Roe v. Wade will mark its 41st birthday later this month, amid ever-increasing assaults on reproductive rights across the nation. According to the latest report from the Guttmacher Institute, states have imposed a staggering 205 abortion restrictions between 2011 and 2013. That legislation has attacked access to abortion from all angles — targeting providers and clinics, driving up the cost of abortion for the women who need it, making women travel farther and wait longer to get medical care, and outright banning the procedure. Since 2000, the number of states that Guttmacher defines as being “hostile” to abortion rights has spiked from 13 to 27.
That’s left abortion rights advocates on the other side, working hard to stem the tide of anti-choice attacks. Constantly warding off restrictive legislation hasn’t left much space for proactive policies to expand women’s reproductive freedom, like expanding access to maternity care or making family planning services more accessible to low-income women. Most of the headlines about abortion issues are bleak.
But there may be a shift on the horizon.
As the new year kicks off, the pro-choice community is beginning to lay the groundwork for a new kind of strategy. On the state level, they’re beginning to push for legislation that not only rolls back anti-choice restrictions, but also expands health care opportunities for women and their families. They’re striking a delicate balance between finding common ground with social conservatives — like focusing on preventative care and maternal health outcomes — while maintaining that abortion is also an important aspect of reproductive health. And grassroots activists are committed to nudging the dial forward on issues that have long been considered too controversial for the political sphere.
“The momentum has shifted,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told ThinkProgress in an interview. “Americans as a whole have had enough. We’re not just going to sit idly by and fight defensive fights and take these attacks on reproductive freedom sitting down. We’re starting to define what a new agenda for reproductive freedom looks like in the 21st century.”
A new agenda for reproductive freedom
So what does that agenda look like? In a political atmosphere that’s long segregated women’s health care from the rest of policy as a “culture war issue,” it involves a more comprehensive approach to reproductive freedom.
“Abortion access is ground zero of reproductive freedom; without it, we don’t have autonomy and self-determination over our lives. But it’s not as though our reproductive lives start and end there,” Hogue noted. “There’s a whole landscape out there of policies that have lagged far behind.”
Those policies include other health-related initiatives, like ensuring that women have access to family planning services and maternity care. They involve tackling sexual health issues, like cracking down on domestic abuse and rape. But they also include economic policies to help ensure that women have the resources to direct the courses of their lives and provide for their families — like equal pay legislation, affordable child care services, and efforts to prevent workplace discrimination. Rather than framing reproductive rights as a women’s issue, groups like NARAL are working on making the point that they’re also inextricable from the nation’s economic agenda.
On a national stage, some lawmakers have already made the shift to talking about women’s full equality in this way. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) were particular champions of this fight in 2013, attempting to reposition women’s economic success as a national priority. “We want women to know that there’s a path, there’s a fight being made on these subjects,” Pelosi told ThinkProgress in July.
State legislatures starting to lead the way
Pelosi has focused on workplace equality as a women’s issue without necessarily coupling that effort with other areas of women’s rights, like abortion rights or sexual assault prevention. But state lawmakers are beginning to propose sweeping packages of women’s health legislation that include the full range of those issues.
For instance, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) pushed an ambitious Women’s Equality Act — which included measures to advance pay equity, outlaw discriminatory practices against women in the workplace and the housing sector, tighten penalties for sexual crimes, and reaffirm reproductive rights — in 2013. It ultimately failed to pass because some members of the legislature wouldn’t agree to its abortion-related provision, but the female members of the Assembly’s Democratic majority are ready to try again. They’re already urging Cuomo to take up the full version of the legislation again this year. They’re also framing these issues broadly, pointing out that advancing women’s equality is more than access to gender-specific health care. “We believe it is important to look at all of those barriers women face and to make sure we include issues such as access to affordable, high-quality child care, paid family leave and eldercare so that New York’s women and families have every opportunity for a dynamic future,” a statement from the Democratic Women Assembly Members explains.
Pennsylvania probably doesn’t immediately come to mind as a state that’s committed to protecting reproductive rights — Guttmacher rates the state as “hostile” to abortion, since it’s enacted several harsh restrictions on the procedure — but lawmakers are making a very similar push there. In December, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health, a package of legislation that includes measures to strengthen workplace protections for pregnant women and nursing mothers, prevent anti-abortion harassment at health clinics, advance pay equity, and protect victims of domestic violence.
“The Pennsylvania Agenda for Women’s Health represents a genuine cross-section of issues and concerns facing women today,” Rep. Dan Frankel (D-PA), one of the lawmakers heading up the new initiative, explained when it was first introduced. “This is a comprehensive collection of bills based on what women want in regard to their own health.”
Just this week, a pro-choice coalition in Virginia unveiled the 2014 Healthy Families Legislative Agenda, another broad push to advance women’s health from this angle. After a high-profile gubernatorial race that resulted in the election of pro-choice Terry McAuliffe, reproductive rights activists are eager to begin undoing some of the damage to women’s rights in recent years. In addition to pushing to repeal the state’s forced ultrasound laws and harsh restrictions on abortion clinics, the coalition is also advocating for expanding Medicaid and increasing health coverage for low-income pregnant women.
“We are re-orienting ourselves a bit more toward offense and trying to take advantage we see in this immense backlash to these really radical attacks on women’s health care access,” Anna Scholl, the Executive Director of ProgressVA, explained to ThinkProgress. “I don’t want to minimize or underestimate the size of the hole that we have to dig ourselves out of… But we are taking a much more holistic approach to choice and to women’s health, putting together an agenda that we think will support families across the Commonwealth in every one of their childbearing positions.”
Are national lawmakers finally ready to go on the offense?
The end of 2013 signaled a potential shift in the way that Washington approaches abortion rights, too. Of course, getting pro-choice legislation past both chambers of Congress is far less likely than beginning to turn the tide at the state level. But national lawmakers are indicating that they may not be afraid to take a bold stance in favor of reproductive rights. In November, a group of Senate Democrats introduced the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013, the first piece of national legislation in nearly a decade that is intended to protect — rather than dismantle — abortion rights. The Women’s Health Protection Act would prevent states from enacting medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion.
“This assault on essential, constitutionally protected rights has gone on too long,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), one of the co-sponsors of the legislation, explained in an op-ed when it was first unveiled. “We are introducing the Women’s Health Protection Act of 2013 this week to end it, once and for all.”
NARAL’s Hogue points to Wendy Davis, a relatively unknown state lawmaker who rose to national fame after fighting to defeat stringent anti-abortion legislation in Texas, as evidence that the American public is ready for more elected officials to go down this path. “When you actually take a strong, courageous stand on abortion access as part of a full suite of reproductive freedom, voters reward you. We’re going to see more of that, and we’re going to incentivize more of that,” she noted.
And grassroots activists are preparing to push lawmakers even further. The hostile environment around abortion has made elected officials wary to take any strong stance on expanding access to the procedure, particularly if that results in taxpayer dollars financing abortion. For nearly 40 years, the Hyde Amendment has outlawed federal funding for abortion, preventing low-income women who rely on Medicaid from using their insurance coverage to help pay for the procedure — and Democrats have largely refrained from doing anything to get rid of that policy. But this past fall, reproductive justice activists formed All Above All, a coalition that hopes to bring a renewed momentum to the fight to restore abortion access to economically disadvantaged individuals.
“All Above All pushes back on the long-running urban legend that funding abortion coverage is some kind of political third rail,” Kierra Johnson, Choice USA’s executive director, explained in a statement about the coalition’s launch. “This campaign offers people a fresh approach to declare their support for bold action to change these policies.”
Looking to 2014 and beyond
“I think we’re going to sort of hit our stride in 2014,” Hogue told ThinkProgress. “In 2014, we’re going to see a lot more offensive legislation. We’re going to start to see states really experiment with what policy packages look like that actually support women at all stages of their reproductive life, and we’re going to demand what we need to be thriving, equal members of American society.”
But change is slow, and after such a dramatic recent assault on women’s bodily autonomy, it will take time to pull the country back to the other direction. As ProgressVA’s Scholl noted, there’s still a lot of damage to undo. In deeply red states like Texas, much of that damage will only continue to worsen this year. And, of course, the pro-choice community may be mobilizing for 2014 — but so are abortion opponents.
According to Hogue, the shift will begin in 2014 and get even more dramatic in 2016 and 2018. It will take several trips to the ballot box to counteract the power that the Tea Party built up over the past three years. But there’s reason to believe that the American people, who have repeatedly rejected legislative attempts to restrict abortion, are ready for a dramatically different approach to reproductive freedom.
“It’s going to take longer than more election cycle to re-center the country where the actual center is, but make no mistake — this shift has started to happen,” she noted. “The pendulum will be swinging back in this direction for quite some time.”