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.

Join the Conversation

  • Gretel

    Yes, it matters. It matters a great deal, because he may be nominating additional Supreme Court justices. I know that the states are doing everything in their power to subvert Roe, but I am also terrified that the Supreme Court could reverse it someday. So it matters, at least to me.

    • Brüno

      There are those who say abortion is some kind of population control plots by the “elites”. There are those who say some states are looking to overturn rvw. Who is right here? Is somebody aware of states having taken actions against abortion?

  • nazza

    Ultimately, our government is built on a somewhat paradoxical structure called Federalism. Powers not granted to the Federal Government are the domain of the states, but depending on your ideological view, what powers are Washington, DC’s, and what powers are the states vary wildly.

    I think that eventually abortion rights are going to go before the SCOTUS, and that decision will define the legality of the procedure. But it won’t happen until things get much worse. The Supreme Court will kick this can down the road as far as it can until it has no choice but to step in and act.

  • SweetT

    He has no say? His message of hope mobilized millions of new voters. Of course the president doesn’t directly legislate. Of course the states’ rights dogwhistle is tooted any time state governments want to hinder women’s access to health care. But this?

    It’s even possible that having a pro-choice president is what fuels the anti-choice fire.

    We’ve never had a pro-choice president. We’ve never had a president that has taken a fucking stand without letting anti-choicers frame this issue. Never. I know I’m pretty young (32) but I have never felt this climate so hostile to women at any point in my life. And if Pres. Obama can’t be bothered to address this on the platform that he has, he can lose the next election for all I care. People get my votes for what they do, not what they threaten me with.

  • emess

    He could, you know, say something. Seriously, his silence on the issue is infuriating.

  • azinyk

    Obama could speak out against what’s going on. He could use his bully pulpit to make the case for choice. He could rally people to support groups like Planned Parenthood. He could name and shame people who support anti-choice legislation. You’d be surprised how people step back when they’re in the spotlight. He used to have political capital, and if he hadn’t frittered it away by failing to support any progressive causes, people would listen to him.

    If a democrat sides with the anti-choicers, he could campaign with their primary opponents.

    He runs the Department of Justice. He should be doing investigations into anti-abortion terrorism. He could wiretap hate groups and people who make threats. It wouldn’t be one tenth as political as the investigations the right wing routinely runs into so-called “eco-terrorism”, anti-globalization protesters, etc. He could enforce the law on things like clinic access and harassment.

    Even if de-funding progressive organizations is beyond his control, he could threaten various retaliatory measures. If Republicans want to eliminate Planned Parenthood, PBS, Acorn, etc, maybe he’ll decide to cancel some useless weapons program that Republicans like. Maybe in the congressional district of the person who introduced the bill. He could threaten to respect the establishment clause of the first amendment, and tax churches like any other organization. That’s how politics is played. You don’t just roll over and say “my opponents have the ball so I’ll just give up”.

    I don’t know why people make excuses for Obama. What’s he done for them lately?

  • drew

    I think the Kagan and Sotamayor nominations are worth bringing up in any discussion of Obama’s record on abortion.

    His other main chink in the armor/notch in the belt is the abortion language in the ACA, and opinions on that vary wildly. But I think you’re quite right that his personal views don’t exactly matter a whole lot.

    Let’s take three possible scenarios:

    a) Obama holds a centrist position on abortion. He supports its legality in most cases, but is okay with some restrictions, including limiting public funding of abortion.

    b) Obama is vehemently pro-choice. He supports the legality of abortion in virtually all cases and supports public funding, but it is not a position he will spend much political capital defending.

    c) Obama is vehemently pro-choice. He supports the legality of abortion in virtually all cases and supports public funding. This is a position he is willing to vigorously defend, even if it costs him political capital and even if a vigorous defense yields no additional policy gains.

    I personally think B is likely the most accurate description, but it’s hard to really know. My inclination is he’s done a similar thing on gay marriage, only with gay marriage, this is partly to leave himself an opening to “evolve” as attitudes in the country change. With abortion, this isn’t a realistic possibility. So he’s just going to continue having his private views, whatever they may be. And when he puts on his president hat, he’ll do what’s pragmatic and centrist because that’s the kind of president he is.

    But here’s why I think it doesn’t matter. Would the abortion language in the ACA have been any different if the president were A, B, or C? I don’t think so. There may be future legislation where the differences would matter, but they would need to be special cases.

  • Nonny Morgan

    I don’t think we’re likely to get a straight answer on this from Obama with the 2012 campaign coming upon us, especially not given the current anti-choice political climate. Like it or not, anything he says on the issue would be something that the Republicans would use and twist, and sadly, there are enough people out there who believe what they hear… I don’t think it’s a risk that he will want to take.

    I believe he has stated that he will veto major federal bills like HR3 if they make it through House/Senate. Reading between the lines, I think he is pro-choice, but the climate is such that it is really not a good idea to be open about it. And I hate that, I really do, I would LOVE a vocal and proud president, but I don’t see that as a realistic expectation right now. I hope at some point in the near future, it will be, but it is sadly a very polarizing and divisive issue. It shouldn’t be, but it is.

    I know some might feel differently, but although I’m not totally happy with Obama’s presidency… I would much rather that than the alternatives the Republicans are giving us.

  • Priya P

    I agree: the problem is with state legislatures. Obama is just a figure-head, a representation of federal government and he’s pretty limited in terms of domestic policy. Even if he wanted to do something, he couldn’t. State bills can’t be vetoed and well, if he tried to veto a bill from Congress they’d just override it.

  • Sarah

    it sure as hell matters to me. i want my president, my country’s leader, to understand that i, as a woman, have a right to decide what is best for me and my body. i want my president to support my right to bodily autonomy. i want my president to trust me enough to allow me to decide about my body and my future. i want my president to believe that I am the best person to decide about my body and my family, no questions asked. i want my president to respect me, my womanhood, my person hood, my right to autonomy.

    whether or not my president is pro-choice sure as hell matters to me.

  • Antoinette Bonsignore

    It absolutely matters – for instance – you’re incorrect that nothing can be done at the federal level to stop Indiana and other states from defunding Planned Parenthood. Defunding Planned Parenthood is a direct violation of federal Medicaid law and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can intervene. If they do not, other states will only be emboldened to continue these illegal defunding efforts.

    Furthermore, laws that directly contravene Roe v. Wade (i.e. 20 week abortion laws that have been enacted in 5 states) are violative of a federal constitutional right. Again, the federal government has an obligation to intervene when states are enacting laws that violate the constitution.

    Finally, the federal government could reinstate the National Task Force on Violence against Health Care Providers to deal with the increasing level of clinic violence. There is no reason why federal law enforcement should not be acting to protect abortion providers and clinic workers. To date, the administration has not provided any reason why the Task Force has not been revived. The murder of Dr. Tiller and the continued harassment of Dr. Carhart are just two of the most notable reasons to do so.

  • Sophia Yen

    Miriam, Hell ya. It matters!
    1. He chooses people for posts like Secretary of HHS, Surgeon General, possibly the head of the FDA and other positions. For example, the Surgeon General he chose is NOT prochoice but has said she will “follow the law.” Was it too much to hope that he would choose a prochoice Surgeon General? Or even someone that would advocate for women’s rights and reproductive rights rather than just “follow the law.” Especially given the law is being eroded every second?

    2. He GAVE away some reproductive rights when he decided in healthcare reform he would codify Hyde. Before that, we had the hope that if someday, we had a prochoice majority in the house/senate, we could actually fund abortions for the poor and make poor people have the same choices as the wealthy. Now it would take an ACT of Congress to fix that.

    3. ditto to @emess. He is the President. He could at least SAY SOMETHING. When a major donor asked him, he said “Michelle is good on the issue.” Michelle is not the president. Michelle is not even an elected official. Where is this Obama (2007)