How the Planned Parenthood Attack Could Reverse the Politics of Abortion

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After decades of treating abortion as a third rail to be gingerly sidestepped, with downcast eyes and sighing exhortations about tragic rarity, at least some on the long-ambivalent left have decided that fighting for better access to abortion is an issue on which they can actually win. Photo: @JEANGR/Instagram

On November 13, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, a challenge to Texas’s 2013 omnibus abortion bill enforcing an array of abortion-clinic regulations. The portions of the bill that have already been implemented have reduced the number of clinics in Texas from 41 to 18; if it is upheld by SCOTUS, the state will be left with only ten clinics to serve the more than 60,000 Texan women who require abortions annually — making the procedure so inaccessible in the state as to be essentially illegal. Just last week, it was reported that between 100,000 and 240,000 women in Texas, the majority of them Latina, have attempted to self-induce abortions.

SCOTUS’s ruling will come this summer, months before Americans vote to elect a new president, who could have up to three Supreme Court seats to fill in a first term, a circumstance that would determine the shape of the highest court for at least a generation. Republican presidential candidates have been working to out-nut each other over which of them would permit fewer exceptions (rape, incest, life of the mother) to the sweeping abortion bans they envision. Marco Rubio has suggested that perhaps there are no instances in which a woman’s life is imperiled by the forced continuation of pregnancy, while Jeb Bush has complained that $500 million — referring to Planned Parenthood’s funding — seems too much to spend on women’s health. These dismissive politics are playing out against a background of chilling violence: The day after Thanksgiving, a gunman killed three people and wounded nine in a five-hour shooting rampage in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood.

It all seems pretty grim, until you notice a crowd of besuited Democrats charging into this dystopian future, swords waving. After decades of treating abortion as a third rail to be gingerly sidestepped, with downcast eyes and sighing exhortations about tragic rarity, at least some on the long-ambivalent left have decided that fighting for better access to abortion is an issue on which they can actually win.

While the topic was not raised by moderators in the Democratic debates, Hillary Clinton went out of her way to bring it up, bellowing with vigor about how Republicans “don’t mind having big government interfere with a woman’s right to choose!” She also regularly includes references to reproductive rights — often using the word abortion and not just the soft-lit language of choice — in her stump speech. Clinton said via a spokesperson that the closing of clinics in Texas is “bad for women in that state and a preview of what every Republican candidate wants to do to women across America.”

Bernie Sanders may bring up reproductive rights less frequently than Clinton, but when he does, he comes out swinging, promising the South Carolina Democratic Women’s Council in November, “We are not going back to the days when women had to risk their lives to end an unwanted pregnancy.” A Sanders ­campaign aide also told me that the senator supports the EACH Woman Act, which would mandate insurance coverage for abortion services for any woman who requires them, since “abortion care is a part of women’s health care.”

The EACH Woman Act, which stands for Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance, was introduced by Representative Barbara Lee of California as a radical, if long overdue, challenge to the Hyde Amendment, which prevents women who rely on government health insurance from using public funds for abortion. The act surely won’t make it through the Republican-led House anytime soon, but it has 108 co-sponsors and represents a major step in acknowledging the relationship between restricting abortion access and economic inequality. “The Hyde Amendment denied a full range of access to reproductive-health services and care to low-income women, primarily women of color,” says Lee. “It’s about time we fight back.”

Meanwhile, Senate candidates Tammy Duckworth and Donna Edwards have spoken publicly about their youthful reliance on Planned Parenthood, and House candidate Nanette Barragan has described how her sister turned to the organization for an abortion when she was a teen. “Having more women ­candidates talking about their personal experiences with abortion, or with Planned Parenthood, or even family ­planning in general, has done a tremendous amount to center reproductive rights as an economic issue,” says Jess McIntosh of EMILY’s List. “The decision of when and whether to become a mother is the most important economic decision most Americans will ever make.”

Positioning reproductive rights as an economic issue — rather than as a sex-soaked battleground in a so-called culture war — is a smart gambit. But just a few years ago, women opening up about their own reproductive histories, their health-care choices, or their reliance on Planned Parenthood would have been deemed too risky, the kind of thing that could court career-ending scandal. The fact that there are now politicians who have described on the House floor their own abortions suggests some confidence that either the country has shifted on abortion or that we’ve never been as anti-abortion as was largely assumed.

“We are trying to undo bad conventional wisdom, historically propagated by white male pollsters, about the idea that the country is split in half,” says NARAL president Ilyse Hogue, referring to the assumption that on questions of abortion, America is violently, irrevocably divided.

After all, Planned Parenthood actually gained in popularity in the wake of its recent defunding battle and the release of videos purporting to show the organization selling baby parts. And NARAL’s recent polling, Hogue says, shows that the personal identification litmus test (Are you pro-life or pro-choice?) doesn’t tell the whole story. Many voters may identify as pro-life but still trust women to make their own decisions when it comes to abortion. “When you ask the questions the right way, you always, always, get to an overwhelming majority of Americans who believe that this is a decision a woman should make with her family,” says Hogue. Pointing to polls conducted in red and purple states, including Kansas, Ohio, Florida, and Nevada, Hogue says that a more nuanced approach turns up seven of ten voters, including some independents, who believe abortion should be safe and accessible and are willing to vote based on that belief. “There are ways to go on the offense that actually move voters,” says Hogue.

The Democratic machinery has yet to creak toward this conclusion. The DNC website, for example, doesn’t list reproductive rights under its list of “Issues,” nor does it mention them under its “Women” tab. But Hogue is working on selling the strategy. She has taken a PowerPoint presentation to individual campaigns and to the DNC, reminding them that three in ten American women will have an abortion and that six in ten abortion-seekers are already mothers. She ­encourages pro-choice Democrats to talk about abortion alongside ­contraception, pregnancy discrimination, and paid family leave — as one of several ­factors that permit women to plan when to have, and how to support, families.

But Hogue is fighting a strong historical tide that suggests focusing aggressively on abortion rights is a terrible gamble. As recently as 2014, the defeat of Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat who shaped his campaign around his commitment to reproductive rights, was read in some quarters as a lesson in the risks of over­emphasizing this issue — despite the fact that the electoral map was terrible for Democrats and that midterm-election cycles draw a whiter, older, and more conservative electorate. In other words, Udall might well have lost even if he had never uttered the word abortion.

This year, the Republican candidates’ full-throated extremism, alongside the reality of what’s already happened in Texas and the tragedy of the attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, provides reason enough for Democrats to go all-in on the issue. “This is not just about what’s morally right,” says Hogue. “It’s also about strategy. The best defense is a good offense.”

Early response from Democrats to Friday's shooting suggests that they intend to continue to prosecute their case with vigor. Clinton was the first candidate to acknowledge the attacks, tweeting on Friday that she stood with Planned Parenthood "today and every day." And in her Sunday night Jefferson Jackson dinner speech in Manchester, New Hampshire, she noted pointedly that "we should be supporting Planned Parenthood, not attacking it." The same day, Sanders went on offense, tweeting that "bitter rhetoric can have unintended consequences." Even DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz took the bold step of calling the shooting "an act of terrorism." And Senator Barbara Boxer this weekend called for the dissolution of the House committee currently meant to be investigating Planned Parenthood. "It is time to stop the demonizing and witch hunts against Planned Parenthood, its staff and patients, and the lifesaving health care it provides," Boxer said.

On the right, that demonizing rhetoric had grown more and more visceral and violent with regard to Planned Parenthood and abortion in general. South Carolina representative Trey Gowdy has called the videos purporting to show Planned Parenthood employees arranging for the sale of body parts "barbaric" and "right on the precipice of discussing homicide." Now that a man who actually committed homicide has been reported to have been speaking of the same "body parts" language propagated by anti-choice politicians, the question of which side the violence is on becomes much less clear. Ted Cruz became the first Republican presidential candidate to publicly condemn the Colorado Springs shooting this weekend, but days before he had celebrated the endorsement of an anti-choice activist, Troy Newman, who has called for "executing convicted murderers, including abortionists, for their crimes in order to expunge bloodguilt from the land and people."

That Democratic politicians are daring to draw connective lines between Republican language — Sanders's "bitter rhetoric" — and the violence enacted this weekend represents a bold strategic shift. It could be the beginning of a reversal that has been a long time coming: the association of "life" — as in Boxer's evocation of the "life-saving health care" provided by Planned Parenthood — with reproductive-rights activism, and violence as the domain of those who stand between women and access to legal, high-quality health services, including abortion. 

*This article has been updated and expanded since its original publication. A version of it appears in the November 30, 2015, issue of New York Magazine.