Something else remarkable happened on election day: voters rejected all three anti-abortion measures on the ballot. In socially conservative South Dakota, voters said no to an abortion ban with narrow exceptions for rape, incest and grave risk to the woman’s health or life, even though in 2006, when they rejected a near-total ban, they told pollsters they wanted exactly those exceptions. In Colorado, home base of Focus on the Family and many other right-wing religious groups and churches, they refused to declare that personhood begins with conception. In California, for the third time in four years, they rejected a parental notification requirement. These were solid wins. Coloradans rejected fetal personhood three to one–and fetal personhood is the foundational doctrine of the “right-to-life” movement. In California, the vote was 52 to 48, despite the conservative draw of the gay marriage ban.
What do these prochoice victories tell us? Antichoicers aren’t winning any popularity contests by pursuing fruitless campaigns to “increase the social tension over abortion,” as Colorado Right to Life leader Bob Enyart put it. Americans may not love abortion but they want it to be legal, and they are often more liberal about it than their answers to abstract questions on polls reveal. Polls regularly show that almost three-quarters of Americans support parental notification; majorities say they would ban abortion for all but a few extreme situations (majorities also support Roe v. Wade–go figure). But when voters actually have to decide what the law should be, hear the arguments on both sides and think through the implications of restrictions, common sense can win.
Prochoicers won the trifecta, and that, along with the rejection of McCain/Palin, gives President-elect Obama a mandate. Antichoicers have had the White House in their pocket for eight years and have achieved nothing but social division and the promotion of bad science, plus more unwanted pregnancies, sexual ignorance, disease and, in the developing world, death. They have wasted millions of federal dollars on futile abstinence-only sex ed and deceptive “crisis pregnancy centers”; they’ve starved reproductive health services here and abroad while enriching anti-sex entrepreneurs like Leslee Unruh of South Dakota’s Abstinence Clearinghouse. The voters have spoken: enough is enough.
Obama should ignore pundits like E.J. Dionne who want him to stiff the prochoice majority that put him in the White House. Instead he should:
1. Reverse Bush’s antichoice executive orders: overturn the global gag rule cutting off funds for groups abroad that even mention abortion; reallocate money to the distribution of condoms to fight AIDS in Africa; release the $32 million Congress budgets annually for the UN Population Fund; cover pregnant women under S-CHIP in their own right, not as housing for fetuses; and rescind pending HHS regulations that would force hospitals and clinics to let antichoice staff impede their work.
2. Pledge to staff federal agencies like the FDA, HHS and NIH–which exercise tremendous power over reproductive-health policy–with top scientists and physicians from the reality-based community: no more oddballs, ideologues, religious zealots and third-raters. Remind the nation that these agencies are dedicated to public health in a pluralist society, not to furthering the moral agenda of a minority. Women here and abroad, gays and other sexual minorities deserve public servants who will zealously defend our freedoms–and fight to expand them, too. Antichoicers can run the Transportation Department, where they can’t do too much damage.
3. Lean on Congress. Push legislation to defund abstinence-only sex ed–which study after study has shown to be ineffective. Beef up realistic sex ed and dramatically increase funding for Title X, the family-planning program for low-income women, which Bush allowed to shrink through inflation. Support the Equity in Prescription Insurance and Contraceptive Coverage Act, which would require insurance plans that pay for prescription drugs (like, um, Viagra) to cover contraception. And support the DeLauro/Ryan Reducing the Need for Abortion and Supporting Parents Act, which would increase contraception for low-income women and help them continue their pregnancies if they wish. Vigorously back the Freedom of Choice Act, which would codify and protect abortion rights.
4. Build support for reproductive rights by expanding the concept to guarantee the dignity of pregnant women and their right to respectful, noncoercive prenatal and maternity care. This country is approaching a one-in-three C-section rate–that’s shocking. Our rates of maternal and infant mortality, preterm births and low-birthweight babies are also way too high. If Obama wants to build common ground with antichoicers–or call their bluff–this is a very good place to start. Lynn Paltrow of the National Advocates for Pregnant Women would be the perfect adviser.
5. Put contraceptive research at the top of the scientific to-do list and get the best minds working on it night and day. It’s a new century–let’s have newer, simpler, sexier, cheaper fail-safe birth control, for both sexes, preferably available over the counter at every drugstore in the land. And speaking of drugstores, could Obama please, graciously but firmly, tell pharmacists who won’t fill prescriptions for birth control and emergency contraception that they are in the wrong line of work?
For all the joy and relief so many of us felt at Obama’s election–I’m still floating–relaxing would be a mistake. He’ll be under huge pressure to compromise away his victory: to take feminists and progressives for granted and court the religious right–even though, according to Politico, white weekly churchgoers were no more likely to vote for him than for John Kerry.
Yes, at last we have a prochoice president. But he needs us to keep him that way.