As Democrats fight among themselves about abortion, Republicans and pro-lifers watching from the sidelines say “Good,” though for different reasons. Republicans enjoy seeing their rival party in chaos. So do pro-lifers who are Republicans more loyal to their party than to their cause. pro-lifers who put their cause first should hope that the fight within the Democratic Party leads not to its ruin but to a correction of its abortion doctrine.
Regardless of their party affiliation, pro-lifers should want the Democratic Party to succeed at appealing to them. Democrats, in turn, should recognize that their viability as a national party depends on it. Most people are not deceived about what abortion is. They think that it should be discouraged in the culture and restricted by law.
They also think, however, that it should be generally available through the first trimester, when most abortions take place. The hardest core of pro-lifers think that abortion should be illegal in all cases. They’re a minority even within the Republican Party, which accommodates them but quietly, because it relies also on the support of voters who would restrict abortion but not ban it.
The Democratic Party is the mirror image of the Republicans, up to a point. The hardest core of pro-choice Democrats thinks that abortion should legal in all cases. They have become stronger in the Democratic Party, or at least more visible and vocal, than the hardest core of pro-lifers are in the GOP. Abortion-rights absolutists dictate the Democratic Party’s rhetoric on the issue, which they lay out in flat, two-dimensional terms—the interests of the pregnant woman are everything, those of the unborn child are nothing—that most people recognize as inadequate to the task of thinking about abortion clearly.
The cliché is that pro-lifers want to turn back the clock—specifically, to the era before the sexual revolution. The hardest core of pro-lifers do often appear out of step with the present, but it’s not the past that preoccupies them. It’s the future. They look forward to the day when abortion will be illegal because it’s unthinkable. Compared with their vision of the future, the present looks antiquated, even barbaric. They prefer to live in the future. They’re impatient. It’s abortion-rights activists who live in the past—specifically, the 1960s. More precisely: The view of abortion they espouse was considered advanced then, meaning that it was assumed to be the conventional wisdom of the future. What taxes their patience is that we the citizens of that future are behind schedule, as they see it.
Contrary to the expectations of progressives half a century ago, the average person still recognizes the humanity of unborn children. Our awareness of it has even escalated, thanks in part to the increased use of sonograms. In the early days of the abortion debate, many were confident that history was on the side of abortion made easy, without controversy or worries.
The abortion-rights movement has achieved half of what it sought: Abortion in the United States is legal, but it remains a heavy load on the minds of most Americans who exercise that right it. No one loves it.
Despite their talk about choice, the abortion-rights lobby has an incentive to promote abortion over keeping the baby: People are more likely to be pro-choice if they’ve had an abortion or are close to a woman who has had one. It’s a vicious cycle: To keep abortion legal, activists must ensure that enough women are aborting. The greater the number of abortions, the greater the public’s acceptance of the practice. The political probability is that abortion will not become generally illegal again if the rate at which women abort stays above a certain threshold. A comprehensive law against abortion would be feasible to pass and enforce only when it reflected a public consensus and social norm.
Americans who want abortion to be legal in all cases are a significant portion of the population—23 percent, according to this Pew poll—but still a minority. The Democratic Party is beholden to them, as Republicans are to the 15 percent of the population who think that abortion should be illegal in all cases. The GOP agenda is informed by the hardest core of party members for whom the most important issue is abortion. By contrast, their pro-choice counterparts in the Democratic Party do more than inform it. They appear to hold the reins.
For their own sake, Democrats need to stop pasting into their prepared statements and speeches the press releases from the abortion-rights lobby, even if they personally agree with it. The hardest-core pro-choice base would complain, but where would it go? On that score, the Democrats could learn from the Republican Party, which finesses its embrace of hardcore pro-lifers well enough to retain many voters who are merely pro-lifish.
Democrats could learn also from one of their own, Bill Clinton, who during his presidential campaign in 1992 summed up his position on abortion by saying that the practice should be “safe, legal, and rare,” that third adjective being a nod to the moral concerns of pro-lifers. He knew that it was in his interest to mollify them. It would have been in his wife’s interest to do likewise in 2016, not necessarily by repeating that script verbatim—she did in 2008, and not many people noticed—but by communicating, at a minimum, the majority sentiment that abortion is something that ought to be avoided and certainly not celebrated.
pro-lifers may dismiss Bill Clinton’s rhetorical gesture as a sop, but it was not nothing. It was a “no” to the assumption that abortion could remain legal only if it remained common enough. “Rare” did not mean “nonexistent,” but it pointed in that direction, and it implied a recognition that abortion in itself was an evil even if, on the pro-choice view, it was sometimes the least among competing evils.
Chastened by the election results from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania last November, some Democrats are tempted merely to adjust their abortion rhetoric a little, à la Clinton. That could help them somewhat with voters who dislike what they perceive as extremism from either party on either side of the abortion debate, but most pro-lifers with well-formed views on the issue would probably not take the bait.
Another tactic would be for Democrats to run pro-life candidates in conservative areas, to boost the party’s odds of taking control of the House and Senate and of taking or keeping control of state legislatures, governor’s mansions, mayor’s offices, etc. That was Howard Dean’s plan in 2006, and it worked—for pro-choice Democrats. Pro-life Democratic officeholders remained a minority within their party, whose position on abortion was not budged, so that the effect of voting for pro-life Democrats was to advance an abortion-rights agenda. In 2018 and 2020, a greater number of hardcore pro-life voters might be swayed by an unambiguously pro-life Democrat than by a vague softening of rhetoric from the Democratic National Committee—but they shouldn’t be, and the party shouldn’t count on its ability to manipulate them.
A third tactic available to the Democrats is to point to the generous social spending that they traditionally promote and to argue that it curbs the demand for abortion. The assumption that it does is intuitively correct, although we don’t know whether it is factually so: Michael New, for example, contends that no studies show that social spending reduces the abortion rate, although he doesn’t say whether any studies show that it doesn’t.
In any case, Democrats who take that line are on to something helpful, both to their party and to the pro-life cause. They should carry that reasoning to the next step. It’s not enough for them to assume and then assert, whenever they find it convenient, a correlation between social spending and a reduction in the abortion rate; everyone knows they favor social spending for other reasons. They need to adopt policy explicitly for the purpose of reducing abortion. They need to say, “Our goal is to reduce the incidence of abortion to as close to zero as is possible. The Republicans propose to reach that goal by making abortion illegal. We aim to make it unnecessary.”
Pushback from the abortion-rights lobby would be intense. Complicating the effort to reform the Democrats’ position on abortion is that the lobby and party leadership form an interlocking network: Many Democratic leaders currently take such a hard line on abortion not because they want to placate the lobby but because they share its values and assumptions and in some cases belong to it. Democrats who are serious about winning presidential elections should want cooler heads at the DNC to subdue, if not remove, the party’s abortion-rights hard core.
pro-lifers, even those who are Republicans, should also want cooler heads at the DNC to prevail. The objective to reduce the demand for abortion appears to be less controversial, and therefore less unpopular, and therefore more feasible to achieve than reducing the supply by restricting it through state laws.
Moreover, pro-lifers for whom the abortion issue is topmost should welcome their liberation from what is for them, in effect, a one-party system. Some vote for the pro-life party even though they disagree with other parts of its domestic and foreign policy. Or, under pressure to defend the pro-life party, they may rationalize policies that down deep they think are wrong.
Or policies that they do agree with now may change even as the party retains its commitment to the pro-life cause. How disagreeable would the party’s other policies have to become to them before they abandoned it despite its opposition to abortion? David Duke is a pro-life Republican who runs for political office in Louisiana occasionally. He has served in the state legislature there. If he won a Republican primary and faced as his main opponent in the general election a pro-choice Democrat, would pro-lifers betray their cause if they withheld their vote from him? It’s a thought experiment that pro-lifers should conduct to clarify their thinking and prepare themselves for other political dilemmas that they are liable to face down the road.
Meanwhile, the political dilemma confronting the Democrats is immediate. Should they dig in and persist in their refusal to acknowledge what’s plain for all to see, the biological reality of abortion and the moral truth of those who try to prevent it? Or should they adapt to the political reality that their position is brittle, untenable in national elections, and needs to be changed? The questions answer themselves.