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Week of 2.5.10

Transcript: Democrats and the New Politics of Abortion

BRANCACCIO: Even with the loss of that Senate seat in Massachusetts the Democrats have historic numbers in both houses of Congress. Partly, this is the result of a much-touted 50 state strategy, where Democrats successfully challenged Republicans in red states and red districts. But on the issue of abortion, lots of those new Democrats vote Pro-Life. Some of you are saying "fabulous." Others are wondering if the Democratic Party has now abandoned support for women's reproductive rights? Senior Correspondent Maria Hinojosa and producer Nina Alvarez have our story.

HINOJOSA: It was a shock to many loyal to the Democratic Party, that in the debate over health care reform, a Democrat would be the one to deliver a major blow to a woman's right to choose.

STUPAK: No public funding for abortion, no public funding for insurance policies that pay for abortion.

HINOJOSA: A ban on government funding for insurance that would cover abortion. Defending women's reproductive rights? Isn't that what Democrats do?

STUPAK: Most of 'em. Not all of us. Not all of us.

HINOJOSA: Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan is proud to say he wrote that amendment and got 63 other Democrats—a full quarter of all the Democrats in the House—to vote for it. Ever since it was announced to America 37 years ago that the Supreme Court agreed that abortion is a woman's legal right, the fight has raged on... in hand to hand combat, in the streets and in government. The soldiers for Pro-Choice in Congress have been the Democrats. But is that changing? Pro-Choice advocates fear that the Democratic Party is now abandoning its longtime support of abortion rights in order to win elections.

BOULANGER: I am a Democrat. I'm a frustrated Democrat.

HINOJOSA: For thirteen years, Jennifer Boulanger has been the director of the Allentown Women's Center, one hour north of Philadelphia. You expected more from the Democratic Party?

BOULANGER: Absolutely, I would expect more from the Democratic Party to stick to their ideals and not to—just throw us to the curb.

HINOJOSA: Pennsylvania is a fierce battleground for abortion access. Everyday, Boulanger sees the struggles of women facing an unwanted pregnancy.

BOULANGER: I believe that there are lots of men in power that are making decisions for women that they have no conception of what it's like to be in our shoes.

HINOJOSA: Boulanger's clinic performs about 3000 procedures a year. And here is a number that often gets lost in the shouting over abortion: At the current rate, one in three women in the United States will have an abortion by the age of 45.

BOULANGER: What we're realizing as abortion providers is that we need women to speak out—we need them to tell their stories—that's what's been missing from this whole argument—is the real women—the real lives that this issue affects.

HINOJOSA: Patients come to the Allentown Women's Center from as far as three hours away. Once they get here, they must walk past protesters who test their resolve.

PROTESTER: Two people are gonna die in that place. One psychologically, one physically.

TINA: And they're screaming and calling you names. Baby Killer, that's the one I heard and I saw that on every sign. It made me feel wrong—but you know, since you walk in here you feel much better—they help you.

HINOJOSA: Tina has come to get that help. She is pregnant and the father has refused all responsibility, she says- leaving her with all the weight of a big decision, alone.

TINA: Sometimes you don't really have a choice—Like me, I don't feel like I CAN have a kid. Y'know what I mean? I feel like I don't have a choice—this is the choice for me. Because I don't think I can do it on my ...

HINOJOSA: It's not like this was an easy decision for you to get to?

TINA: Even if we weren't together- but as long as he would be, reassuring that he would help me, I'd wanna do it. But family to me is important. I don't wanna raise a child, you know, alone. And my mom did it. And she did it with four kids. And I seen her struggle and it was hard. You know, so I don't wanna do that—I don't wanna go through that—and raise my child that way.

HINOJOSA: Democratic Congressman Bart Stupak has given a lot of thought to unplanned pregnancies, like Tina's. And now, he's the new hero of the Right to life movement. A former state trooper, devout catholic, he's against the war in Iraq and supports gay rights. After his amendment passed, suddenly Stupak was in high demand by the mainstream media, emerging from obscurity to became public enemy number one for the Pro-Choice movement. Almost single handedly, Stupak earned the Democratic Party the ire of the historically loyal constituency. So what's it like to be anti-choice in the Democratic Party?

STUPAK: I'm not anti-abortion, okay? What is it like to be Pro-Life, a Democrat? I'm proud of my principles and my beliefs. And I'm proud to stick with 'em. Now, is it popular to stand up in my party and say, "I'm with the American people on this one. This is what we should not do,"? No it's not. And it's caused me a lot of grief. But you know what? I'll fight for that principle.

CLINIC DOCTOR: Hi this is the doctor at the Allentown Women's Center. Hi, I'd like to go over the procedure you're going to be having.

HINOJOSA: Thirty-four states have placed numerous restrictions on abortion access. In Pennsylvania, the doctor is required by law to provide state literature and state scripted counseling by phone to every patient.

CLINIC DOCTOR: I am obliged to tell you that there are alternatives to having an abortion that means keeping the pregnancy going and either giving the child up for adoption or keeping the baby yourself.

HINOJOSA: Pennsylvania law also requires that after counseling woman to then wait 24 hours before she can get the procedure.

BOULANGER: In our clinic, we would counsel a woman on all of these things regardless. So basically the state is saying is that they don't trust women to make decisions for themselves.

NURSE: How are you doing today with your decision to terminate the pregnancy?

JANE: Um, I'm ok about it...

HINOJOSA: While were at the clinic, we met a second patient. We'll call her Jane.

JANE: I have three children, so... we're barely making ends meet now, so...

HINOJOSA: Do you have any insurance at all?

JANE: No I don't .... No I don't.

HINOJOSA: Only 17 states pay for abortions for low-income women. Pennsylvania is not one of them.

NURSE: I see that you've rescheduled a couple of times...

JANE: Mmmhmmm

NURSE: Was this due to not being able to come up with the rest of the money?

JANE: Yeah.

HINOJOSA: For poor women who decide to have an abortion, the issue is often cost—whether she has a family like Jane, or is on her own, like Tina. The average price for an abortion is four to five hundred dollars—for the first trimester.

TINA: I found out I was pregnant two months ago—so it was like a savings thing. Ya know, and
I am trying to beat time... y'know—it was just hard. And all trying to do it before that 12 week period.

HINOJOSA: Tina has been putting away 20-30 dollars a week for the past two months. She has a job, in the customer service department of an insurance company. But her wages are low enough to qualify her for Medicaid—which in Pennsylvania—does not pay for the procedure. Tina doesn't have the money. For Congressman Stupak, and the majority of Americans recently polled, the issue of money, who pays for an abortion, is at the core of the controversy.

STUPAK: What my amendment says: you have the right to have an abortion. Don't ask the taxpayer, the federal government to pay for part of that procedure.

HINOJOSA: So that means that wealthy women who don't have to rely on the federal government for any money can have access to a safe, legal abortion.

STUPAK: And...

HINOJOSA: But women who can't afford it...

STUPAK: There are plenty of organizations that help poor women that they a safe legal abortion.

HINOJOSA: Right now, almost 90 percent of private plans cover abortion, but if the Stupak Amendment survives the final bill, anyone getting a federal subsidy and wanting abortion coverage would have to buy a separate rider.

BOULANGER: It's blatantly discriminatory against women. And especially poor women—who would never pay for an abortion rider 'cause who ever expects to be in that position? No one does. There's no one who comes through our doors that thinks, "Oh, you know, I—I—you know, I—I knew I'd be here one day." You know, no one says that. You know, what we hear every day is, "I never thought I'd have to go through this."

HINOJOSA: Tina wasn't prepared for this and now she is a month late with her rent of 550 dollars—and about 300 dollars short for the procedure. If she doesn't have the money, she will have to have the baby.

TINA: And having a baby costs much more, more than rent probably -a month. And I don't have that. I just don't want to live in struggle. I don't wanna do that at all. I don't see myself living that way. I don't want to depend on welfare, I don't want to do any of that.

HINOJOSA: Tina and Jane are not alone. 30- 40 percent of the patients here cannot have an abortion without financial assistance.

CLINIC WORKER: You received funding for this service today?

PATIENT: Yes, I did.

HINOJOSA: Both women received funding from private donors to cover part of the cost- and now both will be able to have an abortion. The Stupak Amendment is not the first federal restriction on money for abortion. The Hyde Amendment bans federal Medicaid funding for abortions except in cases of rape, incest and endangerment of the woman's life. Congress—Republicans and Democrats—approved this amendment every single year since 1976. Pro-Choice advocates say that by denying payment for abortion while paying for prenatal, birth and postnatal care for very poor women- the government is pushing women into having children they don't want.

BOULANGER: You hear so many people talking about, "I don't want my tax dollars paying for someone's abortion." Well, what I would like to know is how do people feel about their tax dollars paying for a forced pregnancy? I certainly don't want my tax dollars supporting someone who doesn't want to continue their pregnancy but feels forced to.

HINOJOSA: And now, they say, there is a pop culture environment that seems to encourage young women to have babies. It's not just Bristol Palin and Jamie Lynn Spears—it's the movie sensation Juno and the MTV series Teen Mom. The ABC Family series "the Secret Life of the American Teenager," follows a teenager through her unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is not part of the story.

BOULANGER: They make it seem so easy to continue a pregnancy, when in fact it's really not. And they're not really showing, the real struggles that women go through—the majority of women go through.

HINOJOSA: At the Allentown Women's Center, every patient has a sonogram before the procedure.

NURSE: Sometimes when they look at their sonogram, and they see that it's just a sack forming, no product of conception inside, yet—they feel relieved and better. And sometimes, they'll be devastated and cry and run out of the room.

HINOJOSA: In fact, the sonogram has become part of the legal wrangling over abortion. Oklahoma law requires providers to describe and show the patient her sonogram image at least one hour prior to the scheduled procedure.

NURSE: So that'll be fine for today.

HINOJOSA: Eighteen other states have ultrasound laws, though not Pennsylvania.
How are ya feeling?

TINA: Getting more anxious.

HINOJOSA: Having the sonogram?

TINA: I don't know -

HINOJOSA: Hard?

TINA: A little...but it's, y'know part of the procedure.

HINOJOSA: Tens of millions of women have gone through what Tina is experiencing today. Over a million a year have a legal abortion, but Pro-Choice advocates worry that that their longtime ally, the Democratic Party is abandoning a woman's right to choose. We asked Howard Dean—who became chair of the Democratic National Committee after the party's defeat in 2004.

DEAN: We were so shell shocked by all the losses that we took, that a lot of Democrats thought they oughta behave like Republicans to give us a better chance to win. There're some parts of the country that won't vote for a Pro-Choice person.

HINOJOSA: Dr. Howard Dean is unflinchingly Pro-Choice. But as chair of the DNC, he orchestrated a new national strategy to win back the congressional majority in 2006. To win, the Democrats made what critics say was a deliberate concession: pursuing Pro-Life Democratic candidates.

When you have to support a Democratic candidate that is—clearly has—an anti-abortion—agenda, is there a concern that you are gonna be supporting somebody who is actually trying to subvert your own party?

DEAN: The Pro-Life candidates that I was interested in supporting were people who agreed with the Democratic platform in almost every other respect. Therefore, it's very clear, that even a Pro-Life Democrat who may disagree with us on a fundamental issue is a huge improvement over the person who was there before. So, are there some Democrats I would not support? Yes—and No I'm not gonna tell you who they are. But there are not many. Most of the Democrats who are Pro-Life—are very very good on a lot of other issues and I don't want to exclude people like that from out party.

BOULANGER: They're questioning their own belief system and you know, really, it seems like everyone's against abortion... "Oh! I need these constituents in my party, too." So, they're selling abortion rights, women's rights. They're selling us out.

HINOJOSA: The Democratic Party supported candidate Kathy Dahlkemper for Congress in 2008. She had no political background and was staunchly anti-abortion. The Democratic Party spent over a million dollars in support of her bid against a seven term Republican for a seat that had not been Democratic since 1976.

DAHLKEMPER: I feel like a million bucks!

HINOJOSA: Dahlkemper pulled out a narrow victory. While her win helped strengthen the Democratic majority—there's no doubt that she strongly disagrees with the Party's long time commitment to women's' reproductive rights.

DAHLKEMPER: I believe in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.

HINOJOSA: Dahlkemper co-sponsored Stupak's antiabortion amendment.
Many women who we spoke to, who consider themselves lifelong Democrats, frankly said that they were shocked to hear about your amendment. Shocked to hear that there is an active Pro-Life Democratic movement within the party

STUPAK: We've always been there. We just never get recognized. No one wants to admit we exist. But if the Democratic Party is the party of the big tent, then why don't they even admit that we exist? How do you think we got the majority? It's by electing, if you will, Right to Life Democrats from conservative rural districts. You need the right to life Democrats. We've always been there. We just never get recognized.

HINOJOSA: They're being recognized now. But while the politicians are grabbing the headlines, the real drama will be felt in places like the Allentown Women's Center.

TINA: If I could save and be more stable then have a child I think that's what should happen. Ya know? Just 'cause my heart is telling me something doesn't mean it's right, ya know?

HINOJOSA: One last question, required by the law.

DOCTOR: I'm going to ask—are you sure of your decision?

TINA: Yes

HINOJOSA: Tina's procedure will take about 10 minutes. For Jennifer Boulanger—the struggle continues. Politics , she says , has contributed to an atmosphere of violence.

BOULANGER: What I have received is the perception that this comes with the job, that this is something that I should experience because I chose to work in a controversial field—which I don't agree with at all.

HINOJOSA: One of the protesters publishes a newsletter and sends it to prisoners convicted of killing doctors, bombing clinics and assaulting abortion providers—That protester knows exactly where Boulanger lives.

BOULANGER: So I don't feel safe. I'm targeted by—a terrorist who pickets my home, and so I don't feel like I can sit in my living room with the shades open at night.

HINOJOSA: Abortion providers are disappearing, though the demand has been the same for the past ten years. There was a 23% decrease of abortion providers in Pennsylvania, between 2000 and 2005. Close to 80 percent of the counties in the state do not have a single provider. Those numbers reflect the national trends .

RICHARDS: Women aren't gonna stand by, letting the government make decisions for themselves—we say—"hands off our bodies and hands out of our pocketbooks!"

HINOJOSA: The sense of betrayal cut deep among Pro-Choice supporters, so many of whom believed for so long the Democrats were unwaveringly on their side.

RICHARDS: By God, we're not gonna go back—we're not gonna have women lose rights that they currently enjoy as a price- for getting health care reform.

HINOJOSA: Within weeks of the Stupak vote, Pro-Choice women and men flocked to Washington DC. Cecile Richards, President of Planned Parenthood and formerly a deputy chief of staff to Speaker Pelosi—led the campaign to Stop Stupak.

RICHARDS: I think it woke up a sleeping giant in this country. What Mr. Stupak did by putting that and demanding that that amendment be on the floor and be in the bill—it has engaged and organized thousands of people around this country -if not hundreds of thousands—who said, "Absolutely not! Absolutely not"

How are your lobby visits? Good?

HINOJOSA: They visited over 100 Democrats—but not Bart Stupak.

So you feel like people have called you the three-headed ogre?

STUPAK: Oh, they've called me everything—that's one of the nice things they say about me. And they're raisin' money off me. And there's the beatbartstupaks dot come and all this other good stuff. And I—I—I'm sure glad they're usin' it for their fundraising purposes. So I—it doesn't bother me.

HINOJOSA: So what do you say to Congressman Bart Stupak?

DEAN: I say Bart—you're wrong on this issue. I respect your right to disagree, but for you to tell people what to do in their personal lives is not right.

HINOJOSA: And he says, "you know what—Democrats should not be surprised that someone like him is putting forth these amendments."

DEAN: I'm not surprised! We expect it. But we also expect to beat it back and the day we cant beat it back anymore, we're in trouble as a party.

HINOJOSA: Do you understand when you see women voters getting really angry and upset about this?
DEAN: Sure—and I encourage it. Because it's a reminder to the Democratic Party what we stand for.

HINOJOSA: In the Senate, Democrats were certainly reminded. They rejected the Senate version of Bart Stupak's Amendment -which was also introduced by a Pro-Life Democrat. Pro-Choice won...this time.

How're you feeling?

TINA: I feel good. I can go home and relax. It's better. It's over—finally.

BOULANGER: She's my hero. She's brave. She's courageous. Society has put so much stigma on women—she's breaking that stigma. She's breaking the silence. Women have no reason to feel ashamed about this—they're making the best decisions they can in a very complex, complicated situation and they don't deserve how politicians are treating them right now. They're not worth helping is what they're saying. And that's just—that's unacceptable

STUPAK: Don't be mad at the Democratic party, be mad at Bart Stupak and the other 64 Democrats who vote—as we should in this country—our conscience and not what is politically expedient for you at the time. Vote your conscience. And that's what we did.

HINOJOSA: So if Bart Stupak had all the power, would you reverse Roe vs. Wade?

STUPAK: Bart Stupak doesn't have all the power.

HINOJOSA: But would you like to see abortion...

STUPAK: If there was a bill on the floor to reverse Roe vs. Wade, and says "life begins at conception," I would vote for it.

HINOJOSA: And that, Pro-Choice advocates say, is the hidden agenda.

RICHARDS: The goal of the Stupak amendment had nothing to do with the health care bill, it really had to do with trying to make abortion illegal in this country

HINOJOSA: Tina believes a woman should always have the legal right to choose . Like most of her generation and on TV these days- she thinks it is also a personal responsibility that one must own up to financially regardless of income level. This time, she resolved her situation with some help.

TINA: Cuz I needed it at that time—I did. But if they weren't gonna offer it to me- I woulda had to wait. And wait and wait and wait and then maybe I woulda had to have a baby—maybe I woulda had a baby on welfare, and then all of that crap. I woulda been like everyone else.

BRANCACCIO: You've just been hearing about the politics of abortion, but this issue is also playing out at ground level across America. What's it like to walk into an abortion clinic, when the entrance has protestors arrayed in battle formation? Learn from someone who has made it her mission to protect women who visit abortion clinics. Pbs.org has the links. And that's it for NOW. From New York, I'm David Brancaccio. We'll see you next week.

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