EMILY's List: Confronting the Growing Ambivalence Over Abortion


Eleanor Clift

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.