Health & Social Policy Politics and Governance

How the Fight for Reproductive Rights Toppled One of the Nation’s Most Powerful Politicians

Photo Credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Speaker of the House John Boehner created a media splash on Friday September 25, 2015 when he announced that he would be stepping down from both his post and seat in Congress at the end of October. His statement comes only a day after Pope Francis addressed a joint session of Congress, a meeting the devoutly Catholic Boehner had courted earlier in the year.

Many on both the left and the right cheered the Speaker’s resignation, viewing his tenure as either the embodiment of a party that is increasingly dominated by its most extreme members or the result of a legacy of weakness and compromise at the expense of the conservative policy gains those same members have promised their constituents back home. Breaking the news of the Speaker’s resignation to a packed audience at the 2015 Value Voters Summit, presidential hopeful Marco Rubio’s announcement was met with thunderous applause and a standing ovation. “The time has come to turn the page for a new generation of leadership,” Rubio said “and that extends to the White House.” Texas Senator Ted Cruz, a longtime nemesis of Boehner’s who also has his eyes on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, openly welcomed his departure. “The country will be better served with a strong, conservative Speaker,” he asserted.

Yet, moderate Republicans and Democrats already considered Boehner a “strong, conservative Speaker”, leaving them wondering and worrying about his replacement, someone who might be willing to condone another partial government ‘shutdown’ over one of the promises made by Ted Cruz and other Tea Party Caucus members: to bring the government to a grinding halt unless Planned Parenthood loses all of its federal funding. Boehner himself has decried this strategy as “unrealistic”, having learned his lesson from the 2013 federal government shutdown, a move that cost Republicans dearly.

Being the staunch pro-life Catholic that he is, the Speaker is no fan of Planned Parenthood, or abortion rights in general. During the first year of his speakership Congress passed the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act, a bill described by him as “one of our highest legislative priorities”. Boehner was given a solid 100% pro-life rating by the National Right to Life Committee while NARAL Pro-Choice America bestowed a whopping 0% on him, numbers that have kept consistent throughout his congressional career. His adamant pro-life stance hasn’t changed much in recent years either; in fact, there is evidence that Mr. Boehner has actually become more conservative over his 25 years in Washington, positioning himself to the right of the average Republican congressman.

Governance is also something that the Speaker takes very seriously. As some commentators have noted, the 13-term Ohioan lawmaker built his political empire on his reputation for being a shrewd dealmaker: someone who could build bridges over cavernous ideological divides and get things done.

This means that, his pro-life convictions aside, Boehner does not see a government shutdown over federal funding for Planned Parenthood as electorally wise or even viable. For the opportunistic and astute Boehner, the current climate of political posturing at the expense of governance is simply too much to bear.

For most of his speakership, Boehner had to straddle not only the increasing political polarization between the two parties, but also the widening gaps between factions within his own. A number of his intra-party opponents are scoring well in opinion polls of likely primary voters while ‘establishment’ candidates, such as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, have lost ground.

Meanwhile, reproductive rights have become an even more divisive issue. Although recent polls show statistical gains in “pro-choice” identification, there have been a multitude of pro-life legislative victories in red and blue states all around the country, Texas among them. The rise of support for reproductive rights has led to a backlash from anti-abortion hardliners who fear that they might be losing the ‘culture war’ to the Democratic social policy alliance of women, minorities, and LGBT Americans. The fight intensified over the summer when a pro-life group released highly-edited videos allegedly showing Planned Parenthood harvesting “baby parts” for sale on the black market. The videos gave the extreme (and unpopular) push to defund Planned Parenthood, even at the cost of a government shutdown, a veneer of political legitimacy.

The Republican demand to defund Planned Parenthood at any and all costs has come knocking on the Speaker’s door, prompting his exit from the fray. Boehner lost the battle for his political capital not on ideological grounds, but due to the irreconcilable differences he had with his fiercest critics over strategy and governance. The threat of outright rebellion was led by the loudest members of his own party, people whom he openly compared to “false prophets”. These far-right politicians made no secret of the reasons behind their insurrection, proudly carrying the pro-life banner in an attempt to paint Boehner as a closeted liberal bent on destroying the conservative coalition from within.

All of this would eventually culminate with the resignation of one of Washington’s most influential powerbrokers, a man who is second in the presidential line of succession only to the Vice President himself. John Boehner’s resignation has certainly exposed a deep wound in the Republican Party between its warring factions that is unlikely to heal anytime soon. For the left, a new speaker might mean more political posturing, more obstructionism, and more attempts to defund women’s health care. For the right, however, a new speaker could deliver the rollback of reproductive rights about which Rubio and Cruz could, until now, only make empty promises.

Edited by Amanda Bennett

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