Mary Rolfes: Make reproductive rights non-partisan ... again

Wednesday, February 12, 2020 - 2:14pm

Speaking to my own experience of President Donald Trump’s election, the aptest way I can describe the event is surreal. In the moment, it was as if we’d had the collective wind knocked out of us and were all trying to catch our breath. But once that breath was found, not a moment was wasted in using it to speak as survival plans for the next four years were laid out. For many folks with uteruses, reproductive health was a primary concern. Facing uncertainty about the future of insurance coverage and the right to choose, people took to the internet to seek and share suggestions for adapted birth control solutions. A popular recommendation was to get an intrauterine device (IUD), a method which can last for up to 12 years — outlasting even an eight-year administration. This advice was not taken for granted, with a 2019 JAMA Internal Medicine study finding the demand for IUDs and other long-lasting birth control increased after the 2016 election.

While this demonstration of outreach and agency is inspiring, its necessity is somewhat absurd. Of course, there is a lot that’s absurd about Trump’s presidency. What began as a laughable candidacy rode a wave of manipulation, divisiveness and those notorious red “Make America Great Again” hats all the way to the Oval Office, taking Trump from a reality TV host to the president-elect in just over a year. But this need for a heightened fight for bodily autonomy seems especially unexpected when considering Trump’s past positions on the right to choose. In a 1999 interview he claimed to be “pro-choice in every respect,” a sharp contrast to his current status as the most pro-life president ever, according to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway. The changes he made to Title X, which caused the withdrawal of Planned Parenthood from the program, support this claim. But regardless of how genuine — or agreeable — this change in opinion is, it’s, in theory, the objectively strategic move. How could anyone hope to earn the Republican nomination without an anti-choice approach, considering the Republican Party’s definitively conservative stance on reproductive rights?

Actually, this stance is not as definitive as many may think. At present, reproductive rights, including access to birth control and abortion, are seen as a highly partisan issue. According to a Gallup poll, the proportion of Democrats who support legal abortion in all cases has risen distinctly in the past three decades while Republican support has gone down. For the stance of illegal abortion in all cases, the trends are reversed, with Democratic support decreasing and Republican support going up. But most significantly, these polls show how similar the proportions of Democratic and Republican support are to one another across all three circumstances — legality, limited legality and illegality — in 1975. In fact, in the first and last case, Republican and Democrat support differ by just one percent. So, what happened? When did party opinions divide? Why do they stay that way, and what can be done to change it?

Uncovering the answers to these questions is imperative in the advancement of health equity and bodily autonomy. Reproductive justice is a human rights issue — it should not be a political strategy. Legislation and accessibility should not be decided by strict partisan lines, but through consideration, compassion and critical thinking. And there should not be talk of strategic birth control survival every time a Republican takes the presidential oath.

The history of birth control is a complicated one, woven with threads of politics, overpopulation concerns and a dash of the American Dream. There is not a precise split resulting in a partisan approach to reproductive justice, but Harvard University professor Jill Lepore points out a moment when it began to fray in her 2011 historical chronicle of reproductive rights in The New Yorker. Abridging this history a bit, let’s begin with Dwight Eisenhower. As a Republican president in 1959, Eisenhower claimed the funding of Planned Parenthood and family planning at large was not a public concern. But in 1965, with overpopulation concerns rising, he reversed his position, even co-chairing a Planned Parenthood committee. A few years later, U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush and President Richard Nixon, both Republicans, pushed for public family planning, in terms of visibility and funding. As president, Nixon would go on to sign Title X in 1970, a federal grant dedicated to the provision of widely accessible family planning services.

This point, however, is where the non-partisan support for family planning hits a snag. Preparing for the election of 1972, Nixon hoped to court Catholic voters and to divide the Democratic Party. His advisors urged him to reconsider his stance on abortion, a strategic move that would accomplish both objectives. Ultimately he listened, reversing his position on Title X, utilizing the Catholic rhetoric of the sanctity of life. And he won in 1972, leaving a divide in the Democratic Party.

The origin of the partisan fight over reproductive rights is not some ideological imperative — it’s a matter of campaign strategy. As Lepore puts it, “abortion wasn’t a partisan issue until Republicans made it one.” The legacy of this divisive move was not solidified until the late 1980s, with First Lady Betty Ford, Vice President Nelson Rockefeller and President Ronald Reagan all demonstrating inconsistencies in the Republican stance on abortion. But today, the effect is clear: The Republican Party at large stands firmly against abortion, while refusing for the most part to support better birth control accessibility, improved sex education or address the social structures which reproduce socioeconomic inequality and drive the desire for abortions in the first place.

American history makes it clear that reproductive rights do not have to be a partisan issue — and if we hope to advance them, they shouldn’t be. Moreover, the right to not have children should be incorporated into the larger, intersectional framework of reproductive justice, which also includes the rights to have children and to raise them with dignity. According to Nixon, “no American woman should be denied access to family planning assistance because of her economic condition.” The right to plan a family — whether or not that plan includes children — is a fundamental one, regardless of not only economic class, but of race, gender identity, sexual orientation and even marital status.

The Trump administration continues to threaten this right through stricter Title X regulations, attempts to slash the Affordable Care Act and a plan to gut Roe v. Wade. In this era of oppression and control, it’s clear the increasingly partisan divide on family planning is on a dangerous trajectory, jeopardizing the accessibility of reproductive rights and dismantling hope for a future of total reproductive justice and equality. We need to advocate for a collaborative approach to reproductive justice that is not based on Republicans or Democrats, but on mutual dedication to freedom and liberty. Together, we will make reproductive rights non-partisan again. Oh, by the way — if we make any merchandise, can we instead go for a colorless gaudy than imperial red? It just clashes with everything.

Mary Rolfes can be reached at