I have been disappointed by politicians far more often than I care to admit. From Bill Clinton to Jesse Ventura to even George W. Bush — who managed to do far worse than my meager expectations to him — candidates have been elected to office only to become feckless, spineless, worthless representatives, far more concerned about their own political well-being than the people they represent. See also most of Congress.
What redeems my faith in the system is the fact that every so often, a politician comes along who actually exceeds my expectations, who comports themself the way we expect a politician to — without fear of losing, with more of a focus on the people they represent than the next election. The late, great Sen. Paul Wellstone, DFL-Minn., was one of those politicians. He ran a spirited campaign and talked a good show, but once elected he backed up his words with actions. He walked the talk.
And now, the man who holds his seat in the Senate is doing the same thing.
On Tuesday, Sen. Al Franken, DFL-Minn., served as the keynote speaker for the NARAL Pro-Choice America Roe v. Wade anniversary luncheon. And his remarks to the group were outstanding. Franken gave a full-throated, unapologetic defense of the right of women to choose their own reproductive destinies — and did so with both humor and grace. I haven’t found a video of the event yet — if I do, I’ll post it – but the transcript is exactly what pro-choice Democrats want to hear from our public officials. Here’s a selection:
Shortly after I (finally) became a Senator, I was appointed to the Judiciary Committee.
At first I thought: Well, this is weird. I’m not a lawyer. How am I going to ask the right questions?
But I did some research and discovered most Americans aren’t lawyers. It’s true.
And so to me, the right questions aren’t the ones a lawyer would necessarily ask. They’re questions the American people would ask.
And that’s what I did in my first hearing. It just happened that my first hearing was a high profile one: the Judiciary Committee was considering the nomination for Sonia Sotomayor to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Let me set it up a bit. The day before, one of my Republican colleagues had been – I guess the right word is “hectoring” – Judge Sotomayor, repeatedly asking her whether the word “abortion” appeared anywhere in the Constitution.
Of course, it doesn’t. But whether it does or not is beside the point. So she answered by speaking to the question behind the question. But finally after being asked for the third time, Judge Sotomayor replied, “No. The word ‘abortion’ is not in the Constitution.”
Which my colleague treated as an “Aha!” moment.
So the next day, I felt compelled to follow up.
I brought up her exchange with my colleague from the previous day, and then asked, “Do the words ‘birth control’ appear anywhere in the Constitution?”
“No, they don’t,” Judge Sotomayor replied quite correctly.
“How about the word ‘privacy?’ Does that appear anywhere in the Constitution?”
She said. “No, the word ‘privacy’ isn’t in the Constitution either.”
I think you can see where I was going. And so could everyone in the hearing room.
You know, there are a lot of words that express bedrock constitutional principles – words like federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers – that never appear in the Constitution. That doesn’t mean that the Constitution didn’t set up a federalist system, enumerating certain express powers to the federal government and reserving certain powers for the states. And it doesn’t mean that the Constitution didn’t set up a system of “checks and balances” by creating the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, granting each certain powers, creating what is well known as a “separation of powers.”
And even though the word “privacy” does not appear in the Constitution, the Court has long recognized a protection for privacy.
And that is why I followed my questions about the words “birth control” and “privacy” to ask whether Judge Sotomayor agreed that the Court had held that the Constitution created not just a right to privacy, but that it was also established precedent that women had a right to choose to have an abortion.
She said, yes, that was established precedent. That it was settled law. And she agreed that the job of a Supreme Court justice was not to make new law from the bench.
You know, it’s funny. Whenever a Republican runs for the Senate or for president and is asked, “What do you look for in a prospective Justice for the Supreme Court?” Republicans always answer, “I want a judge that doesn’t make law from the bench.”
In the last year alone….
We saw Representative Bart Stupak use the health care bill as a bludgeon, restricting women’s health choices in a bill that was meant to expand them.
We watched with frustration as the Supreme Court overturned a century’s worth of precedents to further their conservative activist agenda.
We are watching as the Senate continues to block Dawn Johnsen’s confirmation to a critical role at the Department of Justice because of her pro-choice views.
And we saw Dr. Tiller murdered at church… AT HIS CHURCH…. murdered for the choice he provided for women.
I want to thank Dr. Sella for being here today, and I want to join you in honoring his memory.
And that’s why the work you do at NARAL is indispensible. Because the forces on the other side are persistent, single-minded, and even violent.
A woman’s right to choose is never fully won. It must be won anew every day, every year, every Congress, and every generation.
Even though most Americans support abortion rights, even though most Americans understand that no woman ever plans an unwanted pregnancy, that no woman ever thinks she’ll have to make such a painful and personal choice, those who would deny that choice press on, undeterred.
In a lot of ways that fight is going to be incremental. In 2007 – after Justice O’Connor’s departure, we saw the Roberts Court reject the longstanding precedent that an exception for a woman’s health must be a component of any law that restricts abortion rights.
Even when the woman’s health includes her reproductive health. That’s what Dr. Tiller did so often in his work. Perform abortions on fetuses that would not be viable outside the womb in order to protect a woman’s ability to bear children in the future. Ironically, what could be more pro-life?
Now, let me say that there are millions of people in this country who have a sincere objection to abortion, and much of that is based on strongly held religious conviction. And I respect that. In America, we respect each other’s religious beliefs. But we are not governed by them.
It’s called the “separation of church and state,” a phrase which, like “separation of powers,” does not appear in the Constitution, but which is created just as clearly in the establishment clause of the First Amendment.
So to those people whose religious conviction leads them to a moral opposition to abortion, I say that’s your right, that’s your choice. Don’t have an abortion. But also, do everything you can to work together with us to diminish the reasons we have abortions.
Support comprehensive sex education and access to affordable family planning services. Support funding for maternal child health programs, WIC, and affordable child care so new mothers have security and the resources they need to raise a healthy child.
Oh yeah, and support comprehensive affordable health care for all.
I want to leave you today with a story. It’s one that should sound familiar to the millions of women across this country who understand in a very personal way the importance of protecting women’s reproductive rights.
The story is about a Minnesotan named Kim. Kim was a 19-year-old single mother. She was struggling to make ends meet, working full time as a receptionist. Her daughter had health insurance through the state, but she did not. Her boyfriend, her daughter’s father, was extremely abusive.
She was getting the pill through Planned Parenthood at a reduced rate, but after her car broke down, she couldn’t afford that either.
One day her boyfriend demanded that they have sex, but refused to use a condom. He threatened her. She was too afraid to say no. And she ended up pregnant.
She said, “Abortion was absolutely the right choice for me at that time… Had I stayed in that relationship and brought another child into the mix, I would have continued the cycle of abuse and poverty.”
“Making the decision to stop the cycle [allowed me] to concentrate on my daughter and ensure that she will have the financial and emotional stability to go to college and live a successful, happy life. Women need options, women need choices.”
I am here to ask you to keep up the fight, for Kim, and for every woman who has learned – and will learn – that women need options and choices.
Thank you for the work you’ve done – and are continuing to do – to stand up for women’s rights.
I’m proud to stand with you.
I know that’s a long excerpt, but it is as eloquent a defense of the right to choice as any I’ve seen. And it comes during a three-decade run in which Democrats have been almost embarrassed to support a woman’s right to choose, in which we’ve run away from support for abortion rights, even as we paid lip service to them.
Franken’s speech is something we need to hear out of more Democrats. Abortion rights are fundamental rights, because women – as humans – have a fundamental right to control their bodies. It’s nice to hear my junior senator say so.