Is President Obama pro-choice?

This was a big question during the 2008 election. Barack Obama had a relatively short voting record, so much of the speculation about his views on abortion were just that, speculation. It’s also necessary to take everything a political candidate says about these hot-button issues with a grain of salt, since they are more often than not focused on saying what they need to say to get elected.

Catholics for Choice is bringing this question to the forefront again with a recent edition of their magazine, Conscience. In the issue they ask writers and experts in the field to answer that question about President Obama.

Jodi Jacobson of RH Reality Check has this to say:

“As a candidate, Obama said all the right things. As a president, his actions suggest that then-presidential contender and current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was right—he will not fight for us.… The president has presided over the greatest erosion to women’s reproductive health and rights in the past 30 years, and a continuing degradation of our rights at the state level. Yet still he remains silent. Is Obama prochoice? Not by my definition.”

From the pull quotes in the CFC press release, it doesn’t look like the survey turned out favorably for President Obama.

But here is my question: does it even matter?

I’m not so sure. There are obviously some big ways that the president can influence abortion policy, some things that are squarely under his domain. For example, things like abortion policy in international aid (the global gag rule). But there are also many many ways that he has almost no say, besides possibly a veto if a bill came across his desk.

Jodi is right, President Obama has been the man in charge during a horrible period of attack toward even the most seemingly neutral reproductive rights issues (like family planning). But does that mean he is not pro-choice? And again, if we entertain the idea that he isn’t, could someone who was more pro-choice have prevented these attacks?

For most of them, the answer is no. A pro-choice president can’t prevent Indiana from rejecting federal family planning funding so that Planned Parenthood gets defunded. A pro-choice president can’t prevent Texas requiring ultrasounds, or from the Radiance Foundation putting up billboards around the country suggesting that abortion is tantamount to black genocide. A pro-choice president can’t stop the House from introducing bill after bill challenging abortion rights, or state after state passing laws to limit access to the procedure.

Most of the really damaging attacks on reproductive rights are happening at the state level. While national organizations often focus on the federal bills that are being considered (how many hundreds of emails have I gotten about “stupak on steroids”?) the real threats to access are governors and legislators around the country passing laws that directly impact women’s lives, no presidential veto allowed.

Of course the political views and personal beliefs of our president matter. But they also only matter so much–they only protect us or help us to a certain degree. Yes, President Obama could do more to support access to abortion–even reproductive and sexual health more broadly. But his powers are limited by our three branches of government, by our emphasis on state’s rights.

It’s even possible that having a pro-choice president is what fuels the anti-choice fire. It’s what helps organize the other side to get their people in office and their bills through legislatures. Think about how mild the attacks on choice seemed when Bush was President, in comparison to today.

Read the entire magazine here.

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