The fight for reproductive rights was a key tenet of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s run for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, in which she elevated the issue amid abortion rights attacks from conservative federal and state lawmakers.
Gillibrand left the race last week when it became clear she would not qualify to participate in the next round of debates. In an email to supporters announcing her exit, she listed her work highlighting reproductive rights as one of her accomplishments in the race. “We have put the civil rights of women front and center, and never backed down when it comes to valuing them,” she said. “At a time when reproductive rights are at greater risk than ever, and when other leaders have been willing to make political deals on the backs of women, we’ve said loud and clear that women’s rights are nonnegotiable.”
Gillibrand was the first 2020 presidential candidate to vow to use support for the landmark case Roe v. Wade as a litmus test when nominating judges, including justices to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“I realize that traditionally, presidents and presidential candidates haven’t drawn lines in the sand on judicial appointments,” she wrote in a post to Medium in May, acknowledging that the promise was fairly unprecedented. “That tradition ended when Mitch McConnell obstructed the nomination process and stole a Supreme Court seat, when Donald Trump nominated dozens of ideologically extreme judges hand-picked by far-right think tanks, and when Republicans confirmed a Supreme Court Justice who is credibly accused of sexual misconduct.”
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Other Democrats in the race followed her lead and announced they would do the same.
The day after announcing that pledge, Gillibrand released her larger platform on reproductive rights. It reiterated her promises about judges, stated her commitment to ending the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for abortion, vowed to repeal the Trump administration’s “gag rule,” and promised to seek ways to put “a stop to clinic violence by protecting the doctors, nurses and clinic workers who provide abortion care.”
Later that month, Gillibrand released another platform that centered women and families. Her “Family Bill of Rights,” according to the New York Times, called for “investing heavily in maternal and child health, adoption and in vitro fertilization, paid family leave and universal prekindergarten.”
“Kirsten Gillibrand did a phenomenal job of talking directly to women voters and talking about the issues that women face that are under fire the most,” Christina Reynolds, vice president of communications at EMILY’s List, told Rewire.News.
Reynolds said Gillibrand’s campaign “definitely had an impact on reproductive issues” by “lift[ing] them up” and “talk[ing] about them.” As examples, she noted Gillibrand’s trip to Georgia in the wake of the state’s Republican-backed six-week ban on abortion and her plan to protect Roe.
Political consultant Heather Barmore said Gillibrand sought to push “candidates to consistently [be] on the record about reproductive rights.” Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand’s communications director, underscored this in a statement to HuffPost, telling the publication that the New York senator had successfully “pushed the entire field to commit to defending the civil rights of women.”
“She’s been consistent with the drumbeat on reproductive rights and reproductive freedom and reproductive justice,” Barmore said.
“The reality is, we’re no longer in a place where it’s just enough in a primary to say, ‘oh, I’m pro-choice,’” Reynolds said. Presidential candidates “need to be able to look and say, this is how I will protect the rights afforded to women under Roe—and that’s something that she did and really was one of the leaders in the field on.”
Other candidates in the 2020 race have been specific and vocal about their positions on reproductive rights. After Gillibrand released her reproductive rights agenda, others followed suit.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), for example, “has a plan for that”—she would seek to work with the U.S. Congress to create federal, statutory rights paralleling Roe v. Wade, permanently end the Hyde Amendment and other prohibitions on abortion coverage, and preempt state-level attacks on access to abortion care. Sen. Cory Booker’s (D-NJ) plan includes creating a White House Office of Reproductive Freedom tasked with “coordinating and affirmatively advancing abortion rights and access to reproductive health care” across federal agencies. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) released a plan to protect abortion modeled after the Voting Rights Act. And former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro had a notable moment during the first round of debates when he said, “I don’t believe in only reproductive freedom; I believe in reproductive justice” (though he misspoke at the time in his discussion of reproductive rights for transgender people).
Ultimately, the Gillibrand campaign’s failure to break through can be—and has been—attributed to any number of factors, including a crowded field and her public stand calling on former Sen. Al Franken to resign amid allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior. But her role in the race, some say, will have a lasting impact.
“She talked about her kids, she talked about being a mother—she was very consistent in saying that as a mother, this is why I’m running for president. I’m running for my family and for your family,” Barmore said. “Over the last couple of years we’ve seen a lot more moms and parents … enter politics and run for office and win,” she said. “Kirsten’s campaign made those other young parents and other young women who are parents and moms think, okay, if she can run for president, then I can run for president.”
Reynolds noted that so far in the race, “it has been women leading the discussion” on reproductive and women’s rights.
Moving ahead, “we would love to have it be more a topic of conversation. We would love to see moving forward more people lift up these issues that are family issues. I think women have really led on this policy and it’s certainly important to women voters, but every candidate needs to be talking about it, and hopefully talking about it more often and talking about it proactively.”
Gillibrand isn’t finished advocating for women’s rights and reproductive rights. She announced last week that she would continue to lift up the voices of women by raising and investing $1 million to help women get elected in 2020.
“I’m proud that we put women front and center in my campaign. And while this chapter is over, there’s still work to be done to bring more women to the decision-making table,” she posted to Twitter. Gillibrand’s organization, Off the Sidelines, “aims to change that by encouraging and financially backing women who want to get off the sidelines and into public office,” she said.
“Although my campaign for president is over, I’m still as determined as ever to elect women up and down the ballot.”