In a piece at The Nation called “Payback for Prochoicers,” Katha Pollitt argues that health reform passed because the pro-choice community allowed it to move forward even with abortion restrictions included, despite previous statements to the contrary. Therefore, we deserve political payback from President Obama and the Democratic Party. Pollitt outlines a list of suggested issues politicians can take action on.
It is true that pro-choice politicians and the major reproductive rights organizations chose not to try to kill the bill, even with the unconscionable Nelson “compromise” included. The options were to support or not oppose the bill or to fight for the defeat of the bill unless restrictions on abortion access were removed. The stated goal going into this process was to pass a bill that maintained the admittedly terrible “status quo” on abortion, as pro-choicers knew they did not have the power to push for increased abortion access. But reproductive rights organizations failed to exert the necessary power to pass health care reform that did not decrease abortion access. Yes, they chose not to work for the defeat of the bill, but this is because they were not powerful enough to pass legislation that met their earlier commitment.
Attempting to kill the bill instead of working to improve it would have lost these organizations any political relevance they have in Washington. Their relationships in Congress are with politicians who support health reform, and, in fact, these organizations support it as well. Everyone knew a loss on the bill this time around would be far too costly to the U.S. public, to pro-choice politicians, and to reproductive rights organizations.
I disagree with the basic premise of Pollitt’s article because I think it lacks an accurate power analysis. There will be no payback to reproductive rights organizations. A win for these groups would have been a bill that maintained the abortion status quo (and no, I do not think this would be a victory for abortion access, just not a loss). They didn’t take the suicidal route and try to destroy the bill, but they also failed to meet their stated commitment at the beginning of this process.
You don’t get payback in politics for rolling over. Wins come because you have power and exert it strategically. The pro-choice community in Washington has shown that it did not have the power to live up to its commitment. They just didn’t stand in the way.
You don’t get rewarded for demonstrating a lack of political power, you get further marginalized.
Some of the agenda Pollitt outlined may very well pass. But it won’t
be as payback for letting access to abortion be severely limited. If
this were the case, I would be even angrier at these organizations and
politicians than I am already. Because making abortion inaccessible
isn’t just an attack on women as a group that can be balanced out by
taking other actions to support women. This is about that woman who
needs an abortion, has health insurance, but cannot pay for the
procedure out of pocket. No part of Pollitt’s suggested political agenda
will change the fact that this woman will be forced to carry her
pregnancy to term, that is if she does not take drastic, dangerous, or
The inclusion of the Nelson “compromise” in health reform is a major
blow to the pro-choice community and to the perceived power of
pro-choice politicians and major reproductive rights organizations. As I have argued
previously, they already suffered from a deficit of political power.
There has not been a major pro-choice political win at the federal
level since Roe v. Wade. Instead, we have seen huge losses, starting
with the Hyde Amendment and continuing all the way up to this health
reform bill, the greatest restriction on abortion access since the
procedure was legalized. That’s 37 years of losing. Not exactly building
your power so you can win political payback.
Every loss decreases the power and influence of those leading this
fight in Washington. A major reevaluation is necessary, because it does
not make sense to lose this badly for this long, with the situation only
getting worse, and not make changes. Yes, this health care fight has
reinvigorated the base of the community that cares about abortion
access. But the power wasn’t there in Washington to use this base for a
We need to win on the issue of abortion access, badly. We need to win
on a lot of other issues related to women’s health, too. And we’re not
going to win by losing.