I'm going to focus.

The next year, as Obama's health care legislation was being negotiated, Obama used reproductive rights as a bargaining chip--he sacrificed abortion coverage in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) in order to win the votes of anti-choice Democrats.

The version of the health care bill that passed the House in November 2009 included the Stupak Amendment, which stipulated that insurers participating in the health insurance exchanges established by the ACA couldn't cover abortions in the policies offered to people who were getting any subsidies from the government.

Obama hailed the amendment named after anti-choice Michigan Democrat Bart Stupak as "courageous"--which is probably not the word I'd use for a provision that makes it even more difficult for poor women to obtain a safe, legal abortion. Cruel and opportunistic is more like it.

This is the Democrats' actual history on abortion rights. Yet year after year, the party uses the threat of losing abortion rights to extort voters into supporting their candidates. The same will happen this year with likely presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, even though her insistence on finding common ground with the right and making abortion "rare" is decidedly out of touch with many abortion rights supporters.

The history makes it clear--support for the Democrats as the "lesser evil" makes it easier for the party to compromise with the "greater evil." When the Democrats know they can assume pro-choice support, they can move further to the right to find "common ground" that falls well short of defending the right to and accessibility of abortion.

Not only is a woman's right to choose abortion left at the mercy of whatever deal Democratic politicians work out, but expectations about what women should demand and expect from the U.S. political system are systematically lowered. We won't concede--we support the right to affordable and accessible, without apology.