Can You Hear Us Now?

Leadership Needed on the 37th Anniversary of Roe v. Wade

Jessica Arons and Shira Saperstein argue that progressive leaders can only win on reproductive rights by defending them.

President Barack Obama waves after signing an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls in March 2009. (AP/Ron Edmonds)
President Barack Obama waves after signing an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls in March 2009. (AP/Ron Edmonds)

On Roe v. Wade’s 32nd anniversary five years ago, we urged progressive leaders to articulate and defend a clear, comprehensive, and moral vision for reproductive rights, grounded in “a core set of principles that runs throughout the progressive agenda–principles that include equality for women, support for healthy families, and the right to make personal decisions free from governmental interference.” Unfortunately, little has changed since then, and we find it necessary to repeat ourselves today on the 37th anniversary of that seminal decision.

Most pro-choice politicians—with the exception of a few stalwarts—have continued to shy away from this set of issues. And President Barack Obama is exhibit number one. He ran as a progressive on reproductive rights, but since his election he has tried to downplay the issue of abortion and find “common ground.” He has made some improvements in the international arena—appointing Hillary Clinton, a strong advocate of women’s health and rights, as Secretary of State; reversing the global gag rule; and restoring funding to the United Nations Population Fund, for instance. But his domestic actions have been weak if not downright damaging.

President Obama originally included family planning funding in his 2009 stimulus package, but he quickly jettisoned it after the first hint of opposition, making no attempt to defend the need for those funds as a critical basis for women and families’ economic security. Since then, as unemployment has worsened, we have seen the demand for contraception—and abortion—skyrocket from couples seeking to curb their family size.

Obama did issue a rule in March to rescind the last-minute Bush regulation allowing health care providers to refuse to provide services to which they have an objection, regardless of the basis or of the patients’ needs. But the administration has taken no final action even though the notice and comment period expired last April.

And, most famously, President Obama conceded early in the health reform debate that a prohibition on federal funding for abortion was the “status quo” and would be maintained in a new health insurance system. He made no attempt to ensure that a legal and constitutionally protected health service, one used by one in three women, would be available, accessible, and affordable as part of basic health care. Nor did he try to educate his colleagues and the public about the terrible burden abortion funding bans place on poor women, Native American women, women in prison, and women in the military, the Peace Corps, and the federal workforce.

The result: abortion opponents were only emboldened by the president’s stance and used it to push for even harsher restrictions that prohibited “indirect” as well as direct government spending on abortion. Instead of putting the issue to bed and finishing health reform, abortion coverage became one of the largest sticking points.

When will progressive leaders learn? Politicians who favor reproductive rights will never beat their opponents with acquiescence or silence. The only way to build the political will necessary to achieve a progressive agenda—in this area or any other—is by clearly articulating their point of view and unabashedly defending their positions.

Pro-choice leaders, including President Obama, should have started the health care reform debate by defending the need for private and public abortion coverage. It’s not that hard to do. As the slain abortion provider, Dr. George Tiller, once said, “Abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.”

If the conversation had begun there, rather than with an offer to wall off government-paid premiums from abortion funding, people might have been able to recognize the proposed compromise as middle ground when it came. But by starting in the center, pro-choice politicians left themselves nowhere to go and may have gained nothing in the bargain.

The search for common ground can at times be a worthwhile and even noble effort, but it cannot come at the expense of core beliefs. It is great when people of different political persuasions can find ways to work together. But when deep disagreement exists, leadership requires a clear vision and the courage of one’s convictions.

There is no opportunity to educate people or change their hearts and minds when social progressives ignore or avoid the toughest issues. We also lose the chance to work on the many other important reproductive rights issues that need attention—contraception, medically accurate sex education, pre- and post-natal care, birthing options, child care, paid family leave, and so much more.

When social conservatives refuse to compromise on what they see as core, fundamental values, they must be met with equal intensity from the left—because core, fundamental values are at stake for us as well. Otherwise, the public hears only one side of the issue and does not have the information necessary to consider another viewpoint.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: “if progressives lead on this issue, Americans will follow.” We hope this time our message will be heard.

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Jessica Arons

Director, Women\'s Health & Rights Program

Shira Saperstein