Obama caves to the Catholic bishops. (Photo: RH Reality Check)

Obama caves to the Catholic bishops. (Photo: RH Reality Check)

By Carole Joffe, cross-posted at On The Issues Magazine

What about abortion gives it staying power as the central issue in domestic politics, even in the period of the worst economic situation since the Great Depression of the 1930s? This is a question well worth pursuing.

I sounded a much more hopeful note in my recent book, Dispatches from the Abortion Wars. The book was started in the administration of George W. Bush, a particularly harsh time for the reproductive justice community. I finished the book in the first months of the presidency of Barack Obama, ending on a note of “cautious optimism” about a turnabout for the fortunes of reproductive health services and particularly for the provision of abortion. Candidate Obama, after all, had forcefully voiced his support for legal abortion, and nothing — at the time — seemed to be worse than the endless attacks on reproductive health services (not just abortion, but family planning , sex education, condom distribution for HIV patients and more) that were a key feature of the Bush presidency.

Quoting from the distinguished historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg’s work on an earlier period of abortion conflict in 19th century America, I even speculated that we might be entering a period in which abortion and related issues would no longer be “the central drama of (our) culture.” Given the devastating recession that had already become very evident around the time of the 2008 election, I, like many others, reasonably thought that the economy would in fact become the “central drama.”

But very soon after the 2008 election, it became very clear that social conservatives were not going away. On the contrary, they seemed more energized than ever. It also became clear that Obama the president was not going to be the forceful defender of reproductive rights that many of his supporters, including myself, had fantasized. Indeed, as early as January 2009, in his first weeks in office, reproductive politics emerged as a factor in the stimulus debates, and the new president blinked. The president’s proposal had included a modest provision that allowed states to spend more Medicaid funds on family planning. The Republican House of Representatives leader, John Boehner, publically mocked this provision, asking incredulously what “spending millions for contraceptives” had to do with “fixing the economy.” The provision was quickly dropped.

And, of course, many reproductive rights supporters are still smarting over Obama’s key concessions to anti-abortion forces, particularly the Catholic Church, in order to win support for his health reform legislation. By late 2011, it was still unclear whether Obama would again cave to the Church’s demands for very broad exemptions to the requirement that health insurance plans, under Obama’s health legislation, provide contraception without co-pays. But while that was pending, the reproductive health community was stunned when, in a clear bow to politics, the Obama Administration took the unprecedented step of overruling the head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and rejecting the agency’s recommendation that Emergency Contraception be made available without a prescription to women under the age of 17.

Just as the Occupy Wall Street movement has brilliantly framed the economic inequality in the U.S. as existing between the one percent of the super-wealthy and the remaining 99 percent of the population, the current battles in reproductive politics reminds us of another 99 percent — those American women who have ever used birth control in the context of heterosexual sex. The reproductive legacy of the Obama years may well be this huge group’s recognition of itself as a political community. Again, I am cautiously optimistic.

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