If there’s one single word that can be used to describe Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, I would say “unapologetic.” Hogue spoke candidly about her own abortion at the Democratic National Convention in July, telling the crowd, “About one in three American women have abortions by the age of 45, and the majority are mothers just trying to take care of the families they already have. You see, it’s not as simple as ‘Bad girls get abortions and good girls have families.’ We are the same women at different times in our lives, each making decisions that are the best for us.” She takes this transparent, radically honest approach to all the work she does as the head of one of the nation’s leading reproductive rights advocacy groups.
Hogue’s job entails fighting for reproductive justice and demanding elected officials allow their constituents to exercise their right to abortion. It’s a big job, and in a heated political climate like the one we’re currently in, this work is absolutely essential. I spoke with Hogue about Donald Trump and Mike Pence’s “Make Misogyny Great Again” platform, the reproductive rights at stake in this presidential election, and how we need to be having open, honest conversations about abortion in order to fight misguided perceptions of abortion—and of those who have them.
You spoke about your own abortion at the Democratic National Convention a few months ago—a lot of people think that you’re the first person to do that at a national party convention.
I don’t know that I’m the first person to do it; I think I’m the first person to speak about a non-medical abortion in terms of personal decision-making, and it was [laughs]—it was terrifying. It was not on my top-10 things I aspired to do in my life, was get on a stage in front of millions of people and share intimate details about my life. But I think when, you know, I always say I did it because I could. And what I mean by that is, there are millions of women who have made the decision to terminate a pregnancy who live in fear, live in shame, are experiencing political rhetoric that is made, that is designed to make us feel less than.
We’re seeing policies passed based on political rhetoric that is completely out of step with the real lived experience of women and families in this country. Those millions of women didn’t have the stage, they didn’t have the four minutes, and I did. When I sat down to think about what was the best use of those four minutes, it seemed like my story. I say that hesitatingly because I actually didn’t feel like it was important to go into the details of my story because all of our stories are individual and can be and should be personal if we want them to be, but to stand on the stage and self-identify as one of the millions of women in this country who has made that decision and who has gone on to live a very full life.
The response was really overwhelming. People say, “Oh, did you get terrible response?” The answer is yes, but my existence and the job that I do gets me negative, terrible responses on a daily basis. It certainly inflamed the extreme anti-choicers because there’s nothing that they fear more than unapologetic transparency. So it inflamed them, but their response was completely drowned out by the positive response, the thank yous, the encouragement. For me, it was all made worth it when five days later, I woke up and there was an article in my inbox, published on a very, very popular mom’s blog called Scary Mommy that reaches tons of people, about a woman who was self-identifying as a pro-choice Republican who had had an abortion, who was inspired to share her story by my speech on the stage of the DNC. To me, that was the intended effect. The intended effect was actually for people to feel both the urgency around speaking up and identifying as someone who is a supporter of abortion rights, but also the confidence to be able to do that and to know there would be a supportive community.
You mentioned briefly rhetoric around abortion. What are some examples of damaging rhetoric that is spread around abortion that kind of perpetuates those stigmas and keeps people from speaking up?
[Laughs] I mean, where to start? Some of it’s very insidious, some of it’s very overt. The most important line to me personally in my DNC speech was the line that said, “It’s not as simple as bad girls get abortion and good girls have families. We’re the same women making different decisions at different parts of our lives.” I think that there is that insinuation that you have done something wrong [if you have an abortion]. You see it in social media all the time, you see it in the most outlandish statements, like Todd Aiken suggesting that women who are raped can’t possibly become pregnant because the body has a way of shutting that whole thing down. The insinuation in that is that if you are pregnant, and you didn’t actually set out to become pregnant, you have done something wrong as a woman.
I think the rhetoric is both getting more heated and getting more honest. I mean, I am unapologetic in saying that I do believe that the egregious language that was thrown around throughout the course of last summer when the bogus videos were released around Planned Parenthood led to Robert Dear picking up arms and going into a Planned Parenthood clinic and shooting innocent people. I think that there needs to be responsibility. I’m not talking about taking anyone’s First Amendment rights away from them. I’m talking about leaders understanding and being accountable for the language that they use that they know can lead to the kinds of violent acts that we’ve experienced.
I also think that, you know, we’re living in a presidential cycle where Donald Trump said that women should be punished for having abortions. He actually terrified the anti-choice folks by saying that and made an attempt to walk it back several days later, but what he was doing, as a relative newcomer to that movement, was reflecting what he saw. It never occurred to him that that language would be off-limits because that is the reality of their worldview and the policies that they pursue.
I think that when we actually have the honest conversation, people recognize women are being punished, every day, who choose to have abortions. There’s the extreme form of punishment that we saw in Indiana under Mike Pence with Purvi Patel being put in prison for a home abortion [and there is] the still-humiliating but more insidious form of punishment, which is designed into laws like mandatory waiting periods, which presumes that women couldn’t possibly make up their own mind unless politicians are telling them to take a time out and think about their actions. How infantilizing is that?
You know, the thing that I do say is that, in my mind, the silver lining in this election is the fact that we’re actually having the honest conversation finally, because the honest conversation is that this fight is not about abortion. If it was, our opposition would join hands with us and fight for things like accurate sex education so young people can make informed decisions, or universal access to contraception. They don’t do any of that. They don’t support any of that. They use abortion as a way to actually impose their ideology, which is one of control of women, one of, and this is a quote from [the World Congress of Families and] Americans United for Life, which is, “the natural family,” where there’s one man who goes out and works, and one woman who stays home and has as many babies as God has designed for her.
It excludes all of the families that we know and love in this country that are led by single moms, or moms who do work, or LGBTQ families, or people who choose to be child-free. And that is a diversity and a pluralism that in this country we really value. We value freedom, we value independence, we value decision-making. Now that we’ve got Donald Trump and Mike Pence running on the “Make Misogyny Great Again” platform of 2016, we can at least have an honest conversation about how opposition to abortion is about control of women and families and about perpetuating a very narrow view of patriarchy that this country has, quite honestly, grown past.
A NARAL Pro-Choice sign at a protest in Ohio. (Photo credit: ProgressOhio)
You talked about Trump and Pence a little bit. NARAL is doing this campaign, the #AskAboutAbortion campaign. If you got the chance to moderate a debate, what would you ask the candidates? What are you hoping the moderators bring up about abortion?
So, it’s a great question. Our #AskAboutAbortion campaign has been going on all through the primary and now into the general election. In the primary, it was really important for us to have attention paid to the issues of abortion access, abortion rights as it relates to gender equity, economic security in this country, because the primaries are where we establish progressive values in the race and the kinds of things we’re running on. Unfortunately, the moderators did not ask about abortion despite, like, literally millions of tweets asking them to do that, but Hillary Clinton did bring it up in the final primary debate.
In the general election, it’s some of the same reasons, but it actually gets a little more fun and a little more interesting. The vast majority of Americans actually do support legal access to abortion—whether or not they think they would ever have one, they don’t think that politicians should be making those decisions for other people. The people who know they’re on the wrong side of these issues in the general elections are the candidates themselves. And that’s why you see anti-choice candidates who have played to their base throughout the primary tap to the center on this issue in general elections. They really, really don’t want to talk about it. They really don’t want to talk about it because if they have to talk about it, they have to defend extreme views, or they have to alienate their base, because we live in a majority pro-choice country. So in the general election, we think it’s critically important.
Now, the kinds of question we hear sometimes, which is not the one we want to hear, is, you know, “At what point do you think it’s okay to stop killing your babies?” Right? This is the, like, “When did you stop beating your wife?” kind of question. It is completely out of touch with the real lived experience of most women and most families thinking about pregnancy, whether they want to carry a pregnancy to term or not. That [conversation] happens early in pregnancy, and we would really like the moderators to stay away from those theoretical extremes and actually talk about what most Americans talk about, which are questions like, “There’s a crisis in access to abortion in this country—89 percent of counties don’t have an abortion provider. Clinics are closing all over the country. What’s your plan to address that crisis given that women have a constitutional right to abortion, and given that where abortion is hard to access, health outcomes go down. What’s your plan on that?” That’s one example of a great question to ask.
Another example of a great question to ask is, “We’ve got a growing health crisis globally that has now reached the shore in the form of Zika, which disproportionately affects pregnant women. Given that support for abortion services being made available to women diagnosed with Zika in consultation with their doctor has only grown—polling shows it grows dramatically when people are actually not facing a theory but thinking, ‘Oh my God, we have a real problem with Zika’—will you change your position?” Because many of these candidates hold positions that would actually make abortion illegal in the cases of Zika. “Will you change your position?” That is a very real-life, very relevant, very timely question to be asking these candidates, and quite honestly, we think those are the discussions that the voters want to hear in being able to evaluate which candidate best reflects their views.
Both candidates’ opinions on abortion have evolved over time in basically completely opposite directions. How likely is it that whoever is elected is going to be able to make the kinds of changes they promise? Trump wants to reverse Roe v. Wade, whereas Clinton wants to get rid of the Hyde Amendment. What is the likelihood that in the next four years, some real, significant changes will occur?
I think it’s high. I think it’s high because these issues have played so centrally to the election, and the president has the highest platform in the world in terms of establishing the direction, charting the path forward in the country. I think it’s high because the next president will have at least one, probably several Supreme Court picks, which is where all of these decisions ultimately end up. That is a huge opportunity for people who are interested in building on the success of Roe v. Wade in this country and making that fundamental right accessible to everyone, regardless of zip code, regardless of immigration status, regardless of financial status. But I also think it’s an enormous fear if Trump were to have those Supreme Court picks. He doesn’t have to do a single thing in his presidency other than put anti-choice extremists on the Supreme Court and it could set us back for the next 40 years. So, I think that that is something that voters really need to consider.
There’s also things that can be done through executive action that are really, really important. You know, we get so focused on legislation—and legislation is very important, it’s one giant branch of our government—but executive action is really important in delivering health services to people on the ground through agencies, and the president has a lot of control over that.
I would make sure that your listeners know that Donald Trump said that his VP will be the most powerful VP in history, right? And that he wants to actually hand over most domestic and foreign [laughs] day-to-day operations to his VP, and therefore the single most important decision he has made in this campaign so far is choosing his VP. And he chose arguably the most anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-LGBTQ politician in the land right now. Everything Donald Trump says he wants to do, Mike Pence has actually done. And that should really send a chill up people’s spine.