Pro-choice orgs won’t get rewarded for rolling over

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
illegal action.

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
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.

Boston, MA

Jos Truitt is Executive Director of Development at Feministing. She joined the team in July 2009, became an Editor in August 2011, and Executive Director in September 2013. She writes about a range of topics including transgender issues, abortion access, and media representation. Jos first got involved with organizing when she led a walk out against the Iraq war at her high school, the Boston Arts Academy. She was introduced to the reproductive justice movement while at Hampshire College, where she organized the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program’s annual reproductive justice conference. She has worked on the National Abortion Federation’s hotline, was a Field Organizer at Choice USA, and has volunteered as a Pro-Choice Clinic Escort. Jos has written for publications including The Guardian, Bilerico, RH Reality Check, Metro Weekly, and the Columbia Journalism Review. She has spoken and trained at numerous national conferences and college campuses about trans issues, reproductive justice, blogging, feminism, and grassroots organizing. Jos completed her MFA in Printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in Spring 2013. In her "spare time" she likes to bake and work on projects about mermaids.

Jos Truitt is an Executive Director of Feministing in charge of Development.

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  • Brianna G

    Just a note– the article in question was written when it was still believed that the Stupak Amendment might be included. It was only pretty recently that they decided on the executive order compromise. All we have now is the executive order, and the Hyde Amendment as always. Both could rather easily be overturned in the future, once health care is not so tenuous.

  • Jen

    “Easily” repealed?
    Hyde has been in effect for 34 years.
    Once abortion restrictions are codified, it’s almost unprecedented to actually repeal them. Aside from the global gag rule (an executive order, not legislation), I can’t think of one repeal of any anti-choice laws, on either the state or federal level.
    It’s possible to repeal it, sure. But likely? Or easily? Not so much.
    I appreciate and love your optimism. But I don’t think it’s very likely.

  • Athenia

    Of course these organizations have no power–they have no leverage whatsoever against people like Stupak.
    The only way these organizations will have any impact is if they ensure that pro-choice candidates are elected.

  • cattrack2

    “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 illegal action.”
    There’s 2 questions people have with this line of argument: 1) if an average abortion costs $300-$1000, isn’t that so much cheaper than having a kid (not to mention actually raising a kid), that no one really chooses birth over abortion just due to economics? A $1000 abortion is pennies compared to having a kid. You can spend $300 on a car seat & stroller alone.
    2) If a woman saves hundreds of dollars on health care she otherwise would’ve had to spend her own money on, then why can’t she put that saved money toward an abortion?
    I had a niece in dire straits. She was 22yo, living on welfare, had 4 kids by 4 different men, and was pregnant with her 5th. But when I volunteered to pay for an abortion she declined.
    I suspect that most women who say they would’ve had an abortion if only they could’ve afforded one or either telling activists & researchers what they want to hear…or they’re thinking twice about NOT having had that abortion.

  • allegra

    I have an idea. How about, instead of constantly reinforcing the two-party regime in the interest of immediate political power, women stop voting for a party that thinks it’s acceptable to throw half of its voting bloch under the bus? Where is the third party organizing? Third-party voting may not feel so good in the short term, but there is really no other way, besides increasing the number of pro-choice Dems (which will probably mean their losing at the polls), to actually change this system that forces women to keep voting for men who clearly think their bodily integrity is worth crap.
    We need another women’s party. It obviously fooled itself in the early ’90s by merging with Dems and thinking Dems actually intended to work in women’s interest.

  • southern students for choice

    Jos wrote:

    …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.

    If one looks at the outcome of this battle over health care reform under the Obama administration to date it’s reasonable to say that pro-choice groups didn’t “exert the necessary power to pass health care reform that did not decrease abortion access.” But that makes an assumption that there’s some sort of meaningful average one can make of pro-choice group’s effort and the result obtained from their effort.
    So far the outcome looks like it’s negatively affected abortion access, but mostly in the same states and communities that have taken hits before, namely red states and rural areas as contrasted with blue states and urban areas.
    Looking at the outcome with that in mind, relatively progressive states will probably have abortion access minimally affected by health care reform with the provisions to date, meaning insurance companies may more likely continue to offer coverage there with minimal changes as needed to accommodate new laws. States that are already leaning anti-choice may find access to insurance covering elective abortion services more affected, and in those states we might well see fewer insurance companies covering elective abortion at all.
    However, in conservative states and communities there’s already few abortion providers, and women are paying a great deal out of pocket — and unreimbursed by insurance even now — to get off work, travel, etc, to get to providers. Also, few women file claims for elective abortion, especially younger and lesser knowledgeable women who may not even know if their insurance covers it.
    So while the effects of anti-choice insurance policy changes are be real and worth fighting against, they may not likely be perceived as reducing access by many women, especially younger and poorer women one might think would be most affected by these changes. They may either not know how much easier it might be to get better coverage in a different state or community, or if they’re knowledgeable and motivated enough to take time away from work or school and travel some distance to a provider — and willing and able to pay for that out of their pocket — increasing the difficulty of getting coverage for abortion isn’t going to make it noticeably more difficult for them to get an abortion.
    So in short, pro-choice politicians in pro-choice states got in the House vote something which will work for the constituents who put them in office and political powers that be, and anti-choice politicians in anti-choice states will at least claim they got the best deal they could for the restrictions and regulations they demanded.
    But that’s how abortion politics works by default, so as Jos said, we shouldn’t expect much of a “payback” from pro-choice Democratic politicians for the support or lack of opposition that pro-choice activists gave to the House passage of health care reform.

  • stabbygail

    I agree that the abortion is way cheaper than having a kid, but coming up with that money may not be feasible on a timeline. I’m a grad student and I make peanuts — it’s really very likely that I could not come up with $300 on short notice, let alone $1000, which would be most of my month’s salary. I don’t have any savings to speak off because there really isn’t any money to save. I would very much want to have an abortion if I got pregnant right now because I have no idea how I’d pay for a child, but I honestly can’t say that I could afford to do so, even if it was cheaper in the long run.

  • supremepizza

    Isn’t it cheaper in the short run too though?

  • supremepizza

    Even in that scenario a woman would have to ask herself, do I need abortion more, or do I need general health care more? I don’t see how that would’ve changed the dynamics here. I think pro-choice Congresspeople are betting that improved access to health care & reduced cost will actually improve knowledge of abortion and enable private funds to be used for it.

  • zes

    Of course it is cheaper than having a kid but where would they get the cash? If you don’t have 300-1000 to stump up from your savings at short notice is it not likely you are also one of the 40% of Americans who has zero access to credit and therefore can’t get a loan from a legit source? Plus they may be underage or married and unable to involve a bank or even a loan shark without guardians/parents/spouse finding out.
    Allowing women to pay for abortions in instalments would be the best way though with interest (likely to be high as the woman has no negotiating power), this would cost more and no woman (particularly if a mother already with kids depending on her) should go bankrupt because of her reproductive choices. Ironically the society that made abortion so hard to get would benefit the most from just paying for it, as ultimately it foots the bill for unaffordable children.