One of the consequences of the creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party has been the steady erosion of reproductive rights and access to reproductive health care for women, especially abortion care.  

Two items in the news underscore the situation. A special issue of Conscience  magazine questions whether the Obama administration’s policies can be considered prochoice.  And an article in the Los Angeles Times, outlining the current “torrent” of draconian antiabortion legislation being proposed, and sometimes enacted in the states.  The latter is, of course, but an indicator of the still-cresting wave of state level anti-abortion public policy work in the generation since the Casey decision of the Supreme Court, which allowed considerable, medically unnecessary, state regulation of access to abortion care.

Journalist Jodie Jacobson, writing in Conscience, reviews the highlights of Obama’s prochoice 2008 campaign stances and his record so far as president and concludes,

“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.”

None of this will surprise those who have been following Democratic Party’s dubious “faith outreach” schemes — which have sought to attract antiabortion Catholics and evangelicals,  while mostly ignoring, and marginalizing the prochoice religious community. In terms of policy, this has also led to what could be generously described as inattention to the steady decline in access to abortion services in most of the country.

Towards this end, we have seen a down playing of the so-called “culture wars” to the point of claiming, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the Religious Right is dead or dying, and that the culture wars themselves are over or just about.  This has been accompanied by calls by political consultants for eliding the phrase separation of church and state from the vocabulary of Democratic candidates for federal office because it is not in the Constitution; and even unsupported claims by some faith leaders and even candidate Obama that “secularists” are driving religious people from public life.  

All this is part of the context of the way the antiabortion term and elements of the agenda of “abortion reduction” have emerged in the Democratic Party.  In 2006, for example, a Party faith outreach consultant Eric Sapp, declared at an event sponsored by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life:  

On abortion you are seeing a shift within the Democratic Party in the way they’re talking about the issue. Talking about abortion reduction is a very effective political step, but it also moves the discussion forward; it wasn’t just talk. In the House two different legislative packages were proposed that would have truly targeted many of the core causes of abortion. It would not completely end abortion, but it would do a whole lot better than we’re doing right now.


More recently, a staffer at the liberal Washington, DC think tank Faith in Public Life claimed that the Democratic Party platform and candidate Barack Obama in his 2008 Party convention speech specifically supported “abortion reduction,” when in fact, neither was the case. The candidate and the Party promised something much different.  

Nevertheless, it has come to pass that the ostensibly prochoice Democratic Party and its prochoice Democratic president has failed to lead on abortion, while seeking to find common ground with a movement that was not interested. This should surprise no one, since the very public, public policy agenda of the antiabortion movement has been to erode access to the procedure under the rubric of abortion reduction primarily via state laws and regulations, but obviously in tandem with aggressive street level protests; harassment of patients and staff; and all in the context of violence and threats of violence.

Melanie Zurek, executive director of the Abortion Access Project told me in 2009, that while there were many proposals in play at the time regarding federal health care reform, none of them included expanding access to abortion services, which are actually unavailable in most counties in the U.S.  I wrote that the common ground agenda being promoted by elements of the Democratic Party at the time

“… required turning a blind eye to the reality that access to abortion care in the U.S. is receding, and that their approach mainstreams a fundamental concept of anti-abortion strategy and related terminology. They did this by recasting contraception and sex education as if their primary purpose was to achieve the goal of reducing the number of abortions.”

Little has changed since then, except that it is now crystal clear that the antiabortion forces, (with a very few exceptions), never bought the idea that sexuality education and contraception were legitimate ways to reduce the need for abortion.  And that is one of the core problems with the common ground initiative.  There was little common ground to actually be found, as a quarter century of previous common ground discussions had shown.

Rev. Debra Haffner of the Religious Institute wrote at the Huffington Post in 2009,  

“Abortion reduction” is promoted by those who support restricting abortion access, through such measures as parental notification, waiting periods and mandatory sonogram laws, or by making it illegal outright. No true progressive would advocate any strategy to make abortion services more difficult to obtain. For progressives, reducing the need for abortion means comprehensive sexuality education, family planning and contraceptive services to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy. Yet conservatives insist on abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and argue that many common means of contraception are abortifacients.

… I have fought for sexual justice my entire life. It is a progressive value I hold dear. So I say to my colleagues across the religious spectrum: Join me in supporting sexual justice, or stop calling yourself progressive.

Since then, the erosion of access has continued and the abortion reduction advocates have continued to call themselves progressive.

This week, The Los Angeles Times, reported on state level antiabortion legislation:

Few initiatives are aimed at expanding access to reproductive health services, the institute said.) Fifteen of the bills introduced this year have been enacted into law, and more than 120 others have been approved by at least one legislative chamber.

We are always monitoring a huge number of anti-choice laws,” said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which challenges antiabortion laws. “But what we are seeing this year is some of the most extreme restrictions, and they are passing at a rather sharp clip.”

That is probably because of several factors, including the prominence of the abortion issue in last year’s health care debate, as well as gains by Republicans, both at the state and national level, in November’s election, advocates on both sides say.

For her part, Jodi Jacobson highlights Obama’s failure as president to lead on reproductive rights and details for example, how candidate Obama was against the Hyde Amendment before he embraced it as president — and even signed an executive order to underscore the banning of all federal funds from providing abortion care, as part of the deal to get his health care bill passed.  If this were not enough, Jacobson adds:  

“… his administration then went a step further.  In May of last year, abortion restrictions were applied to high risk insurance pools, the very sources of health insurance for women most likely to need coverage for abortion care due to chronic or terminal illness.

Rather than including contraception as part of the original package of preventive care required to be covered under health reform, the administration punted leaving this issue a panel that won’t deliver its decision until August.  This action effectively raises questions about whether or not contraception is preventive care, gives time to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops to frame the debate in misleading terms and, finally, leaves the issue to be decided during the heat of the 2012 election campaign.”


Indeed, in recent months we have seen an escalating effort to prevent family planning grants and contracts at all levels of government from going to Planned Parenthood; even though  Planned Parenthood affiliates all are already barred from spending federal funds on abortion, and many affiliates do not even provide abortions.

This underscores something that often gets lost in the back and forth about politics and policy: This is not now, nor has it ever been only about abortion and contraception. The Religious Right is determined to degrade Planned Parenthood’s institutional capacity and abuse its excellent public image because it is the institutional symbol of women’s reproductive freedom.  The prevailing reduction narrative about abortion policy tends to obscure this while nothing at all is said, let alone done, about access.

Last year, Chip Berlet published an excellent essay on the state of the political realignment in the Party that has led to this situation. But let’s make no mistake, the adoption of elements of Religious Right thought in the Democratic Party is leading to elements of Religious Right outcomes.

[Crossposted from Talk to Action]

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About the Author

Frederick Clarkson

Frederick Clarkson is an independent journalist, author and editor who has written about politics and religion for thirty years. He is the co-founder of the group blog Talk to Action, Senior Fellow at Political Research Associates, and lives in Massachusetts.

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