Last week, for the first time this election cycle, all of the moderators at a presidential debate and almost half of the participants on stage were women. Unsurprisingly, political representation for women changed the game, as moderators finally asked detailed questions about abortion and reproductive rights, such as whether candidates think there is room in the Democratic Party for anti-abortion Democrats. Additionally, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (MN) was asked whether she would intervene as president if Roe v. Wade were overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court, and states were allowed to outlaw abortion as a result.
Klobuchar’s promise to codify Roe into federal law was met with resounding applause from the audience in Atlanta, where Gov. Brian Kemp (R) signed a six-week abortion ban into law earlier this year. Codifying Roe has become an increasingly popular campaign promise in the Democratic field at a time when the president has put into place Supreme Court justices who are expected to overturn the precedent and many states are peddling one extreme abortion ban after another. But with so much at stake, it’s critical that Democratic presidential candidates recognize enacting a federal law to keep abortion legal must be the floor, not the ceiling.
Since 1973, the precedent of Roe has meant abortion access is dependent on socioeconomic status and ZIP code. As a result of the more than 1,200 state and federal laws that have been enacted since Roe—over a third of which were enacted in the last decade alone—abortion access has been decimated, even though abortion is still legal. One major hurdle to unfettered access to abortion is the Hyde Amendment, a federal budget rider that since 1976 has banned Medicaid insurance from covering abortion and rendered abortion a privilege based on income. Hyde, like the many state-level laws that similarly restrict insurance coverage of abortion, unjustly affects women of color. Due to a complicated “perfect storm” of racism, discrimination, and economic inequality, women of color are disproportionately enrolled in Medicaid and are therefore more likely to be harmed by Hyde than their white counterparts.
Our next president must do so much more than protect a legal precedent that simply does not function as it should to ensure each of us can access the health care we need. Democratic presidential candidates must challenge restrictions like Hyde, and promise to proactively ensure coverage for abortion and all reproductive health care. Further, more than simply promise to end Hyde, candidates should offer specific plans for how they would do so, and make it clear that they would not compromise on this in pursuit of policy gains in other areas.
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Candidates must also take action on other existing state laws—from mandatory waiting periods, to parental involvement requirements, to mandated anti-choice counseling, to explicit abortion bans, to targeted regulations of abortion providers (TRAP) laws. These state laws block access to health care, stigmatize abortion, and punish and endanger anyone who may need an abortion but is marginalized by our health system. This includes people struggling financially, women of color, young people, immigrants, transgender men, and non-binary people.
And candidates must outline comprehensive plans to achieve real abortion access for all, and they should be asked about them at every debate.
We already know the toll of Democrats’ inaction and passively playing defense, all while anti-choice extremists enact barrier after barrier on reproductive rights. Georgia, where last week’s debate was held, has the highest maternal death rate in the nation, and it is especially high for Black women. When politicians block access to crucial health care like abortion and other reproductive health services, low-income people, and especially women of color, are the ones who pay the price. And if we’re only fighting to codify Roe—and not to address the racist, classist disparities that have failed to make the full spectrum of reproductive health-care services a reality for so many—then we’re leaving people behind.
The threat of losing Roe is serious. If the precedent is overturned in the coming years, both patients and abortion providers could face criminalization and many other dangerous, costly outcomes. And we know that means women of color would likely be targeted most harshly. We must fight to protect Roe—but we must also fight to expand it.
Since 1973, economic barriers, as well as other geographical and identity-based restrictions, have reduced abortion rights to the theoretical for far too many people. With the coming elections, we have the chance to fight for so much more than the status quo: We have a real opportunity to fight for reproductive justice for all. And we need to elect a president who’s going to lead the way, and seize that opportunity.