America Marches – Choice, Life and Dr. King’s Legacy

Supporters of the Women’s March and the March for Life each claim that Dr. King would have supported their event. What if they’re both right?

In the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy, Americans flocked to Washington DC and spread out across the country over this holiday weekend to march for a number of causes and groups. Two of the largest events were the 3rd annual Women’s March and the 46th annual March for Life. Each was partially overshadowed by controversy that we’ve discussed elsewhere. The Women’s March continues to struggle with issues of racism, anti-Semitism and intersectionality. The March for Life, meanwhile, wrestled with a number of controversies: its association with frequent misogynist Donald Trump, some frankly weird comments about abortion and baby Hitler, and the (apparently complex) confrontation involving students from a Catholic high school and members of a third event, the Indigenous Peoples’ March.

Nonetheless, tens of thousands of people came out for each march, but there were only a few people who attended both. This lack of overlap reflects the particular position that issues of abortion, reproductive rights and women’s bodies have taken in dividing the American political spectrum. In the decades before Roe v. Wade, when abortion laws were decided on a state level, it was not unusual to find Democrats who opposed abortion rights and Republicans who favored them. Since Roe, however the question of abortion has become a litmus test for American politics. This can be seen clearly on Capitol Hill: Senators Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski are the only Pro-choice Republicans left in Congress, and Pro-life Democrats are similarly down to a handful of Congressional members as well.

Although the question of abortion has become one of the most divisive and polarizing issues of our times (due to a host of factors, including strategies of the Religious Right), there have been attempts to somehow meet in the middle. On the pro-choice side, you may remember President Bill Clinton coining the catchphrase that became the centrist Democratic position: he did not personally like abortion, he claimed, but his official position was that it should be “safe, legal and rare.” The phrase was dropped from the Democratic platform in 2012, as many progressives see the underlying idea – tepid or hesitant support for abortion rights – as an outdated compromise akin to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”

On the other side, one of the last pro-life Democratic Senators, Joe Manchin, recently moderated his stance by offering some support for Planned Parenthood and other aspects of abortion rights. On the ground, pro-life feminists have been rebuffed from formally participating in the Women’s March but have nonetheless sought to find common ground with their pro-choice counterparts. One strategy, recounted to the Washington Post by Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa of the group New Wave Feminists, is to work with pro-choice feminists and politicians on policies relating to maternal health and child care to reduce the demand for abortion services, with the goal of “build[ing] a culture where abortion is unthinkable rather than illegal.”

For the most part, however, the two parties have established opposing positions on issues relating to abortion, and the two marches this weekend reflected that polarization: no self-identified Republicans appeared on the roster for the Women’s March in DC, and while the March for Life did manage to get two elected Democrats on its speakers list, the event (which included surprise addresses by President Trump and Vice President Pence) has become almost indistinguishable from a “Republican rally.

The Marches, the Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Divided, and the Legacy of MLK

The divisions between the two marches even extend to the King family. Women’s March co-founder Tamika Mallory initially reached out the MLK;’s daughter, Dr. Bernice King, for permission to name her movement the “Women’s March on Washington.” Meanwhile, Dr. Alveda King (Martin’s niece) is a staunch conservative and anti-abortion advocate who regularly speaks at the March for Life, explicitly drawing on her uncle’s activism.

Both marches, and both sides of the abortion debate, have attempted to evoke Rev. King’s legacy, but attempting to retroactively fit MLK into either the pro-life or pro-choice camp is a difficult task. Pro-choice advocates point to King’s progressive Christianity in general and note that he was clearly in favor of family planning and was the initial recipient of Planned Parenthood’s Margaret Sanger Award. Pro-life advocates, meanwhile, note that family planning services in these pre Roe v. Wade days primarily meant contraception, not abortion. Given that abortion during Dr. King’s life was not the prominent publicly debated issue it is today, there is simply not enough evidence to map Dr. Kings beliefs or statements onto the modern pro-choice/pro-life framework.

And perhaps that is telling. I certainly cannot answer the question of where Dr. King would have fallen on the pro-life/pro-choice divide (and I’m not sure that doing so would change anyone’s mind), but based on his life and legacy, but I also think that is likely the wrong question to ask. Given Dr. King’s willingness to take controversial stances, I’m not suggesting he would have side-stepped the issue. Rather, I imagine that had Dr. King lived to see the post Roe v. Wade America, he might have attempted to do something that many have now decided is impossible: bridge the gap between the two sides in order to find common ground.

While it seems increasingly difficult to imagine how that could be done in our political landscape, Dr. King faced an equally inhospitable social and political environment and found a way (at great personal cost) to persevere. If either of the two major political parties sincerely wants to bring about the unity of which they speak in public, they may have to find ways – maybe cooperation on women’s and maternal health, sex education and childcare, to start; maybe something else –  in which “Pro-life” and “pro-choice” are no longer opposite and antagonistic positions.

[This article is the second in a series of articles entitled “America Marches”, inspired by the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the convergence of a series of public events this past weekend in Washington, D.C. and around the country]

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