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EMILY's List: Confronting the Growing Ambivalence Over Abortion

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One of the issues that arose in a recent e-mail chain among the writers who contribute to WomanUp was regret that an organization like Emily's List, which helps elect Democratic women, only supports candidates who are pro-choice: "I believe there are other issues that are very important to women. So let's say a woman happens to be not pro-choice, but is pro everything else. Why exclude her?" It's a good question, and the answer dates back to the founding of Emily's List in 1985. At the time very few women held public office, and attitudes toward abortion rights divided sharply along political lines. The Republican Party called for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, while Democrats fought against restrictions on reproductive rights and defended Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion.

Twenty-five years later, attitudes about abortion are a lot more nuanced. Just about every woman has seen her own or someone else's sonogram, and it's not so easy to insist that no laws need apply. Younger women have a more complex view of abortion, and they don't view the issue as passionately as their mothers. "If you ask them if they support abortion rights, they say they don't know or they don't want to answer that question," said Jen Bluestein, Emily's List communications director. For an organization created around the core mission of promoting reproductive choice, that could be a problem, and that's why its new president, 36-year old Stephanie Schriock, a native of Montana with a strong libertarian streak, is forging a new way forward.

Stephanie Schriock EMILY's ListSchriock took over the helm of the venerable women's organization in January when founder Ellen Malcolm stepped aside. Highly acclaimed in Democratic circles, Schriock helped elect pro-choice Montana Democrat Jon Tester to the U.S. Senate and helped steer Minnesota Democrat Al Franken through a long and contentious recount. All the women's groups, not just Emily's List, have been foundering as older leaders and older ideas are overtaken in the new media and political environment. In the six months Schriock has been in charge, she has introduced new social-media tools to increase membership, and she's framing choice in a way that she believes will resonate with women and men of her generation.

"Sometimes we need a little smack on the head," she said in a telephone interview Friday, recalling the controversy over abortion coverage in the health-care fight, and how some Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, made sure that women could not purchase abortion coverage with their own money in the insurance exchanges that will be set up. "That was a little bit of a wake-up call for women like me who are in their 30s and 40s," she said. "Electing pro-choice Democratic women is as important today as it was 25 years ago."

It's the definition of pro-choice that is evolving under Schriock's leadership, and it apparently will be a lot more flexible than was the case when Malcolm was at the helm, reflecting the changing times and the scientific advances that have clouded the issue. The Emily's List candidate questionnaire is not a lengthy document that asks a candidate to pledge support to very precise and extreme positions. It's about commitment to Roe v. Wade, and for most Democrats, men and women, that's an easy threshold to meet. "That's the ultimate dividing line," said Matt Bennett, co-founder of the centrist Democratic group Third Way. "Anything more nuanced than that might cut out a lot of women."

When Emily's List first came on the scene, polling done by Democratic pollster Geoff Garin found that being pro-choice was a "marker" for a whole host of other progressive positions. "It still is a pretty reliable marker for progressive views," Bennett said. Of the 43 Democratic women in the House, only two oppose abortion rights: Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio, a member of the House Progressive Caucus, and Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, a member of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog coalition.

Younger women may be more ambivalent about abortion, but they're not clamoring for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe, as are their more activist counterparts on the pro-life side. Their votes are gettable, but they are not reliable single-issue voters on choice the way their mothers were.

Emily stands for "early money is like yeast" -- it makes the dough rise -- and its endorsement means a big financial boost from its network of donors, which now number 100,000. Schriock has pledged to double Emily's member base and then double it again in five years. Two of the three Democratic women senators facing election in November -- Barbara Boxer of California and Patty Murray of Washington State -- have full backing from Emily's List. Boxer has been a stalwart when it comes to abortion rights and other women's issues, and her opponent, Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard, said Roe should be overturned.

Blanche Lincoln
of Arkansas, who just beat back a contentious primary challenge, does not have Emily's backing even though she supports Roe and is pro-choice. Lincoln lost the organization's backing 10 years ago when she voted for a ban on late-term abortion. She was widely seen as a casualty of the pro-choice dogma that existed at the time, though the estrangement that resulted apparently had as much to do with Lincoln reneging on a promise to vote against the measure than with the vote itself. A decade later, the episode remains a painful one for Emily's List, something the new leadership is determined not to repeat as it works to remove barriers to gain women's acceptance for its core mission in a changing landscape.
Filed Under: Woman Up

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Choice is exactly that: choice. A woman can choose to keep her baby, have it but put her baby up for adoption, or terminate her pregnancy. As President Clinton said, "Abortion should be legal, safe and rare." But always a woman's choice. Even the much-ballyhoo'd Sarah Palin admitted to have thoughts about terminating her last pregnancy while on a political trip in New Orlean. As she said, "Nobody would know." But she chose to keep her baby. That's how choice works.

Any candidate that doesn't believe women deserve (yes, deserve) and have the right to control their own bodies doesn't get my vote or my money. As long as Emily's List supports a woman's right to choose, they will get my support. The minute they no longer believe women have the right to control their own bodies, I and my money go elsewhere.

June 25 2010 at 1:42 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply


June 24 2010 at 5:26 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think most women are intelligent enough to vote for candidates that reflect their views and hopes for the country and not based on their abortion stand. The abortion issue has no business in politics. Their money could be put to better use than the criteria for pro-choice only!

June 23 2010 at 10:57 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

"and how some Democrats, led by Rep. Bart Stupak, made sure that women could not purchase abortion coverage with their own money in the insurance exchanges that will be set up."
Not true. The health care bill had no impact whatsoever on how a person can spend his or her own money. It's sad that EMILY's List is still lying about this long after it's been debunked.

June 22 2010 at 2:08 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm always amazed at the hypocrisy of people who adamantly believe government should be severely limited and should stay out of our private lives, yet want to give it total control over this, the most personal of issues. Will you, dear government, follow me through my pregnancy to ensure I do nothing to harm the fetus - no aspirin, no alcohol, no smoking, only the freshest of fruits and veggies? It sounds absurd, but it's the logical result of said interference, if the end purpose is a healthy baby. On the other hand, the health of the baby doesn't concern the anti-choicers: fetal alcohol syndrome, painful and life-threatening disabilities, lack of maternal health....suddenly they don't want to know.

So which is it to be? The government watching over your body and making decisions for it, or you yourself making your own decisions for your own body? Is it state-owned?

June 22 2010 at 7:47 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to jancf's comment



June 22 2010 at 10:17 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Thank God we have freedom of choice !

June 23 2010 at 2:28 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Big Daddy

In a country that is overpopulated and the poor and underemployed suffer from social injustice we could have used another 50 million people to care for, you don't even want to care for the population we have now.

June 21 2010 at 9:45 PM Report abuse +7 rate up rate down Reply

Most abortions are not performed on rape and incest victims- thats a fact. Abortions are more often performed on women who did not take responsibility for their sexuality (God knows the men won't). It's time to say, "sorry no nookie for you." We are not dogs, we can control our desires.

June 21 2010 at 8:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

roe v wade is not relavant anymore. having a baby out of wedlock is no longer shamefull. birth control is readily available (no pill in '73)
If roe was overturned there would not be "back alley coathanger abortions"

June 21 2010 at 8:24 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Jonathan's comment

since when is a law not relevant? IT IS THE LAW !

June 22 2010 at 10:19 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I'm so thankful for organizations like EMILY's List; Schriock is spot on when she asserts that "Electing pro-choice Democratic women is as important today as it was 25 years ago." It's also encouraging and very exciting to find so many organizations (including NOW, Third Wave Foundation, Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, National Young Feminists Leadership, etc) reaching out to young women with such a powerful message regarding the importance of social justice. Many thanks and brava EMILY's List!

June 21 2010 at 7:53 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I know two people that have had three abortions each (that I'm aware of) all because they wouldn't use birth control. Each of these woman went on to have two children because they couldn't afford the abortion.

I can understand one mistake, although I don't condone it, as a method of birth control.... ABSOLUTELY NOT!

Late term abortion should be illegal. I woman who has had more than two abortions and wants to abort again, should have to carry that baby and give it up for adoption. Go ahead, hate on me...... but there is a point when it can't be considered anything else but murder.

June 21 2010 at 7:43 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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