WASHINGTON—America chose choice.
Before we end the mind-numbing analysis of this month’s election returns and begin weeks of mind-numbing analysis about football, we should recognize the message voters delivered on abortion. Coast to coast victories for supporters of abortion rights could not have produced a clearer result: Americans do not want abortion made illegal. They do not want the government dictating too many of its terms. And they do not want genuinely radical lawmakers—people who have, of late, expanded their war on abortion to an attack on birth control—to have power over women’s lives.
In three states, abortion was literally on the ballot. In South Dakota, a ban amounting to outright criminalization of the procedure was defeated soundly, going down by a yawning margin in a deeply red state. In California and Oregon, voters turned back efforts to mandate parental involvement in abortions for teenagers. It’s the second time California has rejected the proposal.
As Democrats seized control of the Senate, abortion-rights supporters gained ground. Incoming Sens. Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Jon Tester of Montana, Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Jim Webb of Virginia all support abortion rights. All are set to replace anti-abortion Republicans and will vote in the chamber that decides the fate of nominees to the Supreme Court.
In the House, at least 22 new pro-choice members are to replace lawmakers whose records were either anti-abortion or mixed on the issue, according to a count by NARAL Pro-Choice America. Final results in a few races still are unknown.
“It has been the best election since 1992, when Clinton came in,” Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in an interview. “And it really is because they overstepped.”
How? By drawing lines so dark—and so stark. By writing the South Dakota ban so that it allowed for no exceptions if a woman was raped or was a victim of incest. By forcing Californians to vote on the parental-involvement measure for the second time in two years. By turning even birth control into a new battleground in the culture war, ignoring what should be obvious to anyone who’s ever seen the size of most families in a supermarket parking lot or on the sidelines at a soccer match: 98 percent of American women use contraception at some point in their lives.
So when NARAL targeted lawmakers for defeat, it preached no radical feminist sermon. It appealed to voters’ sense of reason.
In Arizona’s 5th Congressional District, where anti-abortion Republican incumbent J.D. Hayworth was defeated by Democrat Harry Mitchell, residents received fliers mocking Hayworth’s support for letting pharmacists who say they personally oppose contraception to refuse to fill birth-control prescriptions. “Sleeping pills? I don’t believe in sleeping pills,” a genial-looking middle-aged man in a white coat says in the flier. “Try counting sheep.” Tying incumbents to the pharmacist-refusal issue, as well as to their widespread opposition to emergency contraception, showed these lawmakers to be precisely where they are: Outside the mainstream.
For two decades, anti-abortion agitators have succeeded in chipping away at access to abortion by clouding the issue with all manner of fog: A waiting period here, a hurdle for young women there. Emboldened by their success, they overreached. That cleared the air—and exposed them. Americans recoiled, and rejected zealotry.
The White House does not hear this electoral roar, or refuses to listen. To run the federal agency that dispenses billions in family planning funds, it just named a physician from an anti-abortion pregnancy counseling center that disparages contraception—and claims, wrongly, that birth control leads to more pregnancies and abortions.
This flight from scientific reality and its replacement with bizarre ideology has been commonplace these past six years. But elections are supposed to bring change, and this one most certainly did.
The first piece of reproductive health legislation the new Democratic Congress intends to promote is called Prevention First. It seeks to expand the availability of contraception, including emergency contraception that is taken after unprotected sex. Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.), who is in line to chair the powerful House Rules Committee, is its chief sponsor. She counts among supporters many lawmakers who oppose abortion but support preventing it through birth control.
It is, in other words, a common-sense solution to a problem that has long been at a shrill impasse. And it happens to be just the sort of thing voters are yearning for.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is email@example.com.