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.”
KELSEY CAITLYN HOLMES
I want to focus on the statistic that you gave that 57% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in almost all cases. Even though a little over the majority of the population believes this, pro-life legislation is still often debated about and passed in Congress.
The United States political parties seem to be run by political machines, or elites, rather than the constituents of a party. Elites are able to manipulate voting by spending money on campaigns, even though campaign expenditure is somewhat restricted by laws. When political elites run for office they usually run with purely office-seeking motives; meaning that they are only interested in the intrinsic benefits of holding office rather than the policies they could implement or change.
Citizens, especially those in the minority, no longer seem to have a say in politics as shown through the 2016 presidential election results. Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote while the Republican Candidate, Donald Trump, won the electoral vote therefore giving Trump the presidency.
The electoral college system in the U.S. is extremely disproportional. The winner-take-all system that most states use for allocating citizens votes disadvantages the power of minority groups. Whichever candidate receives the majority of votes in a particular state (excluding Maine and Nebraska) will then receive all the electoral college votes for that state. If an individual votes for a minority candidate their vote will not matter. This leads individuals to believe that their vote does not matter causing them to not turn out to vote in the future. Today it is often debated upon if an individual’s vote really matters. This can produce questioning on the legitimacy of the United States democracy. The 2016 presidential election did not help this issue. The political society in the United States that is ruled by political elites and the disproportionality of the electoral system consequently is slowly helping the U.S. backslide from democracy.