Opinion

The Case for Keeping the Democratic Party Away from Anti-Abortion Candidates

Aug. 8, 2017

'The debate over abortion rights is not some abstract fight among politicians in D.C.'

In January, millions of women flooded streets across the country to take a stand against President Donald Trump and support a progressive agenda that promoted, among other things, access to affordable abortion and birth control.

It’s clear that Trump has put that access at risk. He’s advocated defunding Planned Parenthood, has taken away funds from international organizations that perform or provide information on abortion and vowed to allow religious employers to deny their workers birth control. On the campaign trail, he even said that a woman who decides to have an abortion should face “some form of punishment.” (After widespread criticism, he backtracked and said that only the doctors who perform the procedure should face consequence.)

Yet, despite these attacks on women’s health and our rights, now it seems some Democratic leaders are considering stepping back from the fight to protect and advance reproductive freedom. Last week, Democratic Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said that supporting abortion rights shouldn’t be a requirement for receiving party support. His comments echoed similar sentiments from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, despite the fact that support for abortion rights is central to the Democratic Party.

Unsurprisingly and understandably, their comments were met with shock and white hot rage from voters, party influencers, elected officials, and especially the women who form the foundation of the Democratic base.

Let’s be honest: these Democratic leaders are terrified to miss their chance to win in 2018. I don’t blame them. But, if we want to win, we have to learn from the loss in 2016 that left so many of us beleaguered and demoralized and come up with a strategy that will compel voters to show up to the polls and vote blue. That’s why it would be a huge mistake to sacrifice one of the fundamental tenets of the party, not to mention a constitutional right supported by a majority of Americans: the right of a woman to control her reproductive destiny, and therefore, her future.

And it’s a mistake we don’t need to make.

Just take a look at what played out earlier this year as two Democrats battled in the gubernatorial primary race in the key battleground state of Virginia. One clear difference between the candidates? Their stance on abortion rights. The eventual winner, Ralph Northam, had from the very beginning of his political career, been an unapologetic champion of reproductive health and freedom, earning an endorsement by both NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia and NARAL Pro-Choice America. His opponent, on the other hand, voted for an amendment to what would become the Affordable Care Act that would have prohibited federal funding being used for abortion in government-subsidized insurance plans when he served in Congress.

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Pundits expected the race between the two candidates would be tight. But Northam won by a wide margin — in a primary election that had the highest Democratic turnout in the state’s history.

Northam’s victory wasn’t a fluke. His steadfast support for women’s rights was the most salient point of contrast between the two candidates and a significant motivator for his supporters. Northam’s win proves that embracing reproductive rights and defending abortion access will be key to Democrats winning races in 2018. Nearly Seven in 10 Americans oppose overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion, according to the Pew Research Center. Further, women are more likely than men to vote Democratic and there are only six anti-abortion Democrats left in Congress — and all are men.

It’s understandable why some Democrats are advocating that the party shift its focus on the economy rather than what some call “social issues.” We all want to win and there are some hard lessons to be learned from 2016. But these views leaves out essential context: economic security isn’t possible for a woman and her family without access to the full range of reproductive health care. There’s evidence that women who are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term are more likely to live in poverty. Women know that their chance to get ahead in this economy is tied to their ability to plan if, how, and when they want to grow their families.

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To millions of Americans, the debate over abortion rights is not some abstract fight among politicians in D.C. These are bread and butter matters that affect their ability to continue their education, support their family, rise up in their career and plan for their future. For many women, access to the American dream hinges on this very question.

If we allow ourselves to compromise the very values that are so critical to our party’s identity, what will we cave on next? We’re at a pivotal moment where we will decide the future of our party — and our country. If we kowtow to Trump and the GOP, we’ll sabotage ourselves and lose — and not just at the ballot box. When we stand up for our core principles and defend the basic human rights of women and families, we grow stronger as a party and as a country. We need to empower and elect people who will be champions for the American people. We need bold leaders who will stand up and fight for the dignity of our daughters to determine their own futures.

The leadership of the Democratic party must remember that women have been the backbone of our movement since the beginning. Women march. Women lobby. Women vote.

And if you forget us today, we will remember you at the polls tomorrow.

Tarina Keene is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.

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