A guest post by Sarah.
On those rare occasions when I’ve had some money to burn I’ve donated to EMILY’s List, the PAC that works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, so their excessive election year mailers are more of a nuisance than a surprise. Last week I received one such mailer, with a list of candidates for various U.S. House and Senate races urging me to, “Give generously to at least two of these outstanding candidates.”
One of these names stuck out: Claire McCaskill. McCaskill is currently running for reelection to the Senate in the great state of Missouri. The reason her name stuck out to me is that, while yes, McCaskill is technically a Democrat (she frequently advocates positions that anathema to the party) I would call her nominally pro-choice at best. McCaskill has supported the congressional ban on so-called partial birth abortions, saying, “I believe that abortion should be safe, legaland rare in the early term.” She also believes in parental notification laws for minors seeking abortions. During the debate over the Affordable Care Act, she supported the Stupak-Pitts Amendment, only objecting to the Senate version because private insurance money would be kept from abortion coverage; she’s fine with Medicaid being prohibited from covering abortion. All of this is to say that I don’t believe Claire McCaskill to be pro-choice; I believe Claire McCaskill thinks abortion should be legal. But that leads to a bigger question: who gets to use the label pro-choice? And does the label even matter?
The phrase pro-choice is a loaded one and can mean different things to different people. It’s a term that imagines that all people have access to abortion, that anyone who wants to can choose to have an abortion. Obviously, this is not true and the work of the reproductive justice movement is to remove the barriers to exist. So, if someone doesn’t object to the legality of abortion but objects to the ways of making it accessible and affordable, can they really be considered pro-choice?
But does it really even matter how we use a label like pro-choice? Not always but particularly in political contexts they can useful. In 2008, Sarah Palin claimed the mantle of feminism, as did several female candidates she endorsed during the 2010 midterm elections, begging the question: could one advocate for policies like Palin’s and still be call themselves a feminist? While the comparison to Claire McCaskill calling herself pro-choice may not be exact, it’s similar. Words have meanings and when we allow them to mean everything, we risk them meaning nothing.
I recognize that pro-choice politicians and the reproductive justice movement are not the same thing; our government is designed with the need for compromise baked right in, while the repro justice movement can advocate for its more specific goals. While goals may intersect from time to time, the parties operate differently. But there is no need for them to be working at cross-purposes.
Obviously, it is better to elect people who think abortion should be legal than people who people who believe it should be criminalized. However, ultimately I think it does little to advance the goals of the repro justice movement (and, presumably the goals of a group like EMILY’s List) to elect people who merely tolerate abortion; it would be even better to seek out candidates who actively advocate for true pro-choice policies.
I’m not advocating a rigorous pro-choice qualifying exam. I am only questioning the way we apply the labels of our movement; I don’t even have any particularly good answers. I only suggest that, perhaps if a candidate believes only that abortion should be legal, not that it should be accessible and affordable, that person is not pro-choice and we should not label them as such. And we should think twice about giving them our money.
Sarah lives in Boston and volunteers with the Eastern Massachusetts Abortion Fund. You can follow her on Twitter at @SBHudson108.