It was the exchange that reproductive and sexual health advocates had been waiting for.
Finally, a discussion about women’s health. This isn’t "special interest" we’re talking about. It’s a bit tiring to hear over and over again that my life and my body are so controversial that presidential candidates need to fight over them every time the discussion is broached.
So, I held tight and waited when abortion was introduced into the debate last night. I waited for the same old argument. The tired lines about pro-choice vs. pro-life. I waited for the requisite line about how important it is to have a "culture of life" in this country and how both candidates stand up for the lives of the unborn.
I didn’t hear that. I didn’t hear it because the argument has changed. And it’s thrilling. Instead of the meaningless "life" rhetoric and the tired anti-choice frames that lift the discussion away from women’s health and lives and away from women’s and families’ medical decision making power, we heard the phrases and frames that reproductive and sexual health advocates have been promoting for years.
Regardless of whether or not you felt that Senator McCain was unbearably out of touch on the issue, he used the word "decision" when referring to women faced with an unintended pregnancy and did not fall back on the word "choice" – a frame that, for many reproductive health advocates and providers, has never captured the situation well. Women have the right to make private decisions about their health and lives – it’s more than choice.
McCain: And it’s got to be courage and compassion that we show to a young woman who’s facing this terribly difficult decision.
Do you notice what else he did in that sentence? He focused squarely on the woman. Subtle, maybe. But words matter. McCain himself brought that up a few times last night when attempting to criticize Senator Obama for his "eloquence."
Words do matter. And Senator Obama’s words were even more astounding:
Obama: “We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby.”
Senator Obama’s choice of frames — "prevent unintended pregnancies," "appropriate education," "communication," "providing options," and "helping single mothers" — were made all the more powerful because this is exactly where the majority of Americans wishes the focus to be. There is no public benefit to an endless back and forth about the morality of women’s reproductive health decisions — when millions of women are faced with unintended pregnancies, lack of access to proper family planning, when our young people are desperate for clear guidance and education about their sexual health and sexual decision making and when we face public health epidemics like HIV and aren’t addressing the root causes of any of these critical issues.
Senator McCain’s obvious frustration over women’s constitutional right to access abortion if their lives are endangered through the pregnancy may have been the most telling of all.
McCain belittled the allowance in Roe v. Wade for a late term abortion during a health crisis for women by saying:
MCCAIN: Just again, the example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. He’s health for the mother. You know, that’s been stretched by the pro-abortion movement in America to mean almost anything.
That’s the extreme pro-abortion position, quote, “health.”
Senator McCain’s opposition to Roe v. Wade is no secret. He and his running mate support overturning Roe v. Wade, as they both oppose legal abortion in the United States. But since Roe v. Wade has provided millions of women in this country the opportunity to exercise some control over their reproductive health – and this is never more important than in the face of a crisis pregnancy – it’s worth dissecting McCain’s apparent disgust with allowing women’s "health" to remain a crucial factor in decisions about abortion.
As Vicki Saporta, writing on RH Reality Check, explains:
While the majority of women choose abortion care early in their pregnancies (89% of all abortions in the United States are obtained within the first 12 weeks – PDF), there are cases where a woman may need to obtain a later abortion in order to protect her life or preserve her health, including her mental health. Contrary to the speculation of some abortion opponents, a woman does not obtain a later abortion simply because she’s "having a bad day." These cases often involve severe fetal anomalies that can cause great emotional distress and be devastating to a woman’s psychological health.
As Emily notes, pundits across the airwaves and internet "tubes" were shocked:
"In a race in which millions of dollars have been spent for the votes of American women, McCain managed..to mock…the notion that late-term abortions should be allowed in cases where a mother’s health is threatened," the LA Times’s Cathleen Decker wrote after last night’s presidential debates.
Chris Matthews said:
You can’t belittle the health exception with regard to abortion. You can’t say the exception is ‘only her possible death.’
But if justifications for the health exception, pundits’ reactions to the importance of acknowledging how crucial a health exception is to women voters, and the actual law of the land are not enough to convince the anti-choice movement and Senator McCain of the medical and public consensus that later term abortions are defensible when a woman’s life is in danger, maybe women’s real life stories about their most personal and private experiences will do the trick?
Susan Ito’s decisions were her own to make but it was by no means easy. And Susan’s story is heartbreaking. Would it have been made any easier if she had not been giving the "option" of living by Senator McCain or the anti-choice movement?
I was toxemic, poisoned by pregnancy. My only cure was to not be pregnant anymore. The baby needed two more weeks, just fourteen days.
I looked at John hopefully. "I can wait. It will be all right."
"Honey. Your blood pressure is through the roof. Your kidneys are shutting down. You are on the verge of having a stroke."
I actually smiled at him. I actually said that having a stroke at twenty-nine would not be a big deal. I was a physical therapist; I knew about rehab. I could rehabilitate myself. I could walk with a cane. Lots of people do it. I had a bizarre image of leaning on the baby’s carriage, supporting myself the way elderly people use a walker.
We struggled through the night. "I’m not going to lose this baby," I said.
As William Saletan writes in Slate today, the old arguments are losing ground:
Look at the home page of the National Right to Life Committee, and you’ll see the kind of character-focused, us-or-them rhetoric that has pervaded the McCain campaign and the pro-life movement.
It’s hard to claim that one’s ideology is grounded in care and concern for public and individual good when women’s health is tossed aside as if it were nothing more than garbage.
Senator McCain’s reaction was not surprising, ultimately. It was simply revealing. Valuing women’s health and lives is not political posturing. Openly mocking an allowance for women to terminate a pregnancy in crisis or extreme situations if her health is in danger is. The anti-choice movement has fueled this. Stuck in rigid, reactive and retro ways, the anti-choice movement’s agenda was exposed last night. The balance that Roe v. Wade affords is something they are not at all interested in. There is no balance in this agenda – the value of women’s lives and health will never measure up to their desire to ensure that women are disavowed of their ability to make personal and private decisions about their own bodies.
William Saletan’s acknowledgment that Senator Obama’s focus last night on the "boring," technical aspects of the abortion discussion is ultimately better for this country is right. The real focus of the abortion discussion – on health access and need, information and education – are not controversial issues. Respect for private medical decision making and strong prevention strategies, coupled with a focus on access to health care are hard to debate. Apparently ensuring that women’s health is taken into account when discussing abortion access is not.