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It's Not Just Abortion, Stupid: Progressives and Abortion

by Carole Joffe
Many progressives are now undergoing a reevaluation of the “costs” of a commitment to abortion rights. Abortion can best be defended if it is framed as one element of a larger platform of sexual and reproductive rights and services. There exists now a powerful opening to expose the hypocrisy of “family values” conservatives who seek to withhold from working Americans virtually all that they need—contraception, meaningful sex education, health care for the uninsured, living wages, affordable childcare, as well as abortion care—to raise healthy families. This piece is reprinted from the Winter 2005 issue of Dissent.

Progressive men and women have found it extremely difficult to address issues of reproductive and sexual behavior—abortion, above all. Reproductive politics, in left circles, is not just about fighting the antiabortion movement or right-wing sexual conservatives for the hearts and minds of “Middle America,” though there is plenty of that. Mirroring in some ways other gender struggles after the emergence of second wave feminism, there is a long history of reproductive rights activists striving to make such issues legitimate on the left. (Indeed, such struggles go back to the early twentieth century, when Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger fought a mostly losing battle to persuade their left-wing contemporaries to take seriously the campaign for legalizing birth control). And within the contemporary reproductive freedom movement itself—composed as it is of large mass membership organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority, and numerous smaller grassroots groups, only some of which identify as “progressive”—there is hardly unanimity as to how best frame positions on abortion.

Next Section: Abortion as Albatross?

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