Ilyse Hogue, Influential Abortion Rights Advocate, Will Step Down as NARAL Chief

For Ilyse Hogue, who announced on Monday that she was stepping down as the head of NARAL Pro-Choice America after eight years, abortion rights are at something of a crossroads, with Democrats facing the choice of whether to try to deliver on their promise of codifying Roe v. Wade.

When she assumed the role of president of the abortion rights group in 2013, the Democratic Party controlled the Senate and the White House and had a reliable liberal majority on the Supreme Court. Eight years later, Democrats are back in power but abortion rights face a precarious future.

During the presidency of Donald J. Trump, it became harder to get an abortion in many places across the country than it had been at any time since the Supreme Court established the legal right to an abortion nearly 50 years ago. With the court now dominated by conservatives, maintaining legal access to an abortion may face an even more precarious future.

Yet even as the abortion movement lost ground in the courts, it made major gains elsewhere, argues Ms. Hogue; the movement expanded its level of popular support and destigmatized a medical procedure traditionally seen as taboo — even among some Democrats. (Polls show that mainstream views on abortion are more moderate than those of the activists on either side, with most Americans now saying that abortions should be legal with some restrictions.)

In an interview with The New York Times, Ms. Hogue discussed the future of abortion rights in the United States, whether there was room in the Democratic Party for anti-abortion members and the ties she saw between the assault on the Capitol and the opposition to abortion rights. The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Let’s start with perhaps the biggest question: Is Roe v. Wade safe?

No. One of the lessons that we learned over the last eight years is that constant vigilance is required to secure all of our rights. When I came in, the whole conversation was: “Oh my God, the country is so divided. It’s all 50-50.” Everybody understands that’s not true now. Everybody understands that the majority of Americans support legal access to abortion.

We have a lot of short-term peril. And our job always has been and continues to be making sure that we minimize the pain. But the anti-choice movement and the G.O.P., which has willingly embraced them — they’re the ones who, long term, will suffer massive consequences for being out of step.

Of course, conservatives still control the most powerful weapon: the highest court in the land.

I remember sitting in a conference room, Nov. 13, 2016, after Trump was elected, with my senior leadership and saying, “What is our most urgent imperative in this moment?” And it was clear to us that was building awareness of political power around the courts.

The peril to Roe, the peril to reproductive freedom comes from the courts. But the courts are powerless without legitimacy and the support of the people. And I think one of the things we’ve been so successful in doing in the last eight years is making people aware that the courts have been used for a political tool, and that they have to be held to account.

Your book and podcast, “The Lie That Binds,” tracked the history of the anti-abortion movement and your view of its ties to white supremacy. Do you see connections between the siege on the Capitol and the anti-abortion movement?

Part of, as I say, steeling the spine and building the courage for elected officials is making sure that we own the accurate history of this movement. Clinic violence during the ’80s and into the ’90s was the precursor for the violent extremism we’re seeing now. Why that’s been allowed to continue is because society writ large — and certainly politics — has allowed them to wrap themselves in this faux religiosity and get away with stuff we would never allow in other parts of our culture.

If you talked to any abortion provider, they know what that feels like to be under siege. So really understanding that — and that goes back to the underlying ideology of the modern-day anti-choice movement, and this is not to say every person who identifies as pro-life — but the movement is one that believes in minority control to right Christian men. So there’s just immense symmetry between these ideologies.

Now that Democrats control the White House and both chambers of Congress again, is there a danger that Democratic voters and abortion rights advocates will slip into a sense of complacency around abortion, similar to what happened during the Obama administration?

I mean, that’s the question, right? When I came to NARAL, the Democratic consensus toward abortion rights was mostly check the box and move on, with some amazing exceptions. And if we have to let an anti-choice member sneak through, so be it. That’s just part of the play.

That’s not happening anymore. We had every single Democratic presidential candidate release a plan on how they’re going to address the crisis in reproductive freedom. We had them outcompeting each other in debates. We saw the largest day of action ever on abortion rights against the abortion ban in 2019. I think that politically it is not a salable point anymore that you can’t be an active champion.

So is there room in the party for Democrats who do not support abortion rights?

There always has been and there always will be room in the party for individuals who have all sorts of different feelings about everything, and abortion is no exception. What there is zero room in the party for is people who would oppose the seven in 10 Americans who don’t think politicians should be governing their decisions about pregnancy and family. The opposition to abortion never, never actually mapped onto faith as much as it mapped onto hostility to social progress, gender equity, racial equity.

We cannot pretend that this is a benign difference of opinion when, in fact, you’re trading away fundamental freedoms for Americans.

President Biden has a complicated history with abortion rights and historically hasn’t always been the most comfortable discussing it. Is it acceptable to have more moderate candidates making the political calculation to not really talk about abortion all that much?

The entire country — including the president — is learning about the history of the issue and the way it’s been used as a political weapon and the damage that has caused. We’ve seen Biden evolve tremendously as he’s listened and learned. The discomfort with discussing the issue is a problem in that the G.O.P. has always depended on our silence to be able to advance an unpopular agenda. And I think that’s part of the education, and I think we’re going to see it happen in different places at different rates.

Is that part of the reason you shared your abortion story at the Democratic National Convention in 2016?

It was not something that I ever sort of had on my bucket list to share. But I felt like I had the stage, and that came with responsibility. And I couldn’t intellectually understand that breaking the silence was the foundation of shifting the politics and shifting the reality for so many women who were suffering on the ground and not practice what I preached. And so, yeah, it was very scary. You could talk to my husband sometime because I almost had a nervous breakdown. But it felt like my moment of courage, my moment of spine stiffing.

Do you think Democrats in Congress are going to codify Roe v. Wade into federal law?

I’m getting every indication that they’re going to move forward the legislation that puts us on the path to progress. But we also have the wind at our backs. The movement is stronger than it’s ever been. It’s more diverse than it’s ever been. The idea of abortion rights as a fundamental human right no longer just lives in the repro movement. We’ve seen the progressive movement writ large take it up. And I think that is going to be the driving power.

The movement is stronger, but the legal environment for abortion rights is worse than it has been in a long time, right?

I think that that’s true and not true; [The state abortion bans of] 2019 taught Americans that the anti-choice movement is way more extreme than anyone understood.

And 2019 was about years and years of work to build an affirmative aspirational movement turning that into both political and legislative power. So the unwritten part of 2019 is proactive bills on reproductive freedom and justice moved through statehouses that we had just flipped in 2018.

We’re seeing a sea change by letting the right own the narrative for so long. And in that intermediary time, it’s still easy to see that they are doing a ton of damage. But right beneath the surface, you see that the pendulum is swinging the other way, and it’s not going to go back.

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