There has been much talk recently about the war on women, and for good reason — the onslaught of anti-choice legislation authored, sponsored, and voted into law by the far right this past year. But it's important to recognize that the GOP does not have a monopoly on anti-woman policy. We need keep a close eye on our Democratic legislators as well, and hold them accountable when they vote against women's health.
In Michigan, Democratic Senator Gretchen Whitmer issued a firm statement against HB 5711, 5712, and 5713 — the now-combined anti-abortion "super-bill" that passed through House committee last Thursday:
"I have no doubt there are a few extremists within the Republican party that actually believe this horrific legislation is a good idea, but the reality is, this legislation wasn't brought up in committee to get it passed into law, it was brought up so that Republicans could play politics with our bodies and our health once more before they leave town for the summer. With elections looming in front of them, Republicans in the House of Representatives wanted to take one more vote to pander to their special interests, one more vote that will guarantee them a coveted endorsement and one more vote that will earn them a fundraiser hosted in their honor. Make no mistake, this vote is not about setting public policy, it was election year politicking at its most vile.
The fact that the majority of these Republicans aren't sincere in their attack on women's health doesn't make their vote any better. In fact, it makes it worse. It means that they are willing to put politics ahead of all else and election year strategy ahead of real leadership, even when it comes at the expense of women throughout Michigan. Their actions send a message that a woman's access to healthcare and our ability to make critically important decisions for our own well-being are little more than political bargaining chips that can be cashed in for favors come election time."
Whitmer is not entirely accurate, however, in characterizing this legislation as a strictly partisan issue. Though only one of the seven Democrats on the health policy committee — Lesia Liss —voted for the "super-bill," even one Democratic yes-vote is enough to disrupt the notion that all Democrats are necessarily in support of reproductive rights. My own Democratic Representative, Richard LeBlanc, is a consistent anti-choice voter. When I contacted him via e-mail to request that he vote against the "super-bill," he replied that while he "values my opinion," he would be voting in support of this extreme and dangerous legislation.
When the hypocritical anti-coercion legislation—HB 4799—was up for vote by the full house last month, 9 of the House's 47 Democrats voted in favor of the bill (though one of the 9 has since switched to the Republican party); numbers were similar when Michigan passed a ban on so-called "partial birth abortions" last year. These numbers might seem too small to be significant; the Republicans control both the House and Senate by a large enough margin to pass this legislation even without any Democratic support at all. But if Democrats do manage to take a majority of Michigan seats in November, it will likely be a small minority. In that case, just a few anti-choice Democrats could be enough to tip the scales. And in fact, Michigan has a history of passing anti-choice legislation even with Democrats in power. Prior to 2010—when Republicans took control of both the House and the Governor's seat, in addition to the already GOP-controlled Senate—NARAL already gave Michigan a grade of F for abortion access, largely due to restrictions which Democratic Governors failed to veto. In 2006, Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm signed a package of "informed consent" restrictions into law, mandating, among other things, that women receive information about fetal development 24 hours in advance of obtaining an abortion, and that they be told abortion may cause guilt and depression. Going further back, it was another former Democratic Governor, James Blanchard, who signed Michigan's parental notification requirement into law.
Even nominally "pro-choice" Democrats are often far too willing to make concessions with regard to reproductive freedom. Bill Clinton popularized the phrase that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare," a sentiment that has been taken up by many Democrats, including President Obama. The very notion that we are we trying to make abortion as "rare" as possible, however, treats abortion as a necessary evil, rather than simply affirming it as a vital part of women's health care. And this mentality opens the door to all manner of restrictions and regulations. If our goal is for abortion to be rare, then there is nothing wrong with discouraging it or making it more difficult to come by, so long as it remains—at least technically—legal. But "legal" means very little if abortions are nearly impossible to come by, which could soon be reality in Michigan. And we need representatives who will not just pay lip service to upholding Roe v. Wade, but who will actively work to defend abortion access.
In light of the "super-bill," many concerned Michigan citizens are talking about the need to regain Democratic control of the state. And it is certainly true that we will at least be in a better position under Democratic leadership. But it would be naïve to simply trust that Democrats will necessarily support reproductive choice. If anything, it is the Democrats we need to keep the pressure on most strongly; with the entire Republican party against us, women cannot afford even a handful of Democrats in office who will turn their backs on us. Opponents of HB 5711 have taken up the rallying cry that "we will remember in November." But that statement must hold true for all our legislators, not only the Republicans. Women's lives and health are at stake, and we cannot allow our bodies to be the ground on which compromise is made.