I wrote yesterday about a new poll showing “whopping” support for abortion rights. I asked at the time, why it is that public support for Roe v. Wade keeps growing while we don’t see parallel progress on pro-choice issues in the political realm.
So I asked Gloria Feldt, the former head of Planned Parenthood, about this strange dichotomy in yesterday’s polling. Here is what Gloria told me:
I have experienced several such cycles. The current support for Roe is hardly a “profound” shift, but rather one that can be counted on to follow severe threats to the right to make personal childbearing decisions. For example, the last peak cited was when the Webster case was decided at about the same time as Anita Hill was treated so disrespectfully by the Senate Judiciary committee. This year we had the perfect storm of Komen, Fluke, the Republican War on Women, and those infamous binders of women.
But soon this moment will be forgotten, just as happened after the 1992 elections. And unless there is a solid and sustained pro-woman, pro-choice policy agenda and thought leadership, this moment will likely be followed by another cycle of declining support and further legislative erosion of access to abortion.
The dichotomy of steady or increasing public support for Roe and increasing legislative and now judicial setbacks to reproductive rights-birth control as well as abortion-occurs because the pro choice movement has too often been defensive rather than proactive.
I think back to something Gloria told me ten years ago now. It was 2003. We (gay people) had just won a huge victory in the Supreme Court in the Lawrence v. Texas case, which struck down state sodomy laws as unconstitutional (i.e., state laws that basically made gay relationships illegal). Gloria and I were sitting next to each other at a lunch, and she told me, and I paraphrase:
“Don’t make the same mistake we did.”
What do you mean, I asked her.
She told me that when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, the pro-choice movement thought they won and the battle was over. And while they were celebrating their victory, the religious right regrouped and whittled away at Roe for forty years until it was next to meaningless.
By winning, they’d lost.
And it’s not only a problem that the choice movement faces. In every progressive movement we’ve had to deal with the problem of both resting on our laurels (we’re right, everyone knows we’re right, politician X has already promised to help us, so we don’t need to fight anymore for our rights), and not thinking long-term (the right fights to win the minds of the people over a period of decades, we fight to win a legislative battle tomorrow).
And as I mentioned in my previous post, the public option polled at 70% and where did that get us? And the assault weapons ban polls in the 70th percentile as well – so why is it so hard to get it reinstated?
Corruption is one good reason. Big Pharma, big insurance, and a lot of other lobbyists didn’t want real health care reform. It doesn’t benefit their profits for us to pay less for more efficient care. They’d rather continue charging us a 500% markup on the same drugs they sell in Europe for 1/5th the cost. And the same goes for gun control. Votes are bought and sold, and members of Congress are threatened and defeated, for not toeing the lobby line. It doesn’t matter if the public is on your side if you let the other guy make it more lucrative for politicians to support him and more dangerous for them to support you.
That’s why I’m a firm believer in in-your-face activism. You take a nascent support in the public, whip it into a frenzy, and use it as a cudgel (or carrot) against your target, be they a politician or a corporation.
The one thing you don’t do is sit back with binders full of apathy because 70% of the public is on your side.