By now, the country knows it’s hard to pin down our president. Tweets are walked back or deleted. Mockeries recast. Statements spun. What this president says is not necessarily what he means, or so his surrogates would have us believe.
What then are we to believe about President Trump’s intentions toward marriage equality and reproductive rights? These two issues have been a dividing line in American politics over the several decades, but other than in the anger they incite, the public — and politicians — have not necessarily seen the two issues as connected. If we are to understand the president’s true motivations, we must understand these issues together.
As a married woman in the LGBT community and a lawyer who has worked on the front lines of the reproductive rights movement for nearly a decade, I understand how these freedoms — the decision about who to love and the decision about if and when to become a parent — are fruit from the same tree. The right to marriage and the right to reproductive freedom both stand to remind us that that government should not be in the business of regulating sexuality.
Hospitals and doctors' offices have for too long been some of the fiercest battlegrounds for both these issues. At the height of AIDS crisis, we saw nurses and doctors refusing to treat sick patients, hospital administrators denying visitation rights to partners, an administration that stayed silent and dragged its heels on supporting lifesaving research, all while the extreme Christian right used “morality” to stir up hate and discrimination. Marriage equality was, in part, a response aimed at providing our community with greater protections in the face of unequal treatment in health care.
In the 44 years since Roe v. Wade gave women across the United States the right to choose abortion, a battle has played out in hospitals and doctors' offices that should feel familiar to LGBT people. Reproductive rights opponents across all 50 states have fought to restrict access to abortion in the name of “morality” and have succeeded in creating often insurmountable hurdles for women exercising the right to determine when and if to become a parent. They have enacted a patchwork of laws that inappropriately regulate interactions between patients and doctors, including 45 states with laws that allow health care providers to refuse to participate in abortion care if it is contrary to their conscience. Sound familiar? It should.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, 17 states compel health care providers to provide patients with inaccurate information about the risk of abortion care, including five states that have laws requiring doctors tell patients there is a link between abortion and breast cancer—a myth debunked by the American Cancer Society. Twenty-seven states mandate women wait at least 24 hours before accessing abortion care and 14 of those states require two trips to the doctor’s office. The list of restrictions goes on and on. What does this mean? It means governmental interference in the most intimate decisions has been sanctioned. This interference reinforces stigma.
Just as refusing to grant marriage to LGBT people told us we were somehow less-than, creating legal hurdles to access basic health care tells people that there is something wrong with them for wanting to make decisions about our bodies.
Why do we fail to connect LGBT rights and reproductive rights? Legal successes in the fight for marriage equality have helped to erase some of the stigma surrounding our community. Still, you probably do not realize just how many people make the decision to have an abortion because these stories have stayed in the shadows. Amazing advocates are trying to change that with abortion storytelling projects, similar to work that brought to life the stories of marriage equality. Still, we have a long way to go before stigma is erased.
Of course, reproductive rights is not only about abortion access. It includes access to birth control, scientifically accurate sex education, ending pregnancy discrimination in employment, and paid family leave — issues that affect heterosexual people and LGBT people alike and all are subject to inappropriate governmental interference. Also, LGBT rights should not be reduced to advocating for marriage equality. They encompass the rights of transgender people and the right to be free from discrimination in all aspects of our lives.
So then, what about Trump?
Trump has been embraced by the extreme Christian right as a champion of the moral position, despite the fact that his own statements are often convoluted. Asked about his views on same-sex marriage shortly after winning the election, Trump said on 60 Minutes, “These cases have gone to the Supreme Court. They’ve been settled. And I’m — I’m fine with that.” Asked about abortion and the Supreme Court in the very same interview he declared, “I’m pro-life. The judges will be pro-life.” And, for now, the nomination of archconservative Judge Neil Gorsuch won’t change much at the Supreme Court regarding LGBT rights or reproductive rights. Gorsuch is simply replacing archconservative Justice Antonin Scalia, no friend of either movement.
Still, what gives with Trump’s statements? Marriage equality has something that abortion can not yet claim: wide public acceptance. The optics of Trump taking a firm public stance against marriage equality would not be good and he knows it. But do not mistake his claim that the issue is settled for the threat to have passed.
The bottom line is that groups in the administration and on the extreme Right are actively seeking to limit the kinds of decisions that people can make about their sexuality and the creation of families.
Take my home state of Massachusetts. In 2016, Freedom Massachusetts successfully led a coalition of groups (which my organization, NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, supported) to advocate for an expansion of the Massachusetts Public Accommodations Law to include a prohibition on discrimination based on gender identity. So, for example, now LGB and T people cannot be refused service at health care facilities, hotels, and restaurants alike.
That doesn’t sit well with the people at the Massachusetts Family Institute. They succeeded in getting a measure placed on the 2018 ballot that would rollback these critical protections. Don’t think they are limiting themselves to fighting against trans issues. They make no bones about targeting access to abortion, birth control, and sexuality education. Their mandate includes targeting both LGBT and reproductive rights because they have declared themselves the moral arbiters of who to have sex with, who to love, and who should start a family.
Attacks like these are happening all over the country. For many people, LGBT rights and reproductive rights might seem like strange bedfellows but they are attacked with the same sword: moral superiority.
Do not be fooled by Trump's pronouncements. If abortion rights are in his sights, so too are same-sex marriage and many other LGBT protections, because fundamentally they are about the same thing — allowing everyone to make personal, private decisions about how to live one’s life.
REBECCA HART HOLDER is the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, the political, grassroots arm of the pro-choice movement in Massachusetts.