Steve Cohen is a 67-year-old white congressman from Tennessee. While these facts may cause you to jump to certain conclusions about his politics, the fact is the pro-choice Democratic congressman has made a career of calling out conservatives for infringing on abortion rights. And on Friday he showed no signs of stopping.
Speaking before his fellow House members–convened for a Republican-planned Judiciary Committee hearing called “The Ultimate Civil Right: Examining the Hyde Amendment and the Born Alive Infants Protection Act”—Cohen expressed his disgust for the amendment, which is about to celebrate its 40th birthday. As he explained, it’s a rider attached to the appropriations bill that provides funding for the Department of Health and Human Services, and effectively denies women on Medicaid funding for abortions.
So, which segments of women does Medicaid mainly serve? Low-income, women of color. That’s why Cohen wasn’t shy about calling the Hyde Amendment what it really is: unequivocally racist.
The congressman from Tennessee’s 9th district (which includes Memphis) started by addressing his colleagues across the aisle by saying, “We will not change each other’s mind today, tomorrow, or probably ever [on abortion].” Then he went for the jugular, inspired, he said, by a recent event with feminist icon Gloria Steinem. Cohen said:
Controlling women’s reproductive processes has been something that men have done for years, or tried to do. They’ve tried to control women, and they’ve tried to control people of different races and people of different sexual orientations because they liked the power they had and wanted to keep it that way. And women since the days of slavery were very much encouraged to have children, because that was good, because you needed lots of more property to bring the crops to make the money.
This isn’t the first time Cohen, the ranking pro-choice member on the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, has shown an acute awareness of how much poor, minority women need leaders fighting for them in order to gain the access promised by Roe v. Wade. At a hearing last September after a right-wing organization erroneously accused Planned Parenthood officials of selling fetal tissue, Cohen not only maintained his support for women's health–he made it personal.
“For me Planned Parenthood is part of my DNA. It is one of the finest organizations in this country," he said. "It helps women, women of color, poor women, and it gives them choice as the Supreme Court gave them choice. It’s about upholding the law of the land…I say, fund Planned Parenthood. It doesn't deliver abortions with federal funds. This hearing is about abortion, and I support Roe vs. Wade.”
His comments Friday echoed this commitment to upholding Roe v. Wade, the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision that cemented a woman’s right to an abortion. Cohen said Republicans “cannot get what they really want, which is to repeal Roe [v. Wade] outright, so instead they’ve chosen to deny the right as a practical matter to poor women and women of color,” again referring to the Hyde amendment. Some of his Republican colleagues were (unsurprisingly) not as forward-thinking. Rep. Steve King of Iowa asked, in all seriousness, why abortion isn't “being called genocide by the black community,” reinforcing a common, racist argument made by many on the right.
Up for reelection this November, Cohen has been endorsed by leading abortion rights group NARAL Pro-Choice America, which gave him a perfect score for his voting record on abortion-related issues.
“We need leaders in Washington who make women’s rights a priority and not just an afterthought,” wrote Sasha Bruce, senior vice president for campaigns and strategy at NARAL Pro-Choice America in an August press release. “We need leaders like Steve Cohen and we are proud to support him as he seeks re-election.”
Male allies, and male feminists, are paramount to legitimizing pro-choice causes in a still male-dominated society. We need more of them. After all, if it's good enough for Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, it should be good enough for any man.
Marisa Kabas is a Sex + Life reporter based in New York City. She loves baseball, bunnies and bagels.