Pro-Life Women, Voting Dilemma

Just what does it mean to be "pro-life"?

Melinda Henneberger has a fascinating piece in Slate today examining the pro-life female voters – both Democrat and Republican – for whom abortion will not be the deciding issue in their vote for a presidential candidate this year. 

Henneberger writes of one woman she interviewed who puts it philosophically:

These days, just the mention of abortion or gay marriage by a politician makes her want to scream: In the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Depression, she says, "I don’t want to hear about questions for which there are no answers."

Sure, on the face of it, it seems logical enough. We’re in the midst of one of this country’s worst economic environments in the lives of most all Americans and we’re still, as a nation, figuring out how to extricate ourselves from Iraq, while saying good-bye to the president who led us in under false pretenses – a president who, according to MSNBC today, claims the lowest approval ratings for any in recorded history – lower even than Richard Nixon. Why then would women vote based on a presidential candidate’s position on abortion in times like these?

Well, President Bush surely has something to do with it. Henneberger writes about one pro-life woman who, though she is voting for McCain this time around, will not use abortion access as a wedge issue as she was coerced into doing by her church in the last election:

Two years ago, she told me she blamed her church for Bush’s election—and felt she’d been conned into voting for him: "It was the church’s fault … I talked to several priests and they all said, ‘There’s only one issue in this election.’ I said, ‘What about the poor, and Social Security?’ And they said, ‘There is only one issue.’ Oh, it was hard to push that button for Bush; I think I was just used, and that’s what really grinds me."

Now what she says is "I never did like George Bush, and he’s turned out to be a disaster I contributed to."

Another woman Henneberger spoke to said that "the last eight years have convinced her that abortion should be off the table for good" because she thinks that "Iraq will go down as the worst political decision of the century." This woman, in fact, has decided that she will not vote for either candidate – a feeling that likely many Americans share. Have anti-choicers been duped?

Henneberger spoke with a handful of women who consider themselves pro-life, who voted for George W. Bush in the last two elections, but who are either not voting for McCain this time around or who are voting for Obama. But these women have asked for anonymity in the article and in fact were scared to reveal themselves for fear of recrimination from their church leadership and fellow congregants. Henneberger reminds readers, as we have done many times here at RH Reality Check, that Doug Kmiec, a pro-life scholar, was denied communion after daring to announce his support for Barack Obama earlier this year. As well, there have been many voters this campaign season who are choosing a more critical approach to voting, unburdening themselves from single-issue voting

Henneberger interviews Marlene Turnbach, a pro-life Democrat, who has felt increasingly alienated by a Democratic party that she feels has "increasingly marginalized" her based on her perspective on abortion access. Turnbach, now, however is supporting Barack Obama:

Like others who told me they had based their vote on the single issue of abortion the last two times around, Turnbach’s says her ’08 calculus takes other matters—like the economy, the economy and the economy—into account: "McCain was on my nerves the other night, prancing around" at the debate in Nashville, she says, while Obama" strikes her as "level-headed, intelligent, and someone who doesn’t fly off the handle; I like him." Age is another strike against McCain in her view: "McCain is so old," says Turnbach, who is retired. "If he passed away, we’d have someone so inexperienced it’s scary…Most of her pro-life friends who went for Bush in 2000 and 2004 are also Obama grandmamas now, she says, including one who is really sweating the switch but "doesn’t think McCain is mentally stable."

The anti-abortion movement is not veering off message this time around-  it is pushing the same ideological perspectives it always has – strict adherence to criminalizing abortion, chipping away at Roe v. Wade via state laws that attempt to bestow full citizen’s rights onto a fetus, enacting barriers to women’s access to legal abortion services, distracting from the real issues of women’s health care through creation of bogus procedures like "partial birth abortion" and undermining women’s and family’s abilities’ to make private and personal decisions without government interference. 

And it’s not as if the anti-choice movement isn’t trying hard to rally that anti-choice base to vote against Senator Obama, who they see as extremely harmful to their cause. The National Right to Life Committee has thrown out charges of "infanticide",  accusing Obama of lying to cover up the fact that he supports infanticide. Jill Stanek, an activist and blogger who has worked tirelessly in service to the anti-choice mission, has pulled out stories of "abortion survivors" and attempted to unify anti-choice voters primarily using Obama’s votes on the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban and the Born Alive Infant Protection Act – but to little avail.

Even Sarah Palin, having likely been instructed to stop whipping supporters into a frenzy by linking Obama to Bill Ayers, has tried to fall back on abortion as a rallying cry, as Emily wrote about on this site. At a recent rally, Henneberger reports Palin as saying:

"In times like these with wars and financial crisis, I know that it may be easy to forget even as deep and abiding a concern as the right to life, and it seems that our opponent kind of hopes you will forget that."

But the cries seem to fall upon deaf ears. More and more pro-life supporters are just saying no.

It’s hard to justify, in the midst of a severe economic crisis, a vote solely based on what the anti-choice movement likes to call "life" but which most voters know affects a range of reproductive and sexual health issues for women, young people and their families. Ultimately, it seems that the anti-choice movement has some explaining to do. How is it that the anti-choice movement can raise and use hundreds of thousands of dollars to run television advertisements featuring a young woman who has "survived an abortion" while there are millions of children in this country without basic health insurance, unable to see a doctor or provider? How is that the anti-choice movement can justify working daily to restrict women’s access to basic reproductive health care services proven to lower the rate of unintended pregnancy – like contraception and family planning – while simultaneously attempting to restrict access to abortion? The "right to life" has resulted in a set of failed policies that target our young people, a distressing downturn in maternal health in this country, and severe disregard for how U.S. family planning funding impacts women’s lives and status worldwide. 

The anti-choice movement’s myopic focus, while families are struggling to feed their children, retain their homes, and keep their jobs, seems out of step and irrelevant.

However, let’s not forget that the anti-choice policies created and perpetuated by conservative, anti-choice presidents and politicians are not forgotten – even in times like these –  by the women and families most affected by these harsh policies. No matter what else is happening – through economic downturns and unjust wars, bailouts and unethical behavior – there are still and always will be women who cannot access legal abortion services, who are victims of health care providers who decide they are not deserving of emergency contraception after having been raped, who cannot get their family planning and contraceptive services covered by their health insurance, who rely on U.S. funding to international health centers for their birth control that can mean the difference between life and death or health and sickness. How can helping these women not be considered pro-life?

Whether pro-life women decide to take a break and eshew the vote for abortion in favor of a vote for a range of other issues, we’ll see. There certainly are more and more pro-life voters who are speaking out for a true and expanded vision of what is means to be pro-life. As one commenter on an Andrew Sullivan post puts it:

"For the record, I consider myself "pro-life" when it comes to abortion. But after eight years of Bush, I think it’s time to redefine what it means to be pro-life. Among other things, it should at the very least mean the following: To be pro-life is to be against unnecessary wars, and to be pro-life is to be against torture."


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  • invalid-0

    Let’s call the choice what it really is: killing innocent unborn babies. Well, you can’t have your sex and ignore your personal responsibilities too. Since when is one’s pocketbook (the economy) more important than an innocent human being. I would expect more from the so-called champions of human rights on the left.

  • invalid-0

    It’s not just the left that are seeing how the anti-choice movement simply isn’t relevant. You say that access to legal abortion is killing babies and so presumably you want it to be illegal. Which, I’m assuming, means you want to jail women and doctors. That is something that the majority of Americans simply don’t agree with. Criminalizing women (the majority of whom are mothers already) and physicians for making a personal and private decision – even if that decision does involve ending the potential life inside the woman – is something that Americans resoundingly disagree with.This is an extremely private decision – maybe the most personal decision one can make. As I’ve written before – to sever or sustain the potential life growing inside of a woman is a choice only that woman can make. And it’s a choice that women understand better than anyone – especially because most women who have abortions are already mothers. You can want to make that decision for her but you will never be able to  – no matter how many laws you create. This is something that the majority of Americans understand.

    Furthermore, as I wrote in the post, it is beyond my comprehension how a movement can spend millions of dollars in defense of a hollow concept they name "life" but which is more accurately termed "control", when millions of children live in substandard conditions in this country, without access to healthcare, when millions of women die or suffer extreme complications in pregnancy and childbirth (from treatable and preventable afflictions) in the United States (we rank 41st among developing nations for our maternal mortality rate), when we block access for women globally to family planning services that could literally save their lives, and when we KNOW that contraception prevents unintended pregnancies that lead to abortions – the "pro-life" movement blocks access to this as well.
    So, yes, you can continue to expect that the champions of human rights will continue to advocate for these and other issues. You can call it "choice" or "life" – but really it’s about ensuring that all people have access to the freedom, care and support they need to make the best decisions they can under the conditions in which they live. I think more Americans are becoming clear that this is what it’s about. Not a hollow call for "life" with absolutely nothing to back it up but harmful policies that hurt women, men and children alike.

    Amie Newman

    Managing Editor, RH Reality Check

  • invalid-0

    Your use of the words ‘unborn babies’ to refer to foetuses is semantic sleight of hand that you use to pretend that a 12 week old foetus (remember, over 99% of abortions are performed before 12 weeks) is exactly the same as a fully developed and born child.

    Regardless of ideology, banning abortion is just impractical. Women would still have them, there’s just a higher chance they will be unsafe and performed by someone without appropriate medical training. Supporting a ban on abortion is essentially supporting the maiming and death of women, and it’s really dishonest to call that ‘pro-life’. Voting for someone (McCain) who sings and jokes about bombing other countries isn’t particularly ‘pro-life’, either. What about Iraqi, Afghani and Iranian foetuses?

  • invalid-0

    But that’s what it is about Control. I have tried to work across the aisle recently and with local churches in WV and I have grown very disappointed with what I am seeing and the reactions I am getting from them. Sarah Palin has done her job it looks like in keeping the culture wars alive and well at least here in WV. I believe personally that’s why she was chosen in some part. My friends and I here have created a group called WV Feminists and we are trying to help get a Planned P built in this area so that women won’t have to travel to MD to get services for their reproductive healthcare. It’s slow going. We also try to get local churches who consider themselves prochoice to help in the cause and even those who aren’t to at least consider that comp sex ed and preventative services would do the community a world of good. I mean this area of WV has only one prochoice obgyn and that’s in one of our bigger cities. But what we were met with from some of these churches was intolerance, out right hatred and a seemingly want to control women. Some of the people my girlfriends and I talked to seemed to get an almost perverse joy of wanting women in jail with their doctors. I was stunned. One woman wouldn’t touch us due to us burning in hell or something it was ridiculous. I have really done some thinking and wondered why this people have such a control issue with women’s repro health? That question still haunts me but I think I have almost figured it out from what one man yelled at me when we were leaving “getta outta here you educated liberal whore.” Is it possible that some of these people just resent the fact that I have an education and control of my circumstances in life and they feel powerless in their own lives to the point of wanting to control a minority? I mean we have seen it before in the 60s with the African Americans and now with the homosexual culture, why not women? I don’t know it is all speculation since they won’t honestly talk to me but it would make sense why some people will still vote for these culture wars. But I am hopeful that even with Sarah and John’s hemming and hawing of abortion, people will still remember we have larger fish to fry in the years to come like the economy and the war. Peace to all, Liz.

  • invalid-0

    Call me shallow, but I am a single issue voter. Women’s right to choose, available health care, and accurate, comprehensive sex education (all of this falls in one category) is the most important issue in my book–especially when there are possible seats in the supreme court up for grabs. I know personally the consequences of illegal abortions. Let’s all hope & pray that women never have to resort to those tactics again….

  • invalid-0

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  • invalid-0

    Right on, mlpk. I can’t believe all the women who jumped on you for your pro life position. You have my support.