On Sunday, the New York Times ran an interesting op-ed by Michael Wear, who directed faith outreach for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and served as an adviser in the Obama White House. In his op-ed, Wear chastises the Democratic party’s presidential candidates for their leftward lurch on abortion. He points out that many voters — even a high percentage of Democratic voters — oppose taxpayer funding of abortion. Wear cites polling data showing that many racial minorities — a key Democratic constituency — support limiting abortion. He convincingly argues that the strident, uncompromising, and absolutist position taken by Democratic politicians on abortion may well hurt them with swing voters during the 2020 election.
He urges those politicians instead to take a moderate approach, specifically encouraging them to express moral reservations about abortion and be open to supporting limitations on abortion late in pregnancy, with certain exceptions. Wear also encourages presidential candidates to support a variety of policies with the purpose of reducing the abortion rate in the U.S., including paid family leave, workplace protections for pregnant women, increased access to contraception, and strengthened social programs. Wear says that this was President Obama’s approach and hints that these policy choices resulted in abortion rates being at a historic low when Obama left office.
Unsurprisingly, given that he worked for him, Wear gives Obama more credit than he deserves. Aside from signing appropriations bills with Hyde amendment protections to prevent direct federal funding of abortion, Obama never supported any legislation that would limit abortion. And he was never an abortion moderate. As a state senator in Illinois, he voted against the Illinois Born Alive Infants Protection Act, which would’ve protected infants born alive in botched abortion procedures.
What’s more, there’s no definitive evidence that the policy tools Wear describes actually will lower abortion rates. Some research suggests that programs intended to increase contraception use tend to be either ineffective at best or counterproductive at worst. Additionally, multiple studies have found that few sexually active women say that they forgo contraception due either to high cost or lack of availability.
Similarly, while there is a body of research showing that various pro-life laws lower abortion rates, there is no corresponding body of research showing that funding for social programs reduces the incidence of abortion. Indeed, many Democrats and progressive commentators give the Affordable Care Act credit for the decline in the U.S. abortion rate since 2010, but it should be noted that the U.S. abortion rate has been falling consistently since 1980. Indeed, the low abortion rates that Wear cites as evidence of the success of Obama’s policies are more likely a continuation of the consistent downward trend in the abortion rate that began in 1980.
Even so, Wear’s broader point is a good one. Obama offered pro-lifers very little in terms of either public policy or legislation, but he was rhetorically shrewd. He did not categorically denounce or castigate pro-lifers. He realized that many Americans had concerns about abortion and acknowledged the complexity of the issue. On multiple occasions, he even expressed an interest in trying to lower abortion rates. In short, he was trying to make voters with misgivings about legal abortion comfortable supporting him in both the 2008 and 2012 election.
These lessons appear to be lost on current crop of Democratic candidates. Of the more than 20 Democrats running for president, most have publicly opposed the Hyde amendment. Similarly, no Democratic presidential candidate has identified a legal limit on abortion that they would support. When New York senator Kristen Gillibrand met with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register, she said she would only appoint judges who would uphold Roe v. Wade saying that “there’s some issues that have such moral clarity that we have, as a society, decided that the other side is not acceptable.” What appears morally clear to Gillibrand is morally complex to many, and morally repugnant to countless others. Wear is correct that Democrats who espouse such an absolutist position do so at their peril.