Eric Schneiderman, around the time he went to work in an abortion clinic in Washington, D.C.
There are lots of case where there are limits of speech based on other rights, and this is one that courts have been balancing for some time, so I feel that we have developed a good record on this particular case, but your point is right. It does feel like these instances are part of a much larger effort to more aggressively than ever deny women these basic rights—whether it’s Trump trying to change the rule so that employers can opt out of providing coverage under moral exceptions or it’s the provisions in these healthcare bills that passed the House and [were] considered in the Senate that would have a devastating effect on reproductive health services.
You’ve spoken out about these issues, in particular. What would your office do you do to prevent these kinds of measures from taking effect?
We have said that we would challenge the House bill on a constitutional basis, if it became law, and we’ll see what comes out of the Senate. Whether people like it or not, women have a constitutional right to an abortion, and you can’t impose a burden on a constitutional right. The Supreme Court has said that; it’s not just good wishes. And we are prepared to stand up in court and defend women’s rights and defend human rights, but at the end of the day, as much as we can win there, it comes back to doing the hard work of politics. We have to elect new people and better people, and we have to shift public awareness so people do understand that this is a matter of freedom. This is not something that should be up for debate, and in much of the world, it’s not. It’s scary because we’re talking about real people’s lives and real people can really be hurt.
We’ve tried to be focused on the substance and not be distracted by the personal quirks or conduct of people in the administration or in Congress, as fascinating as those are. We’re focused on whether people will lose their healthcare coverage, will people be wrongfully deported, is the air going to get dirtier?
Why do you think that some people still see fit to debate whether or not Democratic Party candidates need to be pro-choice?
There are very few issues on which donors and activists are more guilty of cutting people too much slack than on abortion rights. That needs to change. A candidate comes in and says, “I’m pro-choice,” and that’s the last time they’ll say the word “choice” until they come back in four years to run for reelection. This was 10 or 12 years ago, but I’ve been saying for over a decade that we really need to push for more than “checklist liberals,” people who say they support access, but don’t introduce legislation to protect it, for example. We need to demand more; evidence of what they’ve done. And I think the movement is shifting people into that place. People want results. They want action. They need to harass elected officials, including me, but that’s good; harassing elected officials is part of your duty as a citizen.
Like you said, there are many reasons why reproductive rights are still up for debate in the United States, but sexism or at least some men’s unwillingness to stand up for a woman’s right to choose in public is a factor. Clearly, that has never been a problem for you. Please advise men: How should they be advocating for the women in their lives?
The fact is I have real clarity on my position on these issues. I just have a clarity about it, and I’m not insecure and I’m not threatened by people. And I think that’s the first step—to be clear and grounded and be steady so that when you speak up, speak from a place of calm, but firm understanding of where you are on an issue. I think it makes it easier. I think there are too many folks—men and women—who are still kind of uncomfortable talking about [abortion], and that makes it harder to be honest. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know someone or has had her own experience with an abortion. It just doesn’t happen.
The truth of the matter is for most Americans who say they are against abortions, if something happened to a family member or friend in their personal life, they would be overwhelmingly likely to look the other way and not cut the other person off and sever the relationship. Really, the struggle of abortion rights is about equality, yes. But it’s also about justice because rich people will always have access to abortions. Let’s be really honest: What we’re really talking about is poor and working-class women who would struggle and be hurt by these restrictions, who would have trouble getting on an airplane to fly to somewhere. This is an issue of justice and an issue of equality, and when you talk about it, you need to have that clarity.
Where did you find that clarity?
In my case, it was listening to people and watching what was going on. I listened to women talking to the doctors and the people who worked in the clinic. I listened to social workers who were understanding these stories. It was obvious to me that these were very decent human beings who were trying to manage their lives as best as they could and had to flee from their homes in order to get basic health services. And I heard the doctors, too, who talked a lot about the fact that they viewed their role as saving women’s lives because when you don’t have legal abortion, women’s health suffers and people die.