The Pendulum Swings Left on Abortion

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The impending decision from the Supreme Court in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the Texas abortion regulation case, looms large these days. Throughout June, on Monday and Thursday mornings, supporters of abortion rights and reproductive justice—and those who would abridge those rights and deny that justice—have waited anxiously.

On Thursday, June 23rd, in fact, over 5,500 people were tuned in to the SCOTUSblog live blog as cases that were not Hellerstedt were released. That doesn’t count those who were watching #WWH, #stopthesham, and other related hashtags on Twitter.

Big abortion news did come out at the end of the week, however, not from the Supreme Court, but from the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Maya Harris, Clinton’s Senior Advisor assigned to work with the Democratic Platform Committee, announced what the national agenda would look like under a Clinton administration.

At the end of a list that included ending mass incarceration, shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline, taking on the challenges of systemic racism, increased investment in infrastructure, and raising the minimum wage so it can become a truly living wage, Harris confirmed this:

And for the first time, the Democratic Party platform explicitly calls for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which restricts access to women’s reproductive rights, particularly low-income women and women of color.

For the first time. Explicitly.

The Hyde Amendment first became a fiercely protected and frustratingly discriminatory asterisk on the right to choose abortion in 1976, when Illinois Senator Henry Hyde affixed it to the annual appropriations bill. With the amendment (technically a rider) in place, states cannot spend federal Medicaid dollars on abortion.

When first it appeared, the only exception was for cases in which an abortion was medically indicated to save the life of the mother.

President Bill Clinton, in 1993, expanded that exception to include rape or incest as other conditions under which a woman could have an abortion paid for by federal Medicaid funds. President Barack Obama, in negotiations to secure the Affordable Care Act, left Hyde in place.

Republicans, for sure, but Democrats as well, have failed people who could not afford abortion care every year they have allowed the Hyde Amendment to stay in effect. Marginalized people. People in communities without access to preventive or quality or any healthcare. Often, people of color. The people not represented in the appropriations debate every year. The people who could not just get on a plane to go somewhere else, or put an expensive medical procedure on a credit card, or find a licensed doctor willing to take care of the “problem” in a private office.

Hillary Clinton has been dragged across the coals for picking up the language of the Bill Clinton-era Planned Parenthood/pro-choice movement, that abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. But Hillary Clinton has changed, and not, I would submit, in a cynical, anything-for-a-vote-dot-com kind of way.

Because Hillary Clinton didn’t have to explicitly add repeal of the Hyde Amendment into her platform. She could have done what every other Democratic candidate and president since the 70s has done, gone along to get along. To her credit, she seems to be done going along on Hyde.

Why the change?

Because the people who fuel abortion funds, largely young women, mainly non-white women, adopted the reproductive justice framework articulated by SisterSong. They took up SisterSong’s call, heard the power in the framing, and shifted the focus from abortion as the-thing-that-needed-to-be-rare and instead put that focus on all of the other things that needed to be rare first, like discrimination, economic coercion, the criminalization of poverty, and so much more, so that abortion could simply be a medical procedure anyone in need could get without question, and without delay, and without going bankrupt.

Because they kept at it, writing, talking, and creating, taking the message into spaces it hadn’t reached before, and giving people new ways to listen to it. Projects like the Repeal Hyde Art Project:

Why the bird? The Repeal Hyde Art Project bird symbol representative of the self-determination, resistance, and resilience of people who confront and overcome barriers to abortion care every day. It is also a positive symbol that represents the hope for change.

Because Black women like Ashley Williams stopped waiting to be called on, and demanded Clinton (and others) to listen to her.

We would not be here, now, with a Democratic Party platform explicitly calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment without their activism.

It wasn’t change that came out of a focus group. 

It was change that came from the grassroots, roots that are incredibly strong to have caused so much change at the top.

With roots that strong, it will be harder for the pendulum to keep moving right. It will be harder for the political right in this country to keep narrowing and limiting the right to abortion. This push from these activists has the pendulum moving left.

The reactionary right will try to slow the momentum, and they’ll have some small victories that have an outsized impact on the marginalized people affected by them. Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt won’t be the last major piece of abortion jurisprudence to come out of the Supreme Court in the next 10-20 years. It will still be pretty ugly in many places

But the tone of the debate has changed.

The focus of the debate has changed.

And the prize right now is seeing that change reflected in a document that, until now, has been silent on that front.

So, tonight, in the hours before the Hellerstedt decision comes down, savor that victory, and reflect on those whose steady, brave, relentless advocacy made it happen.


Update: Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt was decided the day after this post was published, and in a 5-3 ruling, the Supreme Court helped the pendulum swing further left. The day after Whole Woman’s, I saw a car with a Be Bold, End Hyde sticker on it. And it wasn’t anyone I know. And that felt amazing. 


About Author

Andrea Greer

Andrea, an activist, fundraiser, feminist, writer, and baker, is not as tall as you think she is. She's been at this a long time, and wants to know what you are doing to make the pie higher and raise more hell. Her mother would like you to know she's got a law degree.

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