Regressive Progressive?

Editor's Note: Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich shot into prominence when he made a passionate and eloquent speech questioning the war on terrorism in February at a Los Angeles meeting of the Southern California Americans for Democratic Action. In David Corn's words, the little-known Democrat instantly became "a magnet for progressives suffering post-9/11 blues and longing for a kick-ass leader who would bash the Bush administration." Kucinich's popularity has steadily grown since then and many of his supporters are now talking about a possible run for the White House in 2004. But as Katha Pollitt points out, forgotten amidst this fervor to appoint Kucinich as the next leader of the progressive movement is "an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like proportions." AlterNet presents two different views of Dennis Kucinich and his credentials as a leader.

As chairman of the 59-member Congressional Progressive Caucus and potential candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich has been quite visible lately. At a time when few Democrats are daring to question the war aims of the Bush Administration -- or even to ask what they are -- Kucinich has spoken eloquently against the Patriot Act, the ongoing military buildup and the vague and apparently horizonless "war on terrorism."

From tax cuts for the rich and the death penalty (against) to national health insurance and the environment (for), Kucinich has the right liberal positions. Michael Moore, who likes to rib progressives for favoring white wine and brie over hot dogs and beer, would surely approve of Kucinich's man-of-the-people persona -- he's actually a New Age-ish vegan, but his Web site has a page devoted to "Polka, Bowling and Kielbasa."

One thing you won't find on Kucinich's Web site, though, is any mention of his opposition to abortion rights. In his two terms in Congress, he has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like proportions. He supported Bush's reinstatement of the gag rule for recipients of U.S. family planning funds abroad. He supported the Child Custody Protection Act, which prohibits anyone but a parent from taking a teenage girl across state lines for an abortion. He voted for the Unborn Victims of Violence Act, which makes it a crime, distinct from assault on a pregnant woman, to cause the injury or death of a fetus. He voted against funding research on RU-486. He voted for a ban on dilation and extraction (so-called partial-birth) abortions without a maternal health exception. He even voted against contraception coverage in health insurance plans for federal workers -- a huge work force of some 2.6 million people (and yes, for many of them, Viagra is covered).

Where reasonable constitutional objections could be raised -- the lack of a health exception in partial-birth bans clearly violates Roe v. Wade, as the Supreme Court ruled in Stenberg v. Carhart -- Kucinich did not raise them; where competing principles could be invoked -- freedom of speech for foreign health organizations -- he did not bring them up. He was a co-sponsor of the House bill outlawing all forms of human cloning, even for research purposes, and he opposes embryonic stem cell research. His anti-choice dedication has earned him a 95 percent position rating from the National Right to Life Committee, versus 10 percent from Planned Parenthood and 0 percent from NARAL.

When I spoke with Kucinich by phone, he seemed to be looking for a way to put some space between himself and his record. "I believe life begins at conception" -- Kucinich was raised as a Catholic -- "and that it doesn't end at birth." He said he favored neither a Human Life Amendment that would constitutionally protect "life" from the moment of conception, nor the overturning of Roe v. Wade (when asked by Planned Parenthood in 1996 whether he supported the substance of Roe, however, he told them he did not). He spoke of his wish to see abortion made rare by providing women with more social supports and better healthcare, by requiring more responsibility from men and so on. He presented his votes as votes not against abortion per se but against federal funding of the procedure.

Unfortunately, his record does not easily lend itself to this reading: He voted specifically against allowing Washington, D.C., to fund abortions for poor women with nonfederal dollars and against permitting female soldiers and military dependents to have an abortion in overseas military facilities even if they paid for it themselves. Similarly, although Kucinich told me he was not in favor of "criminalizing" abortion, he voted for a partial-birth-abortion ban that included fines and up to two years in jail for doctors who performed them, except to save the woman's life. What's that, if not criminalization?

"I haven't been a leader on this," Kucinich said. "These are issues I would not have chosen to bring up."

But if he plans to run for President, Kucinich will have to change his stance, and prove it, or kiss the votes of pro-choice women and men goodbye. It won't be enough to present himself as low profile or, worse, focused elsewhere (he voted to take away abortion rights inadvertently? in a fog? thinking about something more "important" than whether women should be forced to give birth against their will?).

"I can't tell you I don't have anything to learn," Kucinich told me.

OK, but shouldn't he have started his education before he cast a vote barring funds for abortions for women in prison? (When I told him the inhumanity of this particular vote made me feel like throwing up -- you're not only in jail, you have to have a baby too? -- he interjected, "but there's a rape exception!") Kucinich says he wants to "create a dialogue" and "build bridges" between pro-choicers and anti-choicers, but how can he "heal divisions" when he's so far on one side? The funding issue must also be squarely faced: As a progressive, Kucinich has to understand that denying abortion funding to poor women is as much a class issue as denying them any other kind of healthcare.

That a solidly anti-choice politician could become a standard-bearer for progressivism, the subject of hagiographic profiles in The Nation and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the low priority of women's rights to the self-described economic left, forever chasing the white male working-class vote. Supporting an anti-choice Congressman may have seemed pragmatic; trying to make him President would be political suicide. Pregnant prisoners may not vote, but millions of pro-choice women do.

Katha Pollitt is a columnist for The Nation, where this article originally appeared.

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