For observers of the national politics of women’s rights, April 9, 2010 was a banner day. Three significant threads emerged in the same national story on the same day: Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan isn’t seeking re-election, Dawn Johnsen gave up her nomination to a top legal job in the Obama administration, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens announced that he will retire late this summer. These developments offer an opportunity to look at national abortion politics, while offering some conclusions as to why and how to maintain a progressive trajectory in politics, starting locally.
As I wrote earlier, as anti-choice Democrats, Congressman Stupak and Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska played major, less than helpful roles in the reform of healthcare. For Obama administration supporters hoping for bigger changes to medical care and insurance delivery, the antics of Nelson and Stupak served only to frustrate real debate and block more profound reform. Months before reform passed, even Democrats were so fed up that some progressive groups went nationwide seeking support for Connie Saltonstall, a pro-choice Democratic candidate who was set to challenge Stupak in the Michigan primary. Hours before the reform vote, Stupak also managed to alienate the anti-choice fringe on the right that supported him. The pro-lifers who once lauded his dogged insistence on the no-federal-funds-for-abortion Stupak amendment, were furious that he dropped it and voted for the bill without it. Instead, he settled for the promise of an Executive Order guaranteeing what was in the withdrawn amendment. When Stupak’s verbal flogging by anti-choice groups continued, unabated, days after the President signed his Executive Order, even Congressman Stupak admitted that the anti-choice forces had used him as a tool to try to prevent passage of any healthcare reform at all, thinking that the bill would not get enough votes to pass with his amendment attached. With all of that writing on the wall, Congressman Stupak understandably lacked the requisite courage to run for his tenth consecutive election.
While all that was happening, it went virtually unnoticed outside Washington that Senator Nelson was also holding up President Obama’s nomination of Dawn Johnsen to head the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC). Professor Johnsen cannot take the job as a chief legal advisor to the executive branch without first being confirmed by the Senate. During the year that her nomination languished in the Senate, Senator Nelson was clear and public in opposing the President’s choice because earlier in Professor Johnsen’s career, she served as the Legal Director for NARAL Pro Choice America. Despite Johnsen’s impeccable credentials, including gender, and the support and confidence of President Obama, Senator Nelson concluded that her former job working for a women’s rights organization made her a bad choice for the OLC. Senator Nelson opposed Johnsen’s appointment to the OLC, even though – if not because – some of his fellow Democrats believed she’d make a superb Supreme Court Justice. In the end, with her nomination hung up in Washington for months on end, Professor Johnsen went back home to Indiana to resume her law school teaching career. And on April 9, she called it quits on the bid.
With Justice John Paul Stevens officially announcing his retirement in plenty of time for the Senate confirmation process to proceed with a Democratic majority intact, the fate of the Johnsen nomination hangs in the air as a shot across the bow by Senator Nelson. Justice Stevens has served for decades as a stalwart guardian of individual liberty, including liberty for women to make their own healthcare decisions. He’ll already be a tough but very important act to follow in that regard, but now President Obama has to be wary of a member of his own party in the Senate as he ponders his next choice for the nation’s highest court.
As a local activist, I first heard of the existence of anti-choice Democrats when I watched several run for the state legislature from districts in my very conservative, Republican county. It’s disheartening that even real progressives from outside my little corner of Missouri, some aspiring to statewide offices and beyond, have repeatedly been willing to embrace anti-choice Democratic candidates who hail from mostly Republican areas. Local politics, I have been counseled, should be accepting of anti-choice Democrats with deeply held beliefs against abortion. In the short term, I let myself believe that these deeply held beliefs were so deeply and personally held, they’d never be used to batter the rights of people that did not hold the same views. I quickly learned that when Democrats espouse anti-choice views, they do so out of a firm and public commitment to work for the obliteration of choice. For real progressives, the trouble with anti-abortion Democrats is that they leave us without hope at election time when it comes to women’s issues. This is so because on most other issues BUT choice, there is room for bipartisanship. In other words, those interested in maintaining reproductive freedom and science-based family planning already know we’re not safe from Republicans. And while any Democrat might work for better jobs legislation than Republicans, for example, the employment opportunities created by a predominantly anti-choice legislature had better have on-site daycare because it will also vote against women, choice and sex education every time the opportunity arises.
All politics is local in the sense that most national figures started out in the halls of Missouri, Michigan, Nebraska or other state governments. Progressives involved in state and local politics can’t allow themselves to indulge in the fiction that we should support candidates who are mostly with us on the issues. The real battlefield for reproductive freedom is in the state legislature, where new choice restrictions are put in place and real damage to women’s freedom is done almost weekly.
While party leaders may come late to the realization that anti-choice Democratic candidates always put women’s rights at risk, grassroots progressives in Republican strongholds that have no pro-choice candidate can look outside their districts and direct their investments of time, talent and resources in candidates elsewhere. Not only does this assure that the right people with majority views on reproductive education and choice are working for us – and more importantly, not against us – at the state level, it may also serve to prevent the elevation of some of the anti-choice locals to the national political scene.
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