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Why Democrats must debate abortion

The Democratic Party must reflect the lived experiences of its base or risk further voter dissatisfaction

January 22, 2016 2:00AM ET

Today marks the 43rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that protected women’s right to make personal medical decisions, including the right to have an abortion.

One-third of women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45. The overwhelming majority of those who choose abortion do so because it’s economically the best decision for their families. Yet the constitutional protection for women’s rights to choose recognized by Roe v. Wade now faces new threats from politicians.

Access to abortion is a fundamental human right. A woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion is also part of the Democratic Party’s platform. Voters often evaluate candidates for public office on the basis of their abortion stances. Yet at the fourth Democratic presidential debate, on Jan. 17, contenders were not asked a single question on the topic. As a black woman who has had an abortion, I find this deeply disappointing. Similarly, President Barack Obama did not mention the fight to protect reproductive rights in his final State of the Union address. This raises the question, Are Democrats taking this issue and voter support for granted?

Abortion remains a key issue in the 2016 election. For the first time in a decade, the U.S. Supreme Court may take up an abortion case. There are unprecedented attacks on abortion — legislatively and literally — including the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs, Colorado, Planned Parenthood clinic in November.

So far, most Democrats have appeared deaf to these threats. The party must help candidates tell voters what their plans are for ensuring every woman’s right to decide if, when and how to become a parent — free from violence and government interference.

In a recent New York Times Magazine interview, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic National Committee chairwoman, said she sees a “complacency” among young women who grew up after Roe v. Wade. She later acknowledged that she is unaware of some of the ways in which young people are organizing — clinic escorting, ensuring people are able to afford and have rides to and from their abortions and working in reproductive health care organizations.

Other party leaders have expressed ambivalence. “I don’t believe in abortion on demand,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi told Roll Call on Jan. 13. “I don’t even like to use the word “abortion.” That’s my generation … but this is something so personal.”

Unlike Pelosi, I do not feel such reservations. I talk about my abortion openly and support increasing access to abortion because I believe every woman should have that option if she needs it. It’s clear that the party leadership is perpetuating abortion stigma. This is isn’t a generational crisis or a young people’s problem. There are hundreds of women who can share abortion stories. That is exactly what we need do to fight the Texas law that is currently before the Supreme Court and will be decided by the end of June. Among other restrictions, the law prohibits abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and requires abortion clinics to meet hospital-style surgical standards — an unnecessary and costly burden.

Republican presidential candidates are arguing over who would ban abortion and contraception faster. And many anti-abortion politicians won’t even have a conversation on increasing access to contraception. But what is the Democratic plan to challenge them?

Two-thirds of women in the United States who have an abortion are already parenting and live near or below the federal poverty level.

All three Democratic presidential candidates believe abortion should remain legal but differ on ways to ensure that. Former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s campaign website doesn’t mention abortion, and his plan to support universal access to reproductive health care is dismal at best. Sen. Bernie Sanders has a record defending abortion and reproductive health care providers. He said that he would nominate only Supreme Court justices who would protect the right to an abortion. Yet his new health care plan does not mention abortion.

By contrast, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been vocal on the issue. This has earned her the endorsements of NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC and the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. In a recent op-ed for The Boston Globe she discussed her plan for Supreme Court justice nominees and how it would affect abortion.

“We see silence — even supportive silence — as a core reason why opponents have been able to effectively erode access to abortion around the country,” NARAL Pro-Choice America President Ilyse Hogue said in an email. “Hillary has shown not only a willingness to do this but also a deep understanding that the destiny of women and girls is irrevocably tied to our ability to control when and how we grow our families.”

Clinton has repeatedly pledged to work with Congress to repeal the Hyde Amendment, a discriminatory law that denies Medicaid and Indian Health Service enrollees, military service members, federal employees and incarcerated people the ability to use their health coverage to pay for an abortion. This is a welcome and huge step. Every Congress has reauthorized the Hyde Amendment since 1976. On the campaign trail in 2007, Obama said he didn’t support the policy but has not acted to lift those restrictions over the last seven years. That is why Clinton’s decision to move away from simply talking about ensuring that abortion is “safe, legal and rare” to making it accessible for every woman is critical.

In July, Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., introduced the EACH Woman Act, which seeks to end the Hyde Amendment once and for all. Democratic candidates must pledge their support for passing that bill if elected. They must also push for the passage of the Women’s Health Protection Act to ensure that more restrictions aimed at closing abortion clinics aren’t enacted.

Still, the candidates’ support for protection of women’s right to choose must go beyond passing laws. The Democratic nominee must pledge to instruct the Justice Department to investigate the domestic terrorist attacks against abortion providers. He or she must be willing to pressure states to stop the prosecution of women who try to self-induce abortion because they can’t access a clinic.

Women who were denied an abortion were three times as likely to live in poverty two years later. Candidates must also pledge to strike down the parental involvement laws that make it a challenge for young people to access abortion care. Two-thirds of women who have an abortion are already parenting and live near or below the federal poverty level. If state closures of abortion clinics continue, the next president must reverse the dwindling of public assistance and family grant policies to support those who are forced to continue pregnancies. These policies disproportionately affect women of color, who consistently turn out in support of Democratic candidates. Democrats must heed their calls for better protections.

Voters don’t live single-issue lives. Abortion sits at the intersection of gender, class, race, economics and immigration. It’s no longer acceptable for our political leaders to ignore the issue. Everyone’s reproductive decisions are inherently linked with the country’s economic stability.

Most voters recognize this. That’s why 7 in 10 Americans support access to abortion. We cannot have debates about the state of the U.S. economy and health care while ignoring abortion. The Democratic Party must recognize this and reflect the lived experiences of its base or risk exacerbating voters’ growing dissatisfaction, which so often leads to low turnout.

Editor’s note: The author is a board member at NARAL Pro-Choice America but was not part of the organization’s endorsement process. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

Renee Bracey Sherman is a reproductive-justice activist working to increase the visibility of people who have abortions. She is a writer with Echoing Ida, a black women’s writing project of Forward Together, and sits on the board of NARAL Pro-Choice America.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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