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Gone Too Far? Reproductive Politics in the Time of Obama

Roe v. Wade was decided on January 22, 1973, making it thirty-nine years old this weekend. In today's post, Carole Joffe looks at how the abortion debate remains one of the hot-button political issues in America today. Joffe is a professor emerita of sociology at the University of California, Davis, and a professor at the Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health at the University of California, San Francisco. She is the author of Dispatches from the Abortion Wars: The Costs of Fanaticism to Doctors, Patients, and the Rest of Us, Doctors of Conscience: The Struggle to Provide Abortion before and after Roe v Wade, and numerous other writings on abortion provision. 

This post originally appeared in On the Issues magazine.


What about abortion gives it staying power as the central issue in domestic politics, even in the period of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s? This is a question well worth pursuing.

I sounded a much more hopeful note in my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. The book was started in the administration of George W. Bush, a particularly harsh time for the reproductive justice community. I finished the book in the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama, ending on a note of "cautious optimism" about a turnabout for the fortunes of reproductive health services and particularly for the provision of abortion. Candidate Obama, after all, had forcefully voiced his support for legal abortion, and nothing -- at the time -- seemed to be worse than the endless attacks on reproductive health services (not just abortion, but family planning , sex education, condom distribution for HIV patients and more) that were a key feature of the Bush presidency.

Quoting from the distinguished historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's work on an earlier period of abortion conflict in 19th century America, I even speculated that we might be entering a period in which abortion and related issues would no longer be "the central drama of (our) culture." Given the devastating recession that had already become very evident around the time of the 2008 election, I, like many others, reasonably thought that the economy would in fact become the "central drama."

JoffeBut very soon after the 2008 election, it became very clear that social conservatives were not going away. On the contrary, they seemed more energized than ever. It also became clear that Obama the president was not going to be the forceful defender of reproductive rights that many of his supporters, including myself, had fantasized. Indeed, as early as January 2009, in his first weeks in office, reproductive politics emerged as a factor in the stimulus debates, and the new president blinked. The President's proposal had included a modest provision that allowed states to spend more Medicaid funds on family planning. The Republican House of Representatives leader, John Boehner, publically mocked this provision, asking incredulously what "spending millions for contraceptives" had to do with "fixing the economy." The provision was quickly dropped.

And, of course, many reproductive rights supporters are still smarting over Obama's key concessions to anti-abortion forces, particularly the Catholic Church, in order to win support for his health reform legislation. By late 2011, it was still unclear whether Obama would again cave to the Church's demands for very broad exemptions to the requirement that health insurance plans, under Obama's health legislation, provide contraception without co-pays. But while that was pending, the reproductive health community was stunned when, in a clear bow to politics, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented step of overruling the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and rejecting the agency's recommendation that Emergency Contraception be made available without a prescription to women under the age of 17.

How the Wedge Works

My purpose in this essay, however, is not to simply catalogue all the disappointments that reproductive health advocates have suffered in the Obama administration, an indictment that has been done very well by others. (For the record, an unequivocally positive step that has occurred in the Obama presidency is the Department of Justice's vigorous enforcement of the FACE legislation that protects providers and patients from anti-abortion terrorism, an effort that far outstrips such activity by the Justice Department in the Bush years.)

Despite my hopeful predictions, abortion has maintained its dominance as a wedge issue. This is reflected in the various bills put forward by the new Republican majority in Congress after the November 2010 mid-term election, for example the Orwellian-named "Protect Life" Act, which stipulated that hospitals did not have to offer abortions to women, even in life-threatening situations.

Similarly, in state houses across the country after that pivotal election an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions were introduced by Republican legislators, including bans on abortion after 20 weeks, which clearly violate the Roe v. Wade decision and were intended, in the eyes of many observers, to lure pro-choice lawyers into a test case that could possibly overthrow that landmark ruling. Finally, as politicians compete to be the Republican nominee in the 2012 presidential race, the ante has been raised: in this election cycle, to be acceptable to the anti-abortion base, and to compete with each other, candidates must make clear their opposition to rape and incest exceptions and declare their agreement that "life begins at fertilization."

It is actually not surprising that Republican politicians at all levels insist on keeping abortion front and center, the economic crisis notwithstanding. Abortion is not only the best arrow in these politicians' quivers, in terms of pleasing a crucial segment of the Republican base -- it is arguably the only arrow they have. The reality, as has become evident since Obama's election, is that the Republican party is tied to economic policies -- opposition to infrastructure spending, fanatical devotion to tax cuts for the most wealthy -- that will not create jobs, but, in fact, will destroy them. So abortion has, once again, as I termed it in my book, become a "brilliant distraction" from pressing social problems.

For me, the more complicated -- and fascinating -- question is: Why do voters put up with this endless assault on abortion and contraception (and the corresponding neglect of the economy)? Why, for example, is there seemingly no price to be paid by a politician who is on record as saying its okay for a woman with an ectopic pregnancy to die?

The first, most conventional, answer is that the U.S. is a deeply apolitical country, with a notoriously low voting turnout, compared to other countries. Politicians therefore can take actions that speak to the minority of voters who are deeply engaged, and be confident that the rest of the country is not paying attention. A variant on this general political apathy is that the abortion issue, in particular, has been so divisive and raucous, for so long, that voters simply tune out abortion-related political news, assuming a "pox on both their houses" stance.

In contrast, a third intriguing possibility is that the public's backlash against Right-wing overreach may, just may, finally be at hand. The recent defeat, by a substantial margin, of the "fertilized-egg-as-person" amendment in Mississippi, a highly conservative state where the measure was widely predicted to pass, is suggestive of this. Furthermore, the "defund Planned Parenthood" campaigns, avidly pursued by Republicans both in Congress and in a number of states, have polled very badly with the public. Certainly, in April 2011, when Obama refused to bend to John Boehner's demand that cutting Planned Parenthood and other family planning programs be part of budget negotiations, the president gained -- not lost -- political capital.

It is, to be sure, demoralizing from a reproductive justice viewpoint, that it takes such surreal proposals as making fertilized eggs the moral and legal equivalent of living women, and the all-out demonization of birth control, nearly 50 years after the Supreme Court decision legalizing its use, to make the American people wake up to the threats posed by the fanatics of the Right, and the cynical politicians who do their bidding. And it may well be that these extremist proposals -- rather than causing a backlash -- will make more "normal" restrictions on abortion and contraception look reasonable.

So Bad That It's Good?

But the favor that the zealots now in ascendancy in social conservative circles -- that is, those who oppose all sexual activity except procreative sex within heterosexual marriage -- may have given us is the broad sweep of their proposals. In a society that is marked by deep economic inequality, it is hardly surprising that those women most affected by the assaults on both abortion and contraception are disproportionately poor women of color -- that is, those who have the least political, as well as economic power, and who are most vulnerable to cuts in public services. The unfortunate reality is that, while many of those in the reproductive justice movement work tirelessly on behalf of these women, most in this society -- including other women who also use reproductive health services -- worry little about these marginalized women. Nonpoor women have long been able to assume that contraception and abortion will always be available, as long as one has the means to purchase them.

In that sense, the Mississippi egg-as-person amendment, and similar efforts planned elsewhere, may truly be serving as wake-up calls for the electorate. For it was not just abortions (including lifesaving ones) that were on the line -- but most forms of contraception and IVF treatments (a service that, almost by definition, implies a well-to-do clientele).

Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement has brilliantly framed the economic inequality in the U.S. as existing between the one percent of the super-wealthy and the remaining 99 percent of the population, the current battles in reproductive politics reminds us of another 99 percent -- those American women who have ever used birth control in the context of heterosexual sex. The reproductive legacy of the Obama years may well be this huge group's recognition of itself as a political community. Again, I am cautiously optimistic.

Photo of President Obama from Bigstock.