The Liberal Lean to States’ Rights

“Our administration wants you to innovate. Now is the time to usher in a new era of state-based innovation,” Vice President Mike Pence recently told a group of apprehensive Republican governors who opposed the cuts to Medicaid expansion found in the GOP health care bill. While this particular statement was made to conservative representatives and concerned changes to Medicaid, the vice president’s words more aptly describe how liberal states are dealing with the restrictions to abortion coverage and the defunding of Planned Parenthood promised by the now abandoned senate bill.

Case-in-point is Oregon’s new state measure, passed earlier this month, which requires insurers to cover not only the cost of abortions, but other reproductive services for patients no matter their income, citizenship status, or gender identity. With no waiting periods and no limits to spending taxpayer funds, Oregon already had some of the most liberal abortion laws in the United States. However, the newer measure was introduced in March as Republican congressional leaders began their onslaught on Obamacare, which provisioned a required minimum coverage for birth control and other reproductive services. Therefore, Oregon does exemplify a “new era of state-based innovation,” but probably one the vice president and Co. should be afraid of as it aims to undermine the disastrous laws proposed at the federal level.

While the legacy of states’ rights and power lie in the history of the GOP, the radical resurgence of conservative values in the White House and in Congress has those in liberal states worried for their future and health. Oregon State Representative Julie Fahey (D), who sponsored the measure, told The Hill that the bill was several years in the making and its impetus was not a direct reaction to what’s going on in Washington, DC. However, she did reassure that, “If the ACA goes away, people in Oregon will still be able to access those essential health benefits.”

This exertion of state’s rights should scare not only the Trump administration, but the many people across the country who live in conservative states and who will inevitably face more restrictions on their access to health care. In terms of reproductive rights, the Arkansas state bill H.B. 1566 makes it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion as it applies aborted fetuses to the Arkansas Final Disposition Rights Act of 2009, wherein family members have to agree on what to do with a deceased person’s body. This means that a woman in Arkansas would have to consult whoever it was who impregnated her in order to receive an abortion. For minors this would mean asking for parental permission, and for sexual assault survivors this would mean asking their abuser for permission. While the ACLU and the Center for Reproductive Rights filed a lawsuit against the state of Arkansas over this bill, the divergent paths taken by Oregon and Arkansas in terms of reproductive justice highlight a problematic, if unforeseen, trend emerging out of this administration.

Historically, conservative states have used the concept of states’ rights to undermine federal laws in order to discriminate and disenfranchise certain populations (just look at the disparities in implementing the Voting Rights Act of 1965). Today, we seem to be entering a period where the opposite is true: liberal states are utilizing states’ rights to safeguard against federal policies that may limit citizens’ access to resources—reproductive health related and otherwise.

At a time when liberals may feel disjointed, disappointed, and disheartened by the conservative states they view as responsible for a president with the lowest sixth-month-in approval rating in seventy years,  it may seem like this is well-deserved cosmic justice for those parts of the country. At such a polarized time in our society, it can be very easy to write off our “fellow Americans” in conservative states who we may feel no connection to, no empathy for, and no shared values with. It can be very easy to have the attitude that conservative states made their bed and now have to lie in it. But that is sad and toxic thinking.

To comfortably nestle up in the confines of one’s liberal, blue state and ignore the injustices plaguing those in the red regions can lead to whole new levels and indexes of inequality. It’s a sign of regional privilege that the wealthiest and most-educated areas of the country are in mostly liberal states, while the states with the lowest well-being scores are all in conservative states. Rather than use this information to pat ourselves on the back, it’s important that people in liberal states recognize how their good fortune is not just about an ideological split between liberal and conservative, but can result in concrete, material disservices and inequalities to those in conservative states.