The Democratic National Convention has been tagged with a number of womb-centric nicknames over the past couple days, including, most notably, “Abortion-palooza” and “The Vagina Monologues.” The New York Daily News mulled “The Democrats’ Big Abortion Gamble” and Fox News asked in a headline on Friday, “Has the Democratic Party become the party of abortion?”
Certainly, the 2012 DNC was characterized by an unyielding focus on issues affecting women and a host of pro-abortion rights, feminist speakers, including NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Nancy Keenan and Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards. And the Democrats took a bolder approach to the abortion issue in their platform this year, replacing the “legal, safe and rare” language with a more unequivocal support for legal abortion.
But to see the roster of female leaders in health care advocacy, politics, labor and the military that spoke at the DNC — to hear their speeches on issues ranging from equal pay and economic security to health care coverage and reproductive freedom — and then to boil all that down to “abortion” would be to completely miss the point of the Democrats’ message, according to Terry O’Neill, president of the National Organization for Women.
“People who think that simply standing up for women’s rights means only and always standing up for abortion are the same people who see the word ‘woman’ and think vagina,” O’Neill told The Huffington Post. “If it’s about women, it must be about uteruses. That just shows a deep misunderstanding of the kinds of challenges ordinary women face every day.”
In fact, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden gave abortion only one vague reference each in their DNC speeches: Obama criticized Republicans for trying to “control health care choices that women should make for themselves,” and Biden said he envisions “a future where women control their own choices, health, and destiny.” And Richards, whom one might expect to be the most outspoken on the politics of the womb, did not mention abortion once in her speech, only peripherally alluding to it once in a line about redefining rape.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who took the stage with eight other female Democratic senators, took on the issues of equal pay, domestic violence and affordable health care for women, but steered entirely clear of abortion. Sister Simone Campbell received a standing ovation after she made a case for affordable health care for the poor, and Illinois Congressional candidate and Iraq war veteran Tammy Duckworth discussed military policy — but neither of them touched the issue of reproductive rights.
Of course, a number of the female politicians, labor activists and health advocacy leaders — including Sandra Fluke — who spoke at the DNC did mention abortion and birth control, often in the context of wanting women to have freedom over their own health care choices. But the vast majority of those speakers also tackled a laundry list of other political issues that affect women. They also laid out the case for why so-called “women’s issues” could equally be considered economic issues.
“Reproductive freedom means economic freedom,” said Rep. Diana Degette (D-Colo.), chair of the Congressional Pro-choice Caucus, in her speech. “And that’s what this debate is about.”
The Democrats’ laser-like focus on women’s issues during the convention was also somewhat fitting, considering the disproportionate legislative focus Republicans have placed on those issues over the past couple of years. The minority staff of the House Energy and Commerce Committee released a report on Wednesday listing 55 “anti-women” bills the Republican-led House has passed since 2011. These are not all anti-abortion bills: They weaken domestic violence protections, cut nutrition programs for women, and undermine Medicare and Medicaid, on which women disproportionately rely, in addition to restricting abortion access. And this report does not include the myriad legislative attacks on abortion and women’s health programs in state legislatures.
“In 2012, the Republicans have made abortion such an issue that the Democrats can’t avoid it,” O’Neill said. “In 1996, I don’t remember any candidate for higher office actually saying rape victims impregnated from rape should not have access to
abortion to terminate that pregnancy. This is a different day and age, and I think the Democrats are right to draw a distinction between their party and the Republican Party on those issues.”
Then again, if the Democratic leadership intended to throw an abortion-themed party and call it the DNC, they made an odd choice in tapping Cardinal Timothy Dolan, a powerful anti-abortion and anti-birth control advocate, to cap off the event with a blessing.
“We ask your benediction on those waiting to be born,” Dolan said in his closing prayer, “that they may be welcomed and protected.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Tammy Duckworth as Tammy Baldwin.