Abortion Rights Activists Looking to Hillary Clinton As 2016 Champion

Elahe Izadi and Beth Reinhard
National Journal

Abortion rights activists fuming over President Obama’s opposition to making emergency contraception accessible to women of all ages could have an ally campaigning for the Oval Office in 2016: Hillary Clinton.

As the senator from New York before Obama’s election, Clinton pushed for what’s called “Plan B” or the “morning-after-pill” to be available over-the-counter. In contrast, the Obama administration announced Wednesday it planned to challenge a court decision that demands the drug be available without a prescription to all women, regardless of age. The announcement came just one day after the Food and Drug Administration approved lowering the age limit on the drug’s sale from 17 to 15 years old -- a decision that Obama said he supported at a Thursday press conference in Mexico City.

“Sen. Clinton, along with Sen. (Patty) Murray and Sen. (Barbara) Mikulski and some of the women in the House were stalwart champions of keeping FDA decision-making based on science and medical evidence," said Susan Wood, former assistant commissioner for women’s health at the FDA. “I was very disappointed in this administration for not sticking with its pledge to scientific integrity." 

The liberal backlash against President Obama coincides with a new, nationwide campaign to elect a female president -- with his former rival-turned-secretary-of-state at the top of the list. The “Madam President” initiative was launched Thursday by EMILY’s List, which raises money for female, Democratic candidates who support abortion rights.

“There is one name that seems to be getting mentioned more than the others. We do not know if Hillary is going to run, but we are hopeful that she will,” EMILY’s List President Stephanie Schriock said.

The debate over Plan B amid mounting speculation about a Clinton campaign recall the rifts in the Democratic Party during the heated 2008 primary. Liberal activists were torn between a trailblazing African-American who claimed to represent a new, post-partisan breed of politics and an inspiring but more familiar Democratic standard bearer. In an increasingly polarized political climate, President Obama has struggled to avoid the culture wars and stake out the middle ground on issues like emergency contraception and insurance coverage of birth control.

Clinton assumed a more dramatic posture as the senator from New York, seeking to block President Bush’s nominee to head the FDA, along with Sen. Murray, until the debate over making Plan B available over the counter was settled. The pill reduces the risk of pregnancy by preventing ovulation if taken within three days of unprotected sexual intercourse. Wood, who now serves as an associate professor at George Washington University’s School of Public Health, resigned from the FDA to protest the delay of a drug fiercely opposed by social conservatives.

“Science should never take a back seat to politics and ideology,” Clinton said in 2005.

In 2006, the FDA ruled that women 18-and-older could buy Plan B without a prescription, but a 2009 court ruling forced the agency to lower the age restriction to 17. In 2011, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius took the unprecedented step of blocking an FDA ruling that would have lifted all age restrictions -- a decision Obama supported.

This week’s move by the Justice Department to challenge the lastest court order was met with widespread disappointment from the abortion rights community. The Center for Reproductive Rights, which filed the lawsuit challenging Plan B age restrictions, noted Obama’s recent appearance as the first sitting president at Planned Parenthood’s annual Washington conference.

"We are deeply disappointed that just days after President Obama proclaimed his commitment to women's reproductive rights, his administration has decided once again to deprive women of their right to obtain emergency contraception without unjustified and burdensome restrictions," CRR president Nancy Northup said in a statement.

Ilyse Hogue, president of the NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement that the Justice Department “has opted to ignore sound science” in appealing the judge’s order. “Unfortunately, today’s appeal reminds us that sometimes our leaders are out of step with the reality women face every day,” she said.

Other abortion rights groups were reluctant to lash out against a Democratic president who championed abortion rights in his re-election campaign. Planned Parenthood Federation of American President Cecile Richards refrained from singling out President Obama, saying in a statement, "Age barriers to emergency contraception are not supported by science, and they should be eliminated.”

Schriock praised Obama as having “done so much for women already in this country,” including signing into law the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and passge of the Affordable Care Act, which bans insurers from charging women more than men.

“He’s been a real leader on this front, and what I believe is, what will happen as we elect women to the presidency -- not just one, but we’re in this for decades -- that it brings a different set of life experiences that are very unique,” Schriock said. “It’s clear when women’s voices are in the room, you have a much broader dialogue about what is facing women regarding health care.”

Notably in 2008, the more critical NARAL -- which had backed Clinton throughout her political career -- endorsed then-Sen. Obama during the Democratic primary. The board of the group’s PAC was split but ended up unanimously backing Obama, reportedly because he was viewed as the likely-nominee and because the endorsement would counter the image that the group was beholden to white women.

That NARAL endorsement triggered some the ire of other women’s groups, including EMILY’s List. Then-president Ellen Malcolm highlighted Clinton’s support for Plan B, calling the NARAL endorsement “tremendously disrespectful to Sen. Clinton - who held up the nomination of a FDA commissioner in order to force approval of Plan B and who spoke so eloquently during the Supreme Court nomination about the importance of protecting Roe vs. Wade.”

Five years later, the video launching the EMILY’s List campaign ends with the image from behind of a woman being sworn in as president -- and she looks a lot like Clinton.

Ready for Hillary, a super PAC formed in February to urge Clinton to run for president, has amassed a list of 200,000 supporters and received 1,500 contributions, said executive director Adam Parkhomenko.

“The support has been amazing because we have not sent out one 'ask for money' yet,” he said. “We’re trying to build a database of national support that can be activated the minute she decides to run.”

Clinton is the overwhelming favorite in a potential Democratic field that includes Vice President Joe Biden, Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Virginia Sen. Mark Warner. She has kept quiet about any political ambitions since she resigned as secretary of state earlier this year, though her March announcement supporting gay marriage was widely seen as an indication that she’s thinking about the White House. She is also writing a book about her tenure in the State Department and giving paid speeches.

“A lot of people will be looking at this race and for a number of them, Hillary Clinton has right of first refusal because they believe she would be the strongest candidate in the field and the prohibitive favorite,” said Democratic strategist Mo Elleithee, who served as Clinton’s spokesman during her 2008 campaign. “The appetite for her to get in soon is real and I understand it, but a lot of folks are getting ahead of themselves.”