The Case for an Abortion ‘Litmus Test’
In late April, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi reiterated what’s become an increasingly popular sentiment among Democratic Party leadership: that Democratic candidates shouldn’t need to support abortion rights to receive backing and funding from the party. Addressing a crowd at Georgetown University, Pelosi said Democrats “would support the [anti-choice] Democrat” in a race against a Republican, citing the need to “protect all the other rights that we have.” This statement forces us to ask if we think it’s okay to compromise on whether the government can force women to give birth. To answer that question, we have to look at the bigger picture of who runs government and what that decision-making power means for women’s rights and bodies.
Simply put, Democrats can’t ignore the oppressive power dynamics inherent to calls for “ideological diversity” and “agreeing to disagree.” Only 107 of the 535 members of Congress are women. When lawmakers in power “agree to disagree” with female constituents who may need abortion care, the views of those disproportionately male lawmakers will wind up dictating women’s lives.
It may be tempting for Democrats to give the anti-”identity politics” wing a listen as the party explores its options ahead of 2018 midterms. But holding candidates to a standard of basic decency — specifically where human rights are concerned — will never be the problem. If anything, rather than condemn the abortion litmus test, we should regard it as the bare minimum in light of what the modern landscape around abortion access looks like.
Since 1973, more than 1,050 restrictions on abortion have been enacted, 27 percent of which were passed between 2011 and 2016 alone, and the bills being introduced have become increasingly extreme. On Wednesday, Iowa’s legislature passed a bill that would effectively ban abortion, by prohibiting it at a stage prior to when many women even realize they are pregnant. Seven states have only one abortion clinic, due to regulations targeting providers specifically. Last week, Axios reported President Trump is in talks about cutting Planned Parenthood’s Title X funding unless the women’s health organization ceases to offer abortion services — a discriminatory policy decision that would almost certainly boost the demand for abortion by slashing access to the resources that reduce unwanted pregnancies.
And as access to abortion dwindles in many parts of the country, threats and violence targeting women and providers are on the rise. According to a report by the Feminist Majority Foundation, in 2015 three abortion providers were murdered, and nine were subjected to attempted murders. In 2016, 34.2 percent of US abortion providers surveyed reported receiving “severe violence or threats of violence” in the first half of 2016 alone, compared with the previous high of 24 percent throughout 1995.
The United States presently has the highest maternal mortality rate in the industrialized world, and there is a jarring correlation between states with more restrictions on abortion and states with higher mortality rates.
These are the objectively extreme circumstances that Pelosi — as well as DNC chairman Tom Perez, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, California Gov. Jerry Brown, and other leading Democrats — seem plainly unaware of.
Reducing women’s reproductive rights to bargaining chips could bring serious consequences. The success stories of the likes of Doug Jones and Conor Lamb in conservative districts should make it clear that getting out the vote — not denigrating women’s fundamental rights to a lesser priority — is key. Party cohesion on any issue is important, but this is especially true when it comes to an agreement about fundamentals like women’s safety and dignity.
In the age of #MeToo, women’s reproductive health access is more critical than ever. Instead of debating abortion as a litmus test, we should be considering the burden perpetuated by the rape exception for survivors seeking abortion; we should be considering the power dynamics of male-dominated legislatures making decisions about women’s bodies. We should be asking why Black women are 243 percent more likely to die of pregnancy or birth-related causes, and how to ensure that everyone can afford a service that is their human right.
With midterm elections on the horizon, Democrats can choose to evolve beyond the dichotomy of the Roe era and acknowledge how much more is needed from them, today — or they can take a passive role as women’s rights continue to suffer.
Kylie Cheung is a political science and journalism student at USC. She’s written for DAME, AlterNet, The Mary Sue, Salon, TeenVogue.com, Bustle, Mediaite, ATTN:, Rewire, and others.
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty; Illustration by Sarah Tate/Brit + Co)