A Movement Built on Sand

Planned Parenthood supporters hold signs at a protest in downtown Denver February 11, 2017. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)
A New York Times article reveals an abortion-rights movement fractured and uncertain, waiting for Roe v. Wade to tumble.

Over the weekend, the New York Times published an article on the future of abortion policy, interviewing more than 50 leaders in the abortion-rights movement and examining strategic divisions on the left.

The tone of the piece is fairly apocalyptic — and unnecessarily so, because despite progressives’ insistence that Donald Trump is a one-man anti-abortion machine, the status quo remains about the same three years into his presidency. But the article reveals notable internal division among advocates of abortion access.

One prominent theme is how Planned Parenthood, which performs about one-third of the estimated 900,000 abortions in the U.S. each year, dominates the national abortion conversation — and rakes in most of the money:

Amid the high political maneuvering, there are fundamental internal divisions that the abortion rights movement has not resolved, especially between Planned Parenthood and the independent clinics that perform most abortion procedures.

This past summer, for instance, after Alabama passed its near-total abortion ban, celebrities and liberal donors opened their checkbooks en masse to support Planned Parenthood. . . . At the same time, Gloria Gray, who heads the West Alabama Women’s Center in Tuscaloosa, said she couldn’t afford to give her staff raises or pay for a $20,000 fence to keep the daily protesters off the property. Her crowdfunding effort produced about $4,000.

Ms. Gray’s clinic performed about 3,300 abortions last year, more than half of all the procedures in Alabama. Planned Parenthood’s two clinics performed none. “With the national organizations,” she said, “we seem to be left out.”

Independent abortion facilities like this one, the Times reporters conclude, “have essentially no lobbying or political power.” This causes a great deal of tension, and understandably so. Consider, for instance, what Pamela Merritt, co-founder of abortion group Reproaction and a former Planned Parenthood employee, told the Times: “Activists refer to the organization and its outsize influence, she said, as ‘the big pink elephant in the room.’”

This puts Planned Parenthood in a strange position, as the nation’s most powerful advocacy group for abortion rights at the national level, but also at odds with many of the advocates across the country who share the group’s goals.

Meanwhile, some of the comments in the article look a bit incriminating for the abortion industry when considered in light of facts the Times left out. Perhaps the chief example is that, as David French noted in a recent newsletter for The Dispatch, the Times conveniently ignored the Centers for Disease Control data released last week, showing that the U.S. abortion rate dropped yet again in 2016, continuing a trend that began decades ago. It’s almost impossible to understand the political debates over abortion policy without acknowledging that fact.

The piece notes that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court has forced activists “to confront the entrenched challenges of class dividing their movement.” Here’s how acting Planned Parenthood president Alexis McGill Johnson put it in her interview: “A lot of us are awakening to the fact that if you are wealthy, if you live in the New York ZIP code or California ZIP code or Illinois ZIP code, your ability to access reproductive health care is not in jeopardy in the same way that it is in other states.”

The Times makes McGill Johnson out to be a leader awakening to the needs of those she represents. It sounds a bit different when you recall that abortion is increasingly concentrated among the poorest women in the country. A 2017 report from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute found that women with incomes less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level had the highest abortion rate of all the groups studied. And, even though the abortion rate declined for all groups over the time period studied, rates remained higher among non-white women.

In other words, although abortion rates are steadily dropping, those decreases have been much higher among rich, white women than among low-income, minority women. From this perspective, McGill Johnson’s quote sounds almost eerie. The abortion-rights movement is, increasingly, an activist class of privileged women who don’t need abortion campaigning for women who often fall back on abortion out of a feeling of necessity.

But perhaps the most telling aspect of the piece is the fear gripping the pro-choice movement, riven as it is by factional conflict. “For years, abortion rights supporters like Ms. Wood believed the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling had delivered their ultimate goal, the right to reproductive choice,” the Times article says. “Now, they are grappling with a new reality: Nationwide access to abortion is more vulnerable than it has been in decades.”

Whether or not this panicked tone is merited given the state of play, the disarray on display in the article illustrates a significant point. The Left is frightened about the future of abortion rights because its entire policy framework depends on the courts.

This is what a movement looks like when its preferences are cemented in place by a judicial decision rather than by legislative action informed by the will of the people. Despite what the justices hoped, Roe didn’t settle the abortion question, and now pro-choice advocates are wrestling with the consequences of having gotten their way without putting in the work.

This is why abortion advocates parrot the misleading statistic that seven in ten Americans support Roe, ignoring the fact that a significant number of people don’t even know Roe was about abortion — and ignoring the irony of touting democratic support for an anti-democratic ruling that removed the issue from the hands of voters.

Advocates of unlimited, taxpayer-funded access to abortion can read the polls just as well as pro-life Americans can: They do not have legislative support for the policies they desire. This is why Planned Parenthood, the Center for Reproductive Rights, and the inaptly titled American Civil Liberties Union swoop in to sue states that try to limit abortion in any capacity, even opposing laws as innocuous as those requiring abortionists to maintain admitting privileges at a local hospital in case of emergency.

As an increasing number of states attempt to pass laws protecting unborn human life — and as Trump and the Senate line the courts, including the high court, with judges who rightly view Roe as a constitutional travesty — those who favor the status quo are afraid. Abortion supporters have never had to establish their agenda democratically. If abortion became a matter for the people to decide via their representatives, not only would voters most likely reject the preferences of the Left, but also, if the Times piece is any indication, their movement wouldn’t be coherent enough to change voters’ minds.


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