Under Siege, Abortion-Rights Advocates Must Link Health Care to Economic Prosperity

(Photo: Leah Hogsten/The Salt Lake Tribune via AP)

Brandi Jensen, center, speaks with an anti-abortion protester at a community rally hosted by the Planned Parenthood Action Council in Salt Lake City on August, 25, 2015.

Anti-abortion advocates are rejoicing in the wake of Donald Trump’s election. In their view, Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that upheld a woman constitutional right to abortion and that barred states from banning the procedure in the first trimester, was on the ballot. In the words of the National Right to Life Committee’s Dave Andrusko: “The pro-life side—the defenders of unborn babies—won.”

Roe v. Wade could be on the chopping block, as could Doe v. Bolton, the Supreme Court case that defined viability as the potential for a fetus to live outside of the womb. As Students for Life President Kristan Hawkins told supporters in an email, “It’s now very easy to imagine a day when Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton will be overturned, and when Planned Parenthood, our nation’s abortion Goliath, will be defunded of half a billion dollars in taxpayer money.”

This is not hyperbole. If Trump’s promises to overturn Roe become reality, proponents of safe and legal abortion will face a dramatically reconfigured political landscape. Overturning Roe would give state legislatures complete control over abortion legislation, and some states, such as Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota, and Texas would almost certainly outlaw the procedure entirely. Clinics and supporters of legal abortion are bracing for the fight of their lives. As Dr. Willie Parker, who chairs the board of Physicians for Reproductive Health, warned in a statement:

Roe v. Wade has been the law of the land for 43 years and is supported by the majority of Americans. As physicians, we know all too well the harm women face when they don’t receive the care they need. We have seen how unconstitutional laws that force women to travel to other states for abortion care make this care essentially unobtainable, and it would be unconscionable to erect even more stringent barriers. President-elect Trump’s attack on fundamental rights is unacceptable. We will continue fighting to ensure that our physicians can fulfill their deep, conscientious commitment to providing all women who need it with dignified, compassionate, and appropriate reproductive health care. Our position remains firm: politics should not trump medicine.

Abortion-rights advocates are right to worry. But to win the long game, the reproductive-rights movement’s leaders would be wise to look long and hard at why so many women voted for Trump. It’s easy to get distracted by the frantic tweets of middle-class white women voicing fears that they will lose low- to no-cost contraception and possibly access to IUDs during the Trump administration. But the 53 percent of white women who cast their votes for “The Donald” were less worried about birth control or abortion access than they were about jobs in America.

Female voters’ support for a candidate who had openly insulted women and admitted to sexually assaulting them surprised and baffled many Democrats. But for women facing economic hardship, Trump’s nostalgic rhetoric that seemed to celebrate a time when men were men, and took care of women, found an audience in the Rust Belt. A full 37 percent of mothers of children under 18 are not employed outside of the home, according to Gallup, and to the extent that the women backing Trump lacked college educations, they were more likely to both struggle economically and to identify themselves as politically independent. Gallup findings also show that 45 percent of stay-at-home moms identify as politically independent, compared with only 22 percent who say they are Republican and 30 percent who call themselves Democrats. For women at the lower end of the economic ladder, the notion that their husbands, at least, might themselves find jobs held strong appeal.

This makes sense given how much harder it’s been for women to find full-time work than men, even as female labor force participation has continued to rise. Women are more than twice as likely as men to be employed part-time, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. Many women are working part time not by choice, but by necessity. An institute report found that women work part-time because either it’s the only option available to them or because their hours have been cut. These women, like all part-time workers, are far less likely to enjoy such benefits as paid vacation days, paid family or medical leave, paid sick days, health insurance, or employer retirement contributions.

Women also make less money than men. While this isn’t news, the tremendous variance of the wage gap across states may be. In fact, the swing states where Trump narrowly won (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), as well as many of the states that consistently go red, report large gender wage gaps. For example, women only earn 66.7 cents on the dollar compared with men in Louisiana—the worst earnings ratio in the entire country. According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, this wage gap won’t disappear anytime soon. Florida is projected to bridge the wage gap first, in 2038—22 years from now. Bridging the wage gap in all 50 states will take even longer. Wyoming, which is projected to be the last state that will bridge the wage gap, is not expected to do so until 2059.

This makes it easier to understand why so many white women voted for a candidate promising to “make America great again,” and improve the wages of their breadwinning husbands. This message was less appealing to women in higher income brackets who voted for Hillary Clinton; women who have a shot at competing with men in the marketplace, and who therefore tend to rally behind politicians and policies promoting work-family balance and the protection of reproductive rights.

Almost since its inception, the women’s movement—and to some degree the reproductive-rights movement at its core—has faced charges of elitism. Fairly or not, critics have faulted the movement for speaking to well-educated, upper-middle-class white women, and leaving everyone else behind. For abortion-rights advocates who now see their most important victories under threat, this election should be a wake-up call. It is clear that reproductive-rights advocates need to do a better job of getting outside of their political silos and talking to the citizens in the suburban and rural areas whom they want to win over.

Advocates of reproductive rights are well positioned to make a strong case to American women across income, education, and geographical divides. Their winning message: There is a direct correlation between safe, accessible reproductive health services and women’s economic prosperity. In this election, too many women failed to connect the dots between their reproductive rights and economic security. It’s up to abortion-rights advocates to do a better job speaking to all women about why both their constitutional rights and their economic futures are now at stake. 

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