The President of NARAL on What Abortion Means in This Election

Ilyse Hogue at the Democratic National Convention. Photo: SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Monday night’s presidential debate had to cover a lot of ground, but many people were waiting for moderator Lester Holt to introduce the topic of reproductive rights — including Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. Her organization was behind the #AskAboutAbortion campaign during the primaries and has brought back the effort now that the general election is just weeks away. One recent afternoon, she talked to the Cut over crudite about how abortion will figure into the results in November.

Hogue’s name might sound familiar: She spoke candidly at the Democratic National Convention about having an abortion during grad school after her birth control failed, and she’s appeared on Full Frontal With Samantha Bee. She thinks Trump will “avoid this issue like the plague” as we approach November because (a) anti-choice politicians typically don’t discuss abortion in the general election, and (b) Trump has proven he doesn’t know what he’s talking about when it comes to reproductive rights. Recall when Trump said that, if abortion were illegal, there should be some kind of punishment for women who have one, before quickly backtracking to the conservative talking point that doctors, not women, should be reprimanded. No, women are the victims here, he says. On an issue this contentious, he has a lot to lose if he gets the details wrong.

That said, Hogue thinks Trump can’t get away from discussing abortion entirely because of his choice for a running mate: Indiana governor Mike Pence. “Arguably, the most important decision [Trump] has had to make so far in this election is who his vice-presidential candidate is, and he picked the most extreme politician in the country on issues of reproductive health and freedom,” she said.

“To us, the position that [Trump] holds on abortion is a natural offshoot from his view of women’s place in the world,” Hogue says. He wants to defund Planned Parenthood, appoint a pro-life justice to the Supreme Court, and ban abortions after 20 weeks, before many catastrophic health conditions can be detected.

“Everything Trump has said he wants to do, Pence has actually done. That includes signing into legislation a bill that would send doctors to jail for performing abortions,” she says. “That’s why he is trying to distract with things like this bogus maternity-leave plan and putting Ivanka up there to try and make his image a little bit shinier.” Both moves have backfired. His family-leave policy includes maternity leave only — nothing for men, even in same-sex couples — and his child-care proposal is to let people deduct the expense from their taxes. His prized daughter Ivanka tried to defend him and failed miserably.

None of this should be surprising. After all, Trump is a notoriously sexist person who thinks that pregnancy is an “inconvenience” to businesses and that letting women work at all is “dangerous.” He is the orange, shouting id of a movement that claims to support women’s health and well-being but really wants them to stay home, shut up, and raise the children. This is why Hogue says it’s so crucial for debate moderators to ask Trump about abortion and help make those connections. “I think it’s really important for voters to hear him having to defend his whole portfolio of comments and positions on [women].”

Whether or not Trump actually is anti-choice himself, he’s now being supported by anti-choice leaders, whose views do not mirror those of the majority of Americans. But the majority is largely silent, Hogue points out, and the pro-life movement has extremely vocal supporters who are ready to harass and intimidate anyone who so much as hits “send” on a pro-choice tweet or adds a banner to their avatar. “This whole election … I see this as the zenith of the anti-choice momentum, and it’s grounded in a strategy that amounts to nothing more than bullying.” Sound familiar?

While it’s unpleasant to be on the receiving end of such harassment, Hogue says this is the dialogue that needs to happen — and it’s something the anti-choice movement has swept under the rug. “It’s not about abortion, it’s about sexually empowered women. It’s about the idea that women are allowed to have sex outside of procreation. But it has served the other side very well to make it about abortion.”

No method of contraception is 100 percent effective, not even sterilization, and six in ten women seeking abortions already have kids. “It’s not as though there are bad girls who have abortions and good girls who have families,” she says. “So who are we talking about? We’re talking about women who have sex. Pregnancy is sometimes an offshoot of sex. And women, by nature, pay the price for that.”

Hogue says that most people have an idea of what they would do if faced with an unintended pregnancy, but that sometimes changes when a hypothetical situation becomes a real one. As an example, she referenced a recent survey on late-term abortion if a doctor suspects microcephaly from the Zika virus. Just 23 percent of people supported a woman’s ability to have an abortion after 24 weeks in general, versus 59 percent if Zika was a “serious possibility.” There are all kinds of catastrophic health conditions that might not be diagnosed until late in pregnancy, but those aren’t making national headlines.

“Typically, the steepest dropoff for abortion support is around later-term abortion because people are sitting there thinking, Who the hell terminates a pregnancy at seven months? I can’t imagine that.” Zika has made people challenge their assumptions, she says. “You may know what you want to do, but are you comfortable making that decision for someone else? The answer is almost always no.”

And yet there are still people — some of them women — who want to impose their anti-choice views on others. I told Hogue that it’s hard for me to understand how women could be in favor of restrictions on their reproductive health. “I think it’s really intense when you’re raised surrounded by that mentality to challenge it, and we forget that,” she says. “Think about the Mormons who walk away from intense Mormonism. You have to be prepared to lose everything you know — your church, your family.”

But again, she says, it’s not really about abortion. “It’s not about being pro-choice or pro-life. It’s about patriarchy and a woman’s role in the family. That’s what the biblical teaching is. The abortion piece is what has allowed them to use stigma around sexualized women to keep people quiet about it. It’s an ingenious strategy if you take a step back.”

Equally ingenious (if evil): the unnecessary state regulations on abortion providers that led to the closure of dozens of facilities across the country. Yes, the Supreme Court struck down parts of Texas House Bill 2, and groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood are now working to repeal other clinic-closure laws, but the damage is long-lasting. The leases are gone; the providers have found other jobs. “It’s not like we snap our fingers and those clinics are reopened. For them, it’s a win-win,” she says.

Who loses in this context? Women first, then their families. Hogue underscores that NARAL doesn’t just fight to keep abortion legal — the group advocates for the full range of reproductive freedoms. “While abortion tends to take up most of the political oxygen, we are deeply invested and have done a lot of work around preventing unintended pregnancy, anti-pregnancy discrimination laws, paid parental leave, and prenatal care.” The anti-choice crowd cannot say the same.

“We never want women to terminate a pregnancy that they want because they don’t think they’re going to get the resources they need to support a family,” she says. “We see our opponents not only voting to ban abortion or limit women’s choices, but also cutting nutritional assistance for kids. When I look at our full mission, it maps really clearly on what I see as the hypocrisy of the other side.”

The President of NARAL on What Abortion Means This Election