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Amid backlash to anti-gay bills, abortion rights falter

Why do anti-LGBT "religious freedom" laws face fierce backlash, while abortion rights are quietly rolled back?
Kayla Forshey, left, participates in a rally to condemn Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's remarks about women and abortion, March 31, 2016, in New York. (Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP)
Kayla Forshey, left, participates in a rally to condemn Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's remarks about women and abortion, March 31, 2016, in New York.

In South Dakota, a Republican governor vetoed a law restricting bathroom use for transgender students after a popular outcry that included a plea from Caitlyn Jenner. In Georgia, another Republican governor vetoed a “religious freedom” bill that LGBT rights advocates said would sanction discrimination, under pressure from leaders of companies like Dow Chemical, Intel, PayPal and Yelp. In North Carolina, yet another Republican governor defended his decision to sign a law blocking local anti-discrimination laws and restricting transgender bathroom use, under threats of boycotts from major corporations, state and local governments, and major athletic associations.

That was just in the month of March. 

In that same month, Republican governors approved the defunding of Planned Parenthood in Florida; required potentially dangerous anesthesia for some women's abortions in Utah; and signed a sweeping anti-abortion bill in Indiana that, among other provisions, restricts women who choose abortion in the case of fetal anomaly. Arizona's legislature approved a bill, since signed into law, that forces doctors to use a less safe and more onerous protocol for administering the pills that induce abortion. A week after vetoing the anti-transgender bill, South Dakota's governor signed a ban on abortion at 19 weeks, with no exception for rape and incest. 

Advocates for abortion rights fiercely protested, including Indiana women calling Gov. Mike Pence with updates about their periods. But there were no state travel bans, no Fortune 500 boycotts, no sports franchises vowing to move their All-Star games.

The contrast isn't lost on supporters of abortion access. Reproductive justice activist Renee Bracey Sherman recalled watching Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal discuss his veto on television, saying Georgia was a "loving state." 

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"It's a loving state, except if that love results in an unintended pregnancy," Bracey Sherman said. 

The parallel isn't perfect. Thanks to Roe v. Wade, abortion is technically legal in all 50 states and has been for decades. Despite a run of legal victories, including on marriage, there is no federal anti-discrimination protection for LGBT people. And the fates of reproductive rights and LGBT rights are intertwined, with both their constituencies and their opponents overlapping. 

Still, in issues often yoked together as "culture wars," it is undeniable that LGBT rights activists have succeeded in making their cause so mainstream that Republican governors of red states face serious pressure. Meanwhile, advocates for abortion rights are left to cheer when a Democratic governor vetoes a restriction on non-abortion funding for Planned Parenthood. 

Crucially, the LGBT rights movement has won by hitting Republicans where it hurts: their preferred mantle of being pro-business. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, one of the country’s highest valued companies, is one of many business leaders who have spoken out against "religious freedom" laws. (He is himself gay.) Women make up about 5 percent of the CEOs in the Fortune 500, and no one interviewed could think of any corporate executive of any gender who had spoken out about abortion. 

Sarah Warbelow, legal director of the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), a major player in pushing against anti-gay laws, credited employee resource groups focused on being LGBT for pressuring companies to join boycotts. “There are employee resource groups for women, but if abortion is part of that conversation, it’s only one part of the conversation,” Warbelow said. “Obviously, the engagement has been more robust from the business community" when it comes to anti-gay bills compared to anti-abortion bills, she conceded. 

"The business backlash we're seeing now to anti-LGBT legislation was a decade in the making," said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. "There has been a deficit in organizing businesses in from the pro-choice perspective."

Some highly visible tech executives have discussed their own reproductive lives: Mark Zuckerberg wrote forthrightly about the miscarriages his wife experienced before her pregnancy with their daughter. Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, who gave birth to twins last year, briefly discussed her maternity leave in 2013 when her first child was born, sparking a heated conversation. But while LGBT activists have largely overcome their opposition's obsession with gay sex, abortion remains stigmatized. Even contraception is rarely discussed in polite public company. 

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“What would it look like if Marissa Mayer had talked about how birth control had allowed her to space her pregnancies?” asked Bracey Sherman. She pointed out that years ago, businesses began touting their LGBT-friendly benefits. "My hope is that, one day, we will see them tout their health care package that includes access to birth control and abortion." 

Instead, the face of corporate involvement in reproductive rights is companies like Hobby Lobby, who won at the Supreme Court the right to refuse women employees coverage for contraception under the federal religious freedom law.

Some activists believe that winning too fast hurt the cause of abortion rights. "We started losing the minute we thought Roe was the end," said Hogue, referring to the sweeping effect of the Supreme Court legalizing abortion in 50 states in 1973. By contrast, gay rights activists organized incrementally, in the realms of culture, law, politics and the marketplace. 

Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health, agreed that the legality of abortion had led to general complacency. "There's still this underlying presumption that there's a kind of safety net in Roe v. Wade," she told MSNBC. "We know that safety net is in tatters, but people are not aware of the extent of the laws that have been passed." 

And abortion rights activists face the challenge that many of their opponents are female.  

RELATED: Women are already being prosecuted for having abortions

“People who call themselves women have so many other allegiances, like economic and religious,” said Linda Hirshman, the feminist author of, among other books, "Victory: The Triumphant Gay Revolution."

About one-third of women will have an abortion before the age of 45, according to the most recent data from the Guttmacher Institute, but those women may not have shared that with their family and friends. “Most people don’t know that they know someone who’s had an abortion,” said Warbelow, “whereas today, 8 in 10 Americans know someone well who is LGBT.”

While all kinds of women have abortions, abortion patients are disproportionately low-income and people of color, and they tend to be younger. But Hirshman argues that the first generation of gay rights activists, who organized around HIV-AIDS, were mostly white men who brought with them the confidence of their relative privilege. “They always believed they were entitled to be players,” she said. “They were raised that way. When they found out that because they were gay, they weren’t going to get it, they were indignant.”

Said Bracey Sherman, "Sexism still plays a part no matter which movement you’re in. That keeps people from standing up strongly for things that impact women, such as support for abortion access and trans women.” (Transgender rights advocates have long accused groups like HRC of neglecting their cause in favor of camera-friendly ones like same-sex marriage.) 

RELATED: FDA move could radically transform abortion access

Hogue is optimistic that the tide is turning. She points out that frank conversations about abortion are seeping into pop culture and in prominent places, like a recent brief filed to the Supreme Court signed by 113 female lawyers who had had abortions. "A lot of our organizing is telling people that now is the time to speak out," Hogue said. She pointed to polling showing that the majority of Americans want abortion to be legal. "We have to face the idea that silent support or passive support is not sufficient." 

Hirshman believes that the gay rights movement’s successes have been built on its members being “vigilant about patrolling their borders” against discrimination, seeing an attack in one state as also aimed at their own dignity. “When one woman is denied an abortion because some ghastly Texas law closed the clinics, all women are implicated,” Hirshman said. “And that’s what gay people understand.”