I’m going back to writing about student stuff after this, I promise. Thanks for your patience.

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On Twitter last night, my buddy Malcolm Harris declared that

“The abortion rights argument for Obama is such a big red herring.”

He went on to say that Roe v. Wade is showing no signs of getting overturned in the Supreme Court, and that Obama isn’t doing anything to expand on-the-ground access to abortion in states where there are few providers.

I pretty much agree with Malcolm’s follow-up tweets. The Republicans have had plenty of chances to put together a Supreme Court majority against Roe, and their continuing failure to do so has long looked more like a decision than a fumble to me. And no, Obama hasn’t been anywhere near as aggressive in expanding abortion access as I’d like.

But reproductive freedom is one of those areas where presidents get to make a million small decisions, many of them invisible to the average voter, and those decisions add up to a lot. Let’s review Obama’s record.

  • In 2009 the president rescinded the Mexico City Policy, which restricted US government funding to overseas NGOs which provided abortion services. A 2011 Yale study found that the policy had had a devastating effect on access to reproductive health services in poor countries.
  • The administration has acted aggressively to punish states which have attempted to cut off Medicaid funding to abortion providers, and those which have attempted to eliminate Medicaid funding for abortion in pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
  • Obama supports expanding abortion access for women in the military under the Shaheen Amendment, which was blocked by House Republicans this summer.
  • The Obama HHS ended a grant to a Catholic organization working against human trafficking because of the group’s refusal to provide women with abortion referrals, directing the money to groups that would do so.
  • And although Roe is unlikely to be overturned, that doesn’t mean that new legislative or judicial restrictions on abortion are impossible. In 2003 Congress passed (and George W. Bush signed) the Partial Birth Abortion Act, and in 2007 the Supreme Court upheld it as constitutional. A second Obama term means a likely veto of similar legislation and likely confirmation of new Supreme Court justices who would vote to strike it down.

And of course reproductive freedom isn’t just about abortion. Around access to contraception, the Obama administration has also done good in all sorts of ways.

  • The administration rolled back a Bush-era expansion of the so-called “conscience clause,” which granted federal protection to healthcare providers who refused to supply women with birth control and family planning assistance.
  • Obamacare famously imposes new requirements that private insurance plans cover contraception.
  • Obama has cut funding for abstinence-only sex education programs by two thirds.
  • The Obama Department of Defense issued an order in 2010 mandating that all military healthcare facilities worldwide carry Plan B.
  • The Obama FDA approved Ella, a “morning-after” pill with a five-day window of effectiveness.
  • Obama supports, and has protected, federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Romney opposes it.

Now, Obama’s record on reproductive rights is far from perfect. There’s a lot more he could be doing, even given congressional Republicans’ opposition. But to say that it makes no difference to abortion rights whether he wins in November or not is just false. It’s just not supportable.

This is what I was getting at in my post office post last week. The deeper you dig into the specifics of policy, the more the differences between the players reveal themselves. They may not be huge differences, and they may not reflect the kinds of dramatic contrasts some of us would like to see being drawn, but they’re there. They matter. They have a real impact on real people’s lives, and a disproportionately powerful impact on the lives of those with the fewest resources.

There are some victories that I doubt we can win through electoral organizing. There are some ways — some excruciating ways — in which Obama and Romney are essentially identical. I don’t condemn anyone who refuses to participate in electoral politics — there’s plenty of vital work to be done outside the political system, and there are lots of crucial struggles that can’t be waged inside it.

But the decision to opt out can’t be made on the basis of the false premise that nothing of consequence will be lost if Mitt Romney wins this election. Make the strategic argument that the gains aren’t worth the price, if you like. Hell, make the argument that Obama is in some ways more dangerous. I can respect that.

But that cost-benefit analysis isn’t legitimate unless you also tally up the costs.