Nancy Keenan Speech Review: Why She is Wrong About Obama Defending the Right to Choose

At the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday, Nancy Keenan, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told attendees, “We are proud. We are so proud to have a president who stands with women and who trusts women. A president who signed into law one of the greatest advancements for woman’s health in generations. A president who believes in a woman’s right to make her own decisions. I know this president, and I can tell you that he cares deeply about the next generation of young women in this country, his daughters, all of our daughters.”

I sat, fuming. 

Had Nancy Keenan forgotten that just months ago, President Obama had defended HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius’s decision to override the recommendation of the FDA that Plan-B One-Step emergency contraception be made available over-the-counter?  (Kathleen Sebelius, by the way, is a “pro-choice pro-lifer” who believes that abortion is wrong, but that criminalizing it will not reduce it.) And that he had done so by citing concern for his own daughters? And that just a few months after that, he apparently changed his mind, and told voters that he favored taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood so that his daughters could “control their own health care choices?”

She probably hadn't forgotten, and even if she had, I hadn’t. While I do think that Obama generally believes in a woman’s “right to make her own decisions,” as is evidenced by his pro-choice record (he’s even said, controversially, that he may support late term abortions), I fear it will not be up to him. The Supreme Court, not the president, will decide the future of abortion rights in this country.

The truth is that abortion rights are anything but secure under either presidential candidate. Neither candidate will “keep us safe,” as Keenan suggests Obama will, because the fight over abortion has been playing out for the past forty years, on both a state and a federal level. It is a fight which will continue as American attitudes about abortion change, shift, and clarify, and as the Court continues to amend Roe v. Wade. As of right now, the president can only intervene indirectly through the selection of Supreme Court justices.

Despite the fact the apparent surprise over abortion emerging as an issue in this election, abortion is anything but a new issue as far as presidential candidates are concerned. Abortion comes up every election cycle, as regular as your period on hormonal birth control. The Democratic National Convention is loaded with “freedom of choice” rhetoric; in this case, “choice” almost always refers to “pro-choice.” (At the Republican National Convention, emphasis is placed on “freedom,” and “freedom” does not extend to your uterus.)

That being said, there are significant differences between now and 2008 as far as abortion is concerned. In 2008, abortion was a low priority issue for voters. In this election, that is far from true.

In 2012, the platform formally endorsed by the Republican Party includes a “human life amendment” which opposes “using public revenues to promote or perform abortion or fund organizations which perform or advocate it and will not fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage” and supports “the appointment of judges who respect traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life.”  

These tactics are not new. As James Bopp from the Republican National Convention reminds us, the Republican Party has been pushing for a human life amendment and the reversal of Roe v. Wade in every election since 1980. Mississippi was the most recent state to propose similar legislation, defining personhood as beginning when sperm meets egg. The “Personhood movement” continues to grow.

Despite Mitt Romney’s assertion that abortion rights have “been settled for some time in the courts,” the Supreme Court is likely to face a variety of challenges to Roe v. Wade in the next four years. Anti-abortion legislation on the state level has existed since 1973, when the Supreme Court affirmed that states have the right to restrict or ban abortions after fetal viability. 41 out of 50 states prohibit abortions after a certain point in pregnancy; between 2010 and 2012, 32 states adopted new abortion restrictions, including bans on abortions at 20 weeks and waiting periods for abortion.

All available evidence points to the fact that abortion is becoming a more and more controversial issue. A record low of 41% of Americans consider themselves to be pro-choice, according to a recent Gallup poll. Since 1975, most Americans have believed that abortion should be legal only under certain circumstances. Gallup notes that “while Americans' labeling of their position has changed, their fundamental views on the issue have not.”

But the problem is that our fundamental views are fundamentally divided, and they have been all along. Roe v. Wade is far from settled. Because the Supreme Court granted abortion rights with Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court can take them away.

Nancy Keenan passionately entreated women, saying “We cannot trust Mitt Romney to respect our rights. He would overturn Roe v. Wade and sign into a law of wave of outrageous legislations that limit our right to choose." 

It is true that Obama and the Democratic Party have come out in support of abortion rights. The official platform in 2012 states that the Democratic Party “strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade, and a women’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right. Abortion is an intensely personal decision between a woman, her family, her doctor, and her clergy; there is no place for politicians or government to get in the way.” Democrats have adjusted their platform to unconditionally support abortion, in sharp contrast to the Republican no-exception abortion policy. They have drawn equally harsh criticism in doing so.

Now, Democrats must justify alienating pro-life members of their own party. While roughly two-thirds of Republicans consider themselves to be pro-life, Democrats are less unilaterally pro-choice. And they are choosing to do so by portraying Obama as women's savior, the man who will keep us safe from anti-abortion legislation. 

"Mitt Romney would take away our power to make decisions about our lives and our futures. " said Keenan. "But there is one decision that he cannot take away, and that’s the one that women will make on November 6th.”

Unfortunately, the decision we make on November 6th is only indirectly related to what will really matter in determining abortion rights in this country. If Obama is re-elected, he will have to deal with an incredibly conservative Supreme Court. If Romney is elected, he probably won’t be able to overturn Roe v. Wade either, because he’ll have to deal with Obama’s Supreme Court appointees. Everything is speculative, contingent on when certain justices retire, and who get to appoints new ones.

“Give him four more years, and our right to make our own most personal decisions will be safe for another generation," pleaded Maria Ciano. But our most personal decisions rest with the Court, not with Romney or Obama. Both candidates can shape the Supreme Court, but they cannot keep us safe from it.


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Sam Meier

Samantha Meier serves as the Identities editor at PolicyMic, where she writes on activism, gender, and new media. Sam was profiled in the New York Times for co-founding Sex Week at Harvard, and is currently working on a book about women and underground comix. Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, she currently lives in New York.

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