A Movement, Not a Moment: How Even Anti-Choice Victories Show We’re Making Progress


As someone who works in politics, I deal in pragmatics. The pragmatic reality of Tuesday night’s election is that things are likely to get worse for women and families in this country before they get better. Pro-choice Democrats not only lost control of the Senate and lost ground in the House of Representatives; anti-choice GOP politicians won most of the hotly contested governor races and flipped several state houses. As I write this, several races of pro-choice champions remain too close to call. Bright spots include Tom Wolf beating Tom Corbett for governor of Pennsylvania, a state where restrictions on abortion had led to a revival of back-alley rogue providers and the imprisonment of a mother for trying to help her daughter terminate an unwanted pregnancy. But those spots are few and far between, and they won’t stop a slew of anti-women bills at both the state and federal level.

We know from recent history that many of these elected officials will make restricting abortion and attacking reproductive freedom their number-one priority. After all, in 2011, as the new Tea Party-controlled House assembled for their inaugural week in office, they wasted no time in moving anti-choice bills that would defund Planned Parenthood or impose tax penalties on small businesses that provide comprehensive health insurance, despite running on a platform to expand job opportunities and economic security.

As we sift through the debris from Tuesday night, we can cue the predictable hand-wringing and existential angst about why people vote against their own “self-interests.” But a deeper dive into the data indicates—at least on questions of reproductive freedom—that the picture is more complicated.

Seven in 10 Americans support legal access to abortion. This fact remains true in red states, across demographics, and includes a majority of self-identified Republicans and Independents. Tuesday night’s results actually underscore that reality.

2014 will go down in the books as the year that anti-choice candidates ran hard from their clear anti-choice track records in order to convince voters they could be trusted on women’s fundamental freedoms. Even they can no longer deny that running on a platform of knowing better than the women you serve about what’s best for them is an untenable political position. New Colorado senator Cory Gardner was the poster child for this approach. Rep. Gardner is still a sponsor of the federal “personhood” bill that would outright ban abortion and many forms of birth control. Yet, on the campaign trail, he denied again and again that such a bill even existed. Gardner also implied that his support for making the pill available over the counter should trump his earlier stance: making it illegal.

He wasn’t the only one. In Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker—with an eye toward a presidential run in 2016—recorded a straight-to-camera ad where he insisted that he supports a woman’s right to make her own decisions about pregnancy, despite all evidence to the contrary. In Iowa, state Sen. Joni Ernst claimed that her support for a “personhood” bill (again, which would ban all abortion and many common forms of birth control) was “simply a statement that I support life.”

While these faux conversions are likely to last as long as a Hershey’s bar on a chocoholic’s desk, the strategy seems to have worked. Exit polls in Iowa reported that of those who said abortion should “always be legal,” 22 percent voted for Joni Ernst, and 41 percent of those who said abortion should “mostly be legal” voted for her. In Colorado, polls showed that among voters who feel abortion should be “always legal,” 16 percent voted for Cory Gardner, and among voters who feel abortion should be “mostly legal,” 42 percent voted for him. Gardner still co-sponsors a bill that would criminalize abortion in nearly all cases, but many in the media seemed more bothered by Udall pointing this out than by Gardner shamelessly lying about it.

During MSNBC’s election night coverage, Rachel Maddow observed this trend:

Cory Gardner was a sponsor of personhood when it has come up in CO, he is still a sponsor of personhood federally … If Gardner beats Mark Udall in CO today, it will be because he ran to the left of Udall, criticizing Udall for not being able to deliver on the stuff that Cory Gardner is opposed to. That tells you that Democrats win the argument, even if they lose the race.

Ballot measures, the most accurate measure of voter sentiment, provide even clearer evidence of the rejection of the anti-choice mentality. For the third time in Colorado, voters rejected a ballot measure that resembled “personhood,” much like the federal bill that Cory Gardner continues to support. A similar ballot measure in North Dakota was soundly defeated after widely being predicted to win. Even avid backers of anti-choice measures like these admitted that they generally do poorly when put directly to the voters, saying after a defeat of a 20-week abortion ban in Albuquerque last November, “Pro-lifers have had little success changing public policy through direct democracy—even for incremental pro-life laws [that] poll well.”

Unfortunately, another restrictive amendment, this one to the Tennessee constitution, did pass Tuesday night, doing an end run around the state Supreme Court’s ability to protect constitutional rights of Tennessee women. But even there we saw this same pattern. Framers used language in the Tennessee ballot measure that obfuscated their true intent: to restrict abortion.

Laying out this case is about more than soothing our bruises after a bad night. Understanding these dynamics is critical for us as advocates to leverage this often invisible advantage. Here are five places we need to focus our energies to harness our ideological momentum and start to reverse the political tide.

1. Ban the term “social issue” from our vocabulary: I’m not sure if there’s any such thing as a social issue, but I can tell you reproductive freedom and justice do not qualify. Sovereignty over one’s body and one’s life is an issue of fundamental freedoms and human rights. And let’s aggressively state the truth the candidates are hoping to avoid: There’s no such thing as economic security for women who do not have full access to reproductive freedom, and there’s no such this as reproductive freedom without economic security. Anti-choice politicians routinely vote to restrict abortion and contraception while also working to defeat common-sense measures that support parents in this country: equal pay, parental leave, and robust anti-pregnancy discrimination laws.

2. Hold this class accountable: These folks owe their victories to promises not to undermine legal access to abortion. We need to be there every step of the way alerting voters when they go back on their word.

3. Force the question in more races and in legislatures: Anti-choice candidates and officials love it when we’re silent. They want nothing more than to fly under the radar on these issues. We need to be there all the time asking them where they stand on abortion access, why they think they know better than women and families about what’s best for us, and why they think it’s American to legislate their own morality on the rest of us. Those are tough questions to answer, which is why they would prefer not to. We need to force them to take tough votes on measures that don’t just protect our right to choose, but expand it.

4. Run our own ballot measures: When our values are put directly to the voters, we win. Yet we’ve been playing defense on ballot measures almost exclusively. If we care about not only protecting but expanding reproductive freedom in this country, let’s take our case directly to the voters, state by state, to bolster women’s reproductive freedom.

5. Courts, courts, courts: While we depend on courts to be the pathway to justice, anti-choice extremists see the courts as a pathway to power, and right now, they are winning. We’re in the midst of a wave of litigation on our issues and we need to fight and win these cases in the court of public opinion, discredit the so-called experts on whom they they rest their cases, and fight for judges who put the rule of law about their own ideology.

The stakes are high right now. Sen. Mitch McConnell will be the new majority leader when the Senate reconvenes in January. He’s promised to make a 20-week abortion ban (yes, the same one voters in New Mexico outright rejected in 2013) a top priority. We can expect to see more of the unnecessary, absurd restrictions that have closed so many women’s health centers across the country, especially in the South. And laws like mandatory ultrasound and waiting periods, which do little more than try to shame women for making our own decisions, will become more commonplace. With the new anti-choice majority in both houses of Congress, that could become the new normal. But we can’t afford for this setback to force us into defensive mode. If anti-choice candidates are claiming the mantle of protecting reproductive freedom, then now is the moment to go on offense and act.

These candidates who rode the 2014 wave to victory hid their own values from the voters, and that speaks volumes about our values. This is the difference between movements and moments. Last night was a bad moment. It will lead to more bad moments. But this movement has numbers, belief, and promise on our side. Movements always trump moments.

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  • Lightwing1

    Thank you for this outline. It has been hard to watch women’s rights move backward relentlessly. I know the pendulum swings, but it seems to have been swinging toward eradication of reproductive freedom for way too long.

    IMHO, if the right wins this issue over the next few years, it will empower a larger drive to theocracy, impacting more than just women’s rights. This is one of my greatest fears.

    • fiona64

      I am not exaggerating when I say that the GOTeabirchers would love nothing more than to repeal the 19th Amendment and re-implement coverture law …

      • HeilMary1

        The GOP/RCC will put Magdalene Laundries in every red state, if not the blue states also.

    • HeilMary1

      The same bully billionaire dynasties treasonously supported Hitler and Mussolini, and thanks to the pedophile priest-protecting Vatican collusion with pro-Nazi OSS/CIA “heroes,” 100,000 Nazis were smuggled to the Americas, and thousands joined the GOP. Hollywood should make several movies about the Vatican Nazi rat lines and Operation Paperclip.

    • night porter

      That is the plan, and the GOP passes these bills to appease the tiny but very powerful minority of christian dominionists

    • P.J.

      These are my fears exactly. I have one person who seemed rather reasonable telling me that women have no right to infringe on their employers belief systems by demanding access to basic health care that covers birth control as this goes against the employers belief system. I guess we should just roll the clock back to slavery and tell all businesses they can tell every private citizen that works for them what to do and how to do it if they want to remain employed.

  • fiona64

    There’s no such thing as economic security for women who do not have
    full access to reproductive freedom, and there’s no such this as
    reproductive freedom without economic security. Anti-choice politicians
    routinely vote to restrict abortion and contraception while also working
    to defeat common-sense measures that support parents in this country:
    equal pay, parental leave, and robust anti-pregnancy discrimination
    laws.

    I’ve lost track of the number of times that pro-choicers have brought up these very matters to the anti-choice, who just wave their paws in the air dismissively.

    • P.J.

      I am currently in a debate with JPL on another article where it is just impossible for JPL to admit that in a modern society basic healthcare is a right and for a woman especially her reproductive health is a basic healthcare need. JPL will have all companies decide for us what healthcare they will condone us to have based on their beliefs. Right now I am waiting to hear if a jehova’s witness company can deny me a blood transfusion if it is not to prevent imminent death and if I would have to sit down with my Hobby Lobby employees to discuss what they will allow me to do to take care of my endometriosis that could result in my death if I accidentally get pregnant and try to carry the baby to term.

      • fiona64

        JPL has more issues than National Geographic.

        • P.J.

          tell me about it. apparently blood transfusions are ONLY ever given in life threatening situations (which he already knows to be false) so he is avoiding that question and he completely ignored the other question which is what he does- only responds to parts that he can come up with something to say- not that it ends up being well thought out or moves the conversation forward because it is the same thing over and over, Catholics shouldn’t have to be forced to pay for women to have sex- as if that is what the issue is.

          • lady_black

            Blood transfusions are given when hemoglobin and hematocrit are depressed, usually due to bleeding. In hypovolemic shock, it’s a life-threatening situation. We like to try not to let things get so far. The only time I was ever given a blood transfusion was when I was experiencing a placenta previa pregnancy. I was not in a life-threatening situation at the time (other than the nature of the pregnancy itself). But it wouldn’t have been to my benefit or the benefit of the fetus to refuse the transfusion. It was most certainly my right to refuse it if I were so inclined. It wouldn’t have been an employer’s purview to deny me the transfusion. I make my own medical decisions without interference from ANYONE and that includes employers.

  • blfdjlj

    Extremes lose on the abortion issue. That’s why personhood keeps on losing, and candidates like Todd Akin have little success.

    At the same time, voters do support measures like bans on late term abortions. And trying to base your entire campaign on abortion doesn’t work either, like Colorado shows.

    • Nessie

      Voters only support bans on late-termabortions until they learn why late-term abortions are performed. Google “A Heartbreaking Choice”, and educate yourself.

      • P.J.

        isn’t that the truth. only sluts who cant keep their legs closed get abortions, it is not a complex issue with many different factors and circumstances, people who support the right to choose are just evil, immoral, promiscuous liberals who want hard working upstanding citizens and innocent sweet little babies (who these people obviously just have a blind hatred for) to pay for their irresponsible choices.

    • lady_black

      Yeah. Everyone hates late-term abortions until they need one themselves, Rick Santorum. Then, it’s “a no-brainer.” Listen up. In the business of reproduction, there aren’t any “one-size-fits-all” answers. You’re just going to have to trust women, their families and their physicians on this one, and keep the voters out of it. They’re idiots.

  • grantal

    But when people do not vote as in this case once again we lose good judges. Maybe somebody could do a better job informing the young people and others who once again sat this election out of that???? “The more things change the more they stay the same” and no I am not hopeful of anything right now. We have to 2020 to put up with bullshit patriarchy, earth destroying, lying idiots. Things are going to get really bad because these are evil people who will stop at nothing to get their way and then turn it around on everyone else. Wae up Amerika for God’s sake wake up.

    • paulnordin@aol.com

      Would you please revise your input so that I can know what you are for and what you are against. Thank you.

      • Arekushieru

        Spam!

        • paulnordin@aol.com

          Oh, ok. Now I understand! Thank you!

  • paulnordin@aol.com

    In my opinion, abortion must be allowed up until a point in time when it does not make sense to kill a fetus that could exist outside the womb. I’m guessing that to be about 13 weeks before birth, roughly the dividing line between the second and third trimesters. Unfortunately, Roe v Wade allows abortion right up to the moment of birth. This is not right. Let’s all get together and (1) protect a woman’s right to abortion for about the first six months of pregnancy and (2) protect the fetus’ right to life after about the second trimester.

    • lady_black

      Let’s not. Let’s trust women, their families and their doctors.

    • paulnordin@aol.com

      I just looked at A Heartbreaking Choice. Banning abortion after the first six months of pregnancy must recognize the special medical conditions that might apply.

      • Nessie

        Late-term abortions are almost always done for medical reasons. Any attempt to ban abortion at any stage, regardless of whatever exceptions exist on paper, will only create unneeded hoops for doctors and families to jump through.
        Also, as long as a fetus/embryo is dependent on a woman’s body to survive, it has no “right to life”, or any other rights. In pregnancy, there is only one person with rights: the woman who is pregnant.

      • cjvg

        Well thank you, I guess women should be grateful you are so magnanimous that you will let us have a chance at remaining alive and healthy and able to provide for our existing children. Disgusting that you even feel you have the right to interfere and question what medical procedures a woman can chose to have!

        • paulnordin@aol.com

          So apparently you believe that a woman should be allowed to have an abortion at the time of birth. I think that is the same as murder. Your belief puts you where infanticide is legal. I do not believe that you are that bad a person. I believe that you are just mistaken in the reality of child birth. There are some really good books on this subject and I would respectfully suggest that you buy one of them.

          • night porter

            Honey, birth IS an abortion, if you look at the meaning of abortion it is to ‘terminate’ something, to end it. Abortion actually means ‘termination of pregnancy’

            BIRTH ENDS PREGNANCY

            In fact, in an induced miscarriage, the embryo is technically DELIVERED. However, if it is nonviable, it will die outside the woman’s body because it cannot survive without using her organs as life support. A viable infant, AT BIRTH, will survive, because it doesn’t need another body to perform all of life’s metabolic processes for it.

            Learn to logic, please.

          • paulnordin@aol.com

            You distort the meaning of these words even though birth does end pregnancy as well as abortion ends pregnancy. Me thinks it is you that needs instruction on logic!

          • night porter

            Nope. You don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.

            There is NO NEED TO HAVE AN ABORTION AT 9 MONTHS BECAUSE BIRTH ENDS THE PREGNANCY

    • cjvg

      In ALL states and in any other country in this world that has legal abortion access, abortion is only legal up to 24 weeks gestation, incidentally this is viability!
      Many many places do not even offer up to 24 weeks but stop at 20 weeks. If ever an abortion must be done after 24 weeks it is because of severe and often life threatening circumstances or the FACT that the fetus is incompatible with life. Since EACH AND EVERY BIRTH carries the risk of complications , severe injury and death of the mother it is only moral and ethical as well as medically seen the only logical decision to offer abortion if a fetus is incompatible with life!
      I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt and presume you are merely very ignorant instead of deliberately and maliciously lying. Lying about the fact that it is immoral to promote laws that take away the choice in these situations from the ONLY people involved the woman and her doctor. The only people who KNOW the medical facts of their situation, the ONLY people who will suffer the consequences of having their right to life and health arbitrarily decided by politicians and unknown others who will not suffer one iota of consequences from their decision about the life of another.
      Women are actual live, not potential, why are you so willing and eager to force them to risk their lives for your personal believes?. Why do you think it is appropriate to pass laws in which very far reaching personal medical decision should not be left in the hands of the treating physician and the woman involved?.
      Before you start spouting of on a subject you are clearly very uneducated about, please try to at least learn what the reality in these situations is

      • Arekushieru

        One quibble: Abortion is decriminalized in Canada. So it’s not illegal, per se, to have an abortion passed the 24 week mark. It is simply medically advised against, unless there are health and life-threatening circumstances, and happens just as rarely, here, as it does in other countries where abortion is legal.

      • paulnordin@aol.com

        It would appear that you think it takes up to nine months for a woman to make an affirmative abortion decision. I disagree. A woman should be forced to make that decision before six months have elapsed. A fetus older than six months should have an absolute right to life (my opinion). Roe v Wade allows abortion up to and including birth. That’s murder and should not be allowed. America needs legislation to prevent EHB (Embryonic Human Being) murder.

    • Arekushieru

      For one, there is no such thing as a right to life. For two, even if there were, a fetus does not get a right that no one else has. Meaning that it’s right to life does not get to ‘trump’ another’s right to bodily autonomy when no one else has that right.

      • paulnordin@aol.com

        I fully subscribe to the reality that a woman has an absolute right to an abortion, up to a certain time limit (which I suggest is at the intersection between the second trimester and the third trimester). At approximately that time in the gestation period, the fetus achieves an absolute right to life, in my opinion.

  • UpperLeftCoast

    This analysis applies to numerous issues besides reproductive freedom. Environmental protection and conservation immediately come to mind. My biggest concern is that the repugnicans will just add nasty rider after nasty rider to every “must pass” bill and Obama will be too gutless to use his veto power.

    Of course, the repugs now have a serious roblem. If they don’t revert to their true colors then they risk losing their base in 2016. “No personhood bill? Then why did I vote for you,” will say the Tea Baggers. But if they do pass this sort of garbage AND we let people know, than they lose the votes of people who see what they are. No less than the editor of the National Review has pointed out this problem and is urging the new congress to simply do nothing.