The U.S. legislature is killing popular sovereignty. Planned Parenthood is working to save it.
Since 1916, Planned Parenthood has been providing healthcare for primarily low-income, minority individuals and families. As an international nonprofit that serves 83,682 patients, Planned Parenthood is integral to affordable health services.
What’s more, Planned Parenthood has an equally important, though less recognized, role as a warrior against an undemocratic legislature.
I was able to observe this defense of legislative integrity first-hand during a Planned Parenthood event.
Every year, Planned Parenthood holds a forum to educate the community on the successes and failures of the reproductive rights movement in Ohio and to create a space for feedback and input.
The community forum began with the Ohio organizing coordinator sharing her deep story of self, which resonated with many of the women (self-identified) sitting before her. The coordinator had discovered that she was pregnant her senior year of high school. Terrified and unsure, she went to Planned Parenthood where she was given options and care. Now, her son is a healthy college student.
After the coordinator’s deep story, the Planned Parenthood update was given. Planned Parenthood has seen some tough times recently with the 2016 Rob Portman senate race, locally and the 2017 presidential election, federally. Both were wins for the notoriously anti-choice Republican Party.
The speakers highlighted the attacks on reproductive rights in the executive and legislature branches with a sense of urgency. The Trump administration has promised Title X funding cuts for providers like Planned Parenthood, resulting in a reduction in affordable access to birth control. Additionally, three separate bills targeting abortion access are moving through the Ohio House, where the Republican Party holds a supermajority. If the bills are all passed, they will effectively outlaw abortion in Ohio.
The current attacks on reproductive healthcare are daunting, but they are not unfamiliar to organizations like Planned Parenthood. So, why the urgency?
Legislatures across the country, through which regulations and bills move, are experiencing democratic erosion by failing to check the executive branch or abide by the peoples’ will. Democratic erosion in the legislature is evident in both the federal and state legislative bodies, as recorded in the most recent Varieties of Democracies (V-Dem) Annual Report.
At the federal level, the current Congressional party distribution allows partisan bills to fly through the House and Senate and permit the bidding of a populist Republican president to go largely unchallenged. How? Increased polarization.
An issue that was once nonpartisan has been scooped into the Republican agenda. As polarization moves further apart, issues that were once common ground become inextricably tied to one party. The result? Unpopular bills pass through Congress when one party holds the majority of seats.
The legislative system is at odds with what the American people want. When it comes to abortion access, 57% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most cases. Yet, anti-choice legislation is pushed through Congress. The stark difference in public opinion and legislative outcome unveils an undemocratic system that is no longer responsive to the will of the people. Instead, it is responsive to the will of the powerful and the elite.
Similar issues are visible in state legislatures. The Republicans have a supermajority in the increasingly polarized Ohio Legislature. Furthermore, decisions made around reproductive health have been compromised, particularly in the Ohio Health Committee, where abortion bills are routinely discussed. Elected officials are voting for their own interests, not for the interests of those they are meant to represent.
Statistically, large-scale global reports of democratic erosion tell the same story.
In 2017, the only Western country that registered a statistically significant decline in liberal democracy was the United States. One of the rating criteria for a liberal democracy is the ability of the legislature to constrain the executive branch.
Unsurprisingly, the V-Dem records show a significant drop of US liberal democracy in 2016, reflecting the election of Donald Trump, a populist leader who openly criticizes the independence of the legislature and courts. The 2017 V-Dem Report suggests a possible decline in the strength of US liberal democracy and thus legislative checks on an anti-choice executive leader.
What can organizations like Planned Parenthood do about a polarized legislature and populist president?
In this eroded and polarized political climate, powerful, community-engaged and visibility-focused nonprofits like Planned Parenthood are essential. They provide a much needed check on federal and local legislatures. Nationally, elected officials are continuously watched, monitored and critiqued. Locally, events like the one I attended spread information about the current state of democracy and give individuals a means to engage in a pre-established network of passionate resistors.
Even during times of democratic health and stability, Planned Parenthood is still important to civic discourse. A pre-established system of civic engagement is essential to maintaining a healthy democracy. The system provides checks, public visibility, and information. Pre-existing organizations have an established body of members and thus, potential for mobilization in the case of democratic backsliding.
Planned Parenthood, and other organizations like it, play a pivotal role in maintaining healthy democracies and warding off erosion. In this way, Planned Parenthood may just be the savior of our popular will.
Photo by 12019 https://pixabay.com/en/london-england-great-britain-90782/, “Great Britain House of Commons” (pixabay), Creative Commons.”