Every couple of years, it seems, a Republican politician explaining his opposition to abortion makes the news for having said something repugnant. It can be career-ending, as in Todd Akin’s case. But those are isolated incidents. Democrats talk that way all the time, though from the other side of the debate. At least that’s how they sound to many Americans who abhor or even just feel ambivalent about abortion.
“Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies,” Donna Brazile remarked after the 2004 election. The “we” were Democrats. She was recommending that her party tone down its rhetoric on social issues.
After the results of 2016, some are now arguing that Democrats should promote policies designed explicitly to reduce abortion. Michael New thinks that a couple of proposals — streamline adoption procedures, drop opposition to the Hyde Amendment — that have been recommended to the Democratic party by a Boston College professor writing in the New York Times are meager, but most pro-life measures advanced by Republicans are also at the margins of the abortion debate: parental notification, stricter licensing requirements for clinics, etc. If Democrats add a measure or two of their own, excellent: Pro-lifers should applaud them and encourage more.
Some pro-lifers will object that Democrats seeking their votes are insincere. But Republican support for their cause over the years has also appeared perfunctory at times. The pro-life movement’s response to that political reality has been clear-eyed: It supports pro-life policies and, unless he’s a crackpot or a scoundrel, the candidate who can best be relied on to advance them. Whether his heart is in it or not is immaterial to their immediate purposes.
In any case, many Democrats could sincerely support abortion-reducing measures. When you talk with people who call themselves pro-choice, you find that few are pro-abortion and that most feel the moral weight of the issue more heavily than you might have thought. They are receptive to certain pro-life ideas when the question is about what is morally optimum.
Why abortion should be illegal is a related but different question. It’s necessary for pro-lifers to answer it for their aim to be intelligible, but that frame is not sufficient to their ultimate task, which is to abolish the injustice or at any rate reduce its incidence to as close to zero as they can manage. It is true but misleading to say even of thoroughgoing pro-lifers that they oppose legal abortion. They oppose illegal abortion equally.
Current legal restrictions on abortion in state laws are about as protective of unborn children as public opinion supports. Pro-life legislators looking for more ways to reduce the supply of abortion are close to an impasse. Measures to reduce demand tend to be more popular. They blunt the objections of activists who are dug in against efforts to reduce the supply.
If only out of electoral self-interest, Democrats could, for example, propose that government funding of Planned Parenthood be halved and that the other half go to Birthright, which offers prenatal care and information on adoption. The organization does what it can to reduce the demand for abortion while removing itself from efforts to reduce the supply. A hard core of party activists would object to any Democratic embrace of Birthright, but the organization’s carefully circumscribed mission is irrelevant to the fight over “choice.” And in any case, where would pro-abortion-rights Democrats go?
Pro-life Republicans would object to the half of the funding that remained for PP. They could make the case that the glass being offered to Birthright should be full, not half full (although limited-government fiscal conservatives might not want to argue for a diversion of such funding rather than for the outright elimination of it). Even if Republicans lost that debate, the pro-life cause would see some gain: more money for Birthright, less for PP.
Let the parties get into a bidding war for the pro-life vote.