Early in the first year of Donald Trump’s bedlam tour of Washington D.C., the Democratic Party spent a good deal of time yelling at itself. How in the name of tub-thumping Christ did we lose to this clown? Recriminations flew, but by springtime, blame for the defeat had lighted upon a truly strange perch.
“Nancy Pelosi Says Democrats’ Focus on Abortion Access Is Hurting the Party,” declared the New York Magazine headline on May 3, 2017. “Earlier this month,” read the article,
Senator Bernie Sanders and DNC head Tom Perez gave a “unity tour,” during which they suggested abortion rights were a disposable part of Democratic ideology — later, Sanders added that stumping for anti-choice candidates is the kind of thing Democrats need to do “if we’re going to become a 50-state party.” And on Tuesday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi added to that, telling the Washington Post that the party should be open to anti-choice candidates.
House Speaker Pelosi went further, arguing that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lost because of the Democrats’ focus on “social issues” like abortion and marriage rights. “You know what?” she said. “That’s why Donald Trump is president of the United States — the evangelicals and the Catholics, anti-marriage equality, anti-choice. That’s how he got to be president. Everything was trumped, literally and figuratively by that.”
Clinton lost because of abortion? That’s the best explanation Pelosi could offer?
Five years later almost to the day, and the nation is still encompassing the looming demise of Roe v. Wade, the right to choose an abortion that has been on the books for 50 years. The leak of Justice Samuel Alito’s harrowing draft decision in Dobbs. v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is the political version of a thermonuclear explosion, and Democratic officeholders today are blinking at the mushroom cloud as it screams into the sky, wondering how such a thing could have come to pass.
Not all Democrats, of course. A moment to take advantage of disaster is at hand, it seems. “But in what otherwise looks to be a difficult year for Democrats,” reports The New York Times, “party strategists see the looming rollback of reproductive rights as an opportunity to galvanize key voting blocs, limit Republican gains and perhaps even pick up seats in certain states. ‘We don’t know exactly what the political environment will be,’ said Jessica Post, the president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which helps Democratic candidates for state legislature. ‘But abortion has the potential to be a game-changing issue.’”
Nice to see some excitement in a party that has been down in the doldrums since electing a center-right vanilla wafer whose version of soaring, motivational rhetoric involves multiple usages of “C’mon, man!” in his speeches. President Joe Biden’s own track record on abortion rights is sketchy at best; until very recently, Biden stridently supported the Hyde Amendment’s ban on using federal funds for abortions. That ban, in place since 1980, was only recently lifted in Biden’s latest budget proposal, but it had his active support over all the years he served in the Senate.
Those years, and particularly the decade of the 1980s, was the span when opposition to abortion became part of the lifeblood of the GOP base. Once former President Ronald Reagan embraced televangelist Jerry Falwell and the evangelical Moral Majority’s “holy” quest to obliterate Roe, there was no mistaking their intent. And all of a sudden the argument was everywhere. I vividly recall hearing fellow students argue over abortion in the halls of my high school during Reagan’s second term.
The media — TV, newspapers and radio — was the main battlefield where this war was fought, but it was not the only battlefield. Out where the activists live, a new kind of campaign began to reveal itself in the very shadow of the facilities abortion seekers visited to avail themselves of their rights.
The Planned Parenthood on Commonwealth Avenue in Brookline, Massachusetts looks like something architect Frank Lloyd Wright might have constructed had he ever gotten into building fortresses. Large, windowless, with decorative touches swirling over the front façade, the dominant feature is the main door.
The door is all business, steel reinforced and opened remotely from within by an armed security guard, and leads to a small box and another door, also opened from within. The door is there, and is how it is because a man named John Salvi passed through a lesser version of that door with a rifle in 1994 and murdered receptionist Shannon Lowney. After fleeing the scene, Salvi murdered receptionist Lee Ann Nichols at the offices of Preterm Health Services on Beacon Street. They put the door in afterward, and now, you’re not getting in unless the guard clears you.
A dozen years after Salvi’s rampage, I found myself at that Planned Parenthood (PP) as escort for a friend. My friend was not there for an abortion; like millions of low-income women lacking health insurance, she depended on PP for basic gynecological care. PP always came through, charging for services on a sliding scale to remain affordable. Despite what the shouters have to say, this is the core of the medical practice at PP, the majority of what they do.
Had my friend been going to an appointment at Massachusetts General Hospital or Brigham & Women’s, no escort would have been necessary. To enter the Planned Parenthood in Brookline, however, required one to run one of the more disturbing gauntlets in modern society in the United States.
There at the big steel door, every day, rain hail or shine, like Salvi’s own ghost, would be two or three people holding anti-choice signs and chanting, “Praise God… praise God… praise God…” While legally prohibited from barring entrance to the facility, these protesters nonetheless managed to make themselves menacing enough to drive some care seekers away.
When my friend got out of the car, the two protesters shuffled toward her, eyes like fish stuck in a bucket, and they were on her by the time I got around to her side of the car. Hands with spindled pamphlets reached out as the one on the left droned, “Praise God,” while the one on the right launched into a spittle-flecked diatribe — “It’s your baby, don’t you want to save your baby? Don’t kill your baby. It’s a baby. Don’t you want to save your baby?” — until I got between them and made for the door.
I actually tried to reason with the second one, if you can believe it. “She’s here for a pelvic exam,” I said, as if she needed an excuse to be there at all. Of course, if she’d been there for an abortion, she would have had just as much of a right to access care unfettered. It was a fumbled moment on my part, and made no dent whatsoever in the rant, which only cut off with the KA-CHUNK of the metal door slamming closed between us. We composed ourselves in the box as the guard looked us over, and when the second door opened, we joined a room filled with people who had endured the same bullshit to get inside. Very little eye contact was made; it was a facility under siege, and the tension fairly hummed.
All across the country, every single day, protesters of this ilk array themselves at the entrances of reproductive care clinics. My friend got her exam that day, and when we left, the pair of protesters were still there, yelling, “Praise God.”
Not long after, PP called my friend. They had found, and removed, cancer cells from her cervix. This was something she would have to be on the watch for from now on because the cells could easily grow back, but for the time being, she was safe. That visit to the clinic saved her life.
If you had asked me about the standing of Roe 30 years ago, you’d have gotten a smug answer that tastes like ashes in my mouth today. Back then, the anti-Clinton mania had not overtaken the Republican Party, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was still two years away from pouring a barrel of poison into the well of public politics. The religious right was a force but only in certain sectors of the country, and the GOP had not devolved into an unruly mob that believes “pedophile” Democrats and “Hollywood elites” are running the country.
Indeed, it was a simpler time, and my answer on the safety of Roe was simplicity itself. Would the GOP ever actually allow that right to be overturned? Never in hell. Opposition to abortion had become the most important platform for the Republican base, and in particular the highly energized evangelical Christian wing of that base. Lose that, and the whole thing would unspool.
Abortion made them the most reliable voting bloc in the country; I used to say that if it were raining live jaguars on Election Day, the anti-choicers would head to the polls with cement umbrellas. A direct-mail flyer to the base with a picture of Hillary Clinton next to a fetus was good for $2 million in donations within 48 hours. They were the Energizer Bunny of constituencies and the establishment GOP knew it all too well. If the dog ever did manage to catch the car, what would become of the Republican Party? If that portion of the base declared victory and went home, the GOP wouldn’t win another national election in 100 years. I could not envision them risking that, and for a while, I was right.
That, as they say, was then. A different sort of writing has been encroaching on the walls over the last two decades, and it appears the Democrats were the last ones to see it. My belief is that a sea change overtook the GOP base after eight years of George W. Bush failed to result in any meaningful damage done to Roe. I strongly suspect that base came to realize how they were being used, and that Roe wasn’t going anywhere unless they took a more active hand in politics. They began taking over local Republican organizations and ran their own people.
It was Trump who gave them control of the party by taking it over and then letting them off the leash. This, in combination with the laser-like focus on the judiciary by elements of the anti-choice brigades and senators like Mitch McConnell, has brought us to this fraught crossroads.
None of the present crisis would be possible, however, without the intentional neglect exerted by the Democratic Party and its eternal blame game. Even today, you can hear Clinton people blaming Sen. Bernie Sanders for Justice Alito’s draft, and Sanders people blaming Clinton because the Democratic base expects more from a candidate than Republican Lite.
It didn’t take a weatherman to know Roe was in trouble, and yet the Democrats spent all these years staring at it like a deer pinned by oncoming headlights, relentlessly confident that five far right political hack Supreme Court justices wouldn’t finally do what the Republican Party has been vowing to do since the year after I was born.
They thought Roe was another third rail. Now that the GOP has grabbed it and lived to tell the tale, how many other third rails will that newly emboldened court reach for? Marriage? Contraception? The very notion of privacy?
But hey, at least the Democrats have something to run on for November, right?
That would be true if voters trust them to fight for a right their elected officials have taken for granted and now pissed away.
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