Actually, Abortion Litmus Tests Are A Good Thing

Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images.
The past two weeks have been beyond chilling as far as women’s rights are concerned: Joe Biden initially came out in support of a law that prohibits federal funds from being used on abortion before some semi-awkward backtracking, Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards signed a "heartbeat bill" into law, and Rep. Dan Lipinski from Illinois attended a gala hosted by Susan B. Anthony List, a major anti-abortion fundraiser that just pledged $41 million to help reelect President Donald Trump and anti-choice members of Congress.
All of these events are troubling, not least because they all happened among Democrats. They call to mind a big debate that Democrats had last year: Should the Democratic party have litmus tests for candidates as a means of determining who to support? And what happens to candidates’ chances if we do put them in place?
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Back in 2018, the goal was to take back the House, and opponents of litmus tests — including then-House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders — blamed them for causing infighting in the party. They’re creating impossible standards for candidates that they can't achieve! They’re tearing apart voters! They make us look like we can’t find common ground! They’re keeping us from reaching disaffected independents and Republicans!
The argument was much more abstract back then — What Democrat would really break with the party in this environment? they said. Just because they say they’re anti-choice, doesn’t mean that it will have a major impact in the grander scheme of things — right?
But given the events of the past two weeks, the effect of not having litmus tests is suddenly very clear.
So, I’d like to offer a different perspective: What if political litmus tests are actually a really great thing? And what if the people creating all the fear-mongering around litmus tests are actually the ones deserving of an eyebrow raise? Instead of looking at litmus tests as the root cause sowing the seeds of American political discord, maybe the people bashing them in the name of compromise are just avoiding taking the hard, principled positions we need from our political leaders in this era.
Take Rep. Lipinski, who is seen as a “moderate” Democrat and attended the conservative anti-choice fundraiser this week. Lipinski is staunchly anti-choice and anti-abortion and always has been, all while 86% of Democrats believe abortion should be legal in at least some form. If we were to make abortion a litmus test for those whom we support in Congress, the argument from detractors is that such a test would take away the fact that Lipinski is still a Democrat who does vote for Democratic legislation. And hey, he goes above the squabbling and reaches across the aisle sometimes, how quaint!
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But taking a closer look at Lipinski, it seems the abortion question is just the tip of the iceberg. Lipinski actually rejected the Affordable Care Act in 2010 because he felt it should have more restrictions on abortion. He also supported the Defense of Marriage Act and opposed same-sex marriage; to this day, he says he respects it as the “law of the land” but doesn’t “personally” agree with it. He voted against the DREAM Act in the past — only to somewhat change course conveniently right around the time progressive Marie Newman stepped up to challenge his seat in 2018 (and almost won).
I’ve got a question: What actually is Lipinski’s ideology? For a man who sits in a caucus that claims to be “pro-life,” Lipinski doesn’t actually seem to care all that much about large swaths of the living. In this case, the litmus test of abortion opens up a whole new can of worms for Lipinski when it comes to which constituents he’s okay leaving behind. And guess what? The litmus test isn’t even the issue here; Lipinski’s problematic and inconsistent views — of which his anti-abortion stance only scratches the surface — are. A decision not to pass a litmus test doesn’t mean a politician automatically has more nuance, depth, or knowledge than those who choose to take a definitive stand.
Or, take a look at Louisiana Gov. Edwards. He signed into law the state’s "heartbeat bill" to ban abortions as early as six weeks after conception, falling for anti-choice propaganda that what's detected at this stage is even a heartbeat. His “conservative Democrat” record also includes a 93% rating from the NRA as a strong supporter of anti-gun restriction legislation. Similar to Lipinski, I ask: What the hell is this dude’s ideology? What are his actual values? Whose lives is he prioritizing, and whose lives are falling by the wayside?
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And then, there’s the case of Joe Biden. Oof, Joe. This week he announced his continued support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars federal funds from financing abortions, before a sudden overnight turnaround on the subject. While it may seem like progress, Biden also said he’d offer “no apologies” for his previous position, making it hard to gauge just how committed he is to actually repealing the amendment; Rebecca Traister made a compelling case in March for how Biden’s rickety-at-best stances on abortion span decades, not to mention the larger questions he’s faced around his treatment of women, from Anita Hill to female voters on the campaign trail. Once again, the abortion litmus test is just the beginning in an avalanche of questionable-at-best behavior, both for Biden as a candidate and as a legislator. It’ll also come as no surprise that the main themes of Biden’s campaign kickoff were compromise and unity, in addition to his bone-headed belief that Republicans will miraculously see the light and start working with Democrats after Trump loses in 2020 — which, as Ben Mathis-Lilley pointed out, is exactly what he said about Republicans after the 2012 election. Hmmm.
Sure, all of this messaging around “reaching across the aisle” or “finding middle ground” is one annoying part of the political game. But compromise is a tool to get what you want, not an actual ideology or a set of personal values that guides what you do. Conflating the two is a poor attempt at getting us to look away from the disastrous inconsistencies these politicians have laid out before us, especially when the masses in the party have a clear stance. How can we ensure they’ll fight for our rights fully if their principles — whatever those are — are easily compromised? Not to mention, has anyone ever noticed that the common litmus tests we’re told to eschew — abortion, immigration, healthcare, to name a few — are often those where their greatest negative impact is on the most marginalized groups in America?
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So, where does that leave us? Well, we’ve got over 20 candidates running for the Democratic presidential nomination. We’re also heading into another election with groundbreaking numbers of people running for the other 519,681 elected seats in this country. Beware of candidates at any level of government who spend so much time besmirching litmus tests and strumming to “Kumbaya” in a campfire jamboree. More often than not, those candidates don’t actually care about compromise or uniting a party; they’re trying to distract you from something else and gaslight you along the way. It’s up to you to find out what they don’t want you to see.
As the old saying goes, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Squeezing our eyes shut, plugging our ears, and shouting “La la la la la la!” won’t help us in 2020. Paying attention, asking the deeper questions, and being willing to admit our own uncomfortable truths will.
Lily Herman is a contributing editor at Refinery29 and the founder of political volunteer network Get Her Elected. Follow her on Twitter. The views expressed are her own.
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