NARAL Just Gave State Lawmakers Pro-Choice Ratings, & Things Are Looking Shockingly Not Good

Several pro-choice Democratic politicians were surprised last week when the NARAL Pro-Choice Washington released ratings evaluating politicians’ abortion stances. Believe it or not, many Democrats received C-ratings. And out of the 147 Washington legislators evaluated by the abortion rights advocacy group, only 14 received A’s. Why? The NARAL wasn’t just looking for legislators who could vote the right way: it sought legislators who “actively and energetically promote[d] bills and policies that stand with women.” The NARAL evaluated legislators solely on their performances in 2016, and apart from their votes and sponsorships, also took into account their public comments, “social media engagements,” and general advocacy for women’s rights and reproductive choice.

The group looked beyond abortion rights and considered issues like work accommodations for pregnant women, healthcare for women who have been in jail, and equal pay. In short, if the NARAL has anything to say about it, wearing the pro-choice label isn’t enough to be deemed a women’s rights advocate anymore.

Predictably enough, the advocacy group’s ratings drew criticism from some of the legislators it evaluated.

Senator Reuven Carlyle, a pro-choice Seattle Democrat who got a C, argued that the group “makes it virtually impossible to receive a top grade without prime sponsoring their top bills and making it central to your agenda,” in a Facebook rant posted Thursday.

Carlyle seemed to argue that, if anything, the NARAL’s scorecards were counterproductive to the movement for reproductive rights by further dividing and promoting disunity among pro-choicers. He wrote, “The strategy definitely throws a sharp political elbow to your lifelong, dedicated, passionately engaged, and unequivocally supportive friends, and not just your opponents.”

The NARAL was certainly thorough and demanding in its evaluations of legislators, but I can’t see how this could be a bad thing for the pro-choice and general women’s rights movements. Even if it is “throw[ing] a sharp political elbow” at pro-choice, left-leaning legislators, that “elbow” is challenging and pushing them to vote even more progressively to improve their ratings, and both appeal to and better the lives of female voters.

naral abortion pro-choice rights ratings
CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

And while the NARAL certainly demonstrated the broad range of issues regarding women’s rights that it is concerned with by evaluating legislators not merely on abortion stances, the methodology of its ratings exposed a few uncomfortable but deeply important truths about the modern dialogue surrounding abortion in America.

Throughout election season, there has been widespread criticism of debates’ lack of questions regarding abortion rights for candidates, and the primary reason for this is the current, oversimplified frame we use to discuss abortion rights. We limit the broad range of stances, platforms, and policies that politicians could potentially discuss to whether or not they label themselves neatly as “pro-choice” or “pro-life,” when the reality is that, today, it’s hardly that simple.

There are quite a few cases in which being “pro-choice” doesn’t actually say all that much. Case in point: the Hyde and Helm amendments.

naral abortion pro choice ratings

These laws prevent the United States from supporting abortion rights in anti-choice nations and using taxes to help fund abortion for poor women, in order to respect some taxpayers’ religions. It’s important to note everything wrong with them (how they force the government to undermine basic science about women’s and public health, how antiwar taxpayers still had to fund the Iraq War regardless of their personal sentiments, etc., etc., etc.). However, the most important takeaway regarding Hyde/Helm is that, really, at the end of the day, it’s the specifics of abortion rights that should matter in the modern abortion dialogue, but are continually overlooked to fit a “pro-choice/pro-life,” black and white discussion.

It’s also worth noting that both Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have come out as opponents to both laws this year. Meanwhile, Ohio Gov. John Kasich was busy defunding Planned Parenthood, Ted Cruz was busy making the case against the rape and incest exceptions for abortion, and Donald Trump was busy suggesting that we punish women for getting abortions, and, of course, generously donating to anti-choice groups.

This connects with another important point raised by the NARAL’s score cards. In light of the recent escalation in the war on choice, evidenced by, oh, I don’t know, the viral spread of propaganda videos about Planned Parenthood, arson and vandalism targeting clinics, and slews of preventive regulations, we don’t just need pro-choice allies anymore: we quite literally need champions.

So, at the end of the day, not everyone is going to agree with the NARAL’s ratings, but I say good on them for actively working to push legislators farther left on crucial women’s rights issues, and demanding more.