Watching the Democratic convention in Charlotte, at least in the hours before the networks started covering it, one might have gotten the impression that the chief threat to the common good in America is that some people want to restrict what was variously called “reproductive health care,” “the right to choose,” and, most simply if least frequently, “abortion.”
This subject was the theme of speeches by Cecile Richards, the president of Planned Parenthood; Nancy Keenan, the president of a group called NARAL Pro-Choice America; and activist Sandra Fluke, famous for having been called a slut by Rush Limbaugh. Maria Ciano, addressing the convention as a former Republican, endorsed the right to choose. So did Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick and San Antonio mayor Julián Castro. Caroline Kennedy, herself famous for being the daughter of a former president, said that she was especially concerned about reproductive health care “as a Catholic.” Actress Kerry Washington mentioned the right to choose in her speech. The president did as well.
The Democrats’ views on abortion policy have not changed: They have long been committed to keeping abortion unrestricted and to increasing its subsidization. Over the years they have become more uniformly committed to that view, and Republicans to its opposite, as pro-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans have left their parties. What has changed is that the Democrats of 2012 are expressing their support of abortion with a degree of rhetorical aggressiveness that they have in the past shied away from. President Obama is running for reelection with the most strongly pro-abortion message of any national campaign in history.
That most of those convention comments came before prime time is one sign that Democrats are aware of the risks of this strategy. They are handling those risks differently from a previous generation of Democrats. Consider the early 1990s, when the pro-choice side seemed to be winning all the battles in the abortion wars. From the mid-1970s through the early 1990s, the percentage of Americans who told Gallup that abortion should be legal “in all circumstances” had steadily risen (it peaked in 1992 at 34). Many nominally pro-life politicians responded to this trend by flipping to pro-choice. Yet even at that pro-choice peak, Bill Clinton hedged. Abortion, he famously said, should be “safe, legal, and rare.”
Clinton was a strong ally of the abortion lobby: He twice vetoed bills to ban partial-birth abortion even though they had strong bipartisan support. He nonetheless understood that most Americans did not see abortion as its most vocal feminist supporters did. Most Americans thought of it as, at best, a tragic necessity, not a liberating choice. While abortion is very common — credible estimates have a third of American women procuring at least one over the course of their lives — it has never been normalized as just another surgical procedure in our culture.
Distaste for abortion is one of the reasons that Democrats began to speak in terms of the “right to choose” without specifying the object of the verb. It was a sufficiently strong distaste that even organizations dedicated to the protection of abortion began to hide the word. By 2003, the group that had once been called the National Abortion Rights Action League had become “NARAL Pro-Choice America,” its first five letters literally no longer standing for anything.
#page#From roughly 1995 on, the pro-choice side has been measurably losing ground. While the Supreme Court has effectively ruled that abortion must be legal at any stage of pregnancy, many states have enacted whatever laws they can devise to protect life given that constraint: laws requiring women considering abortion to look at sonograms, for example, or establishing a presumption that a minor should obtain parental consent before getting an abortion.
The percentage of Americans who say abortion should be legal under all circumstances has fallen to 25 in the latest Gallup numbers. In 1995, 56 percent of those polled told Gallup they considered themselves “pro-choice” and only 33 percent “pro-life.” In recent years, the difference has been much smaller, and pro-lifers have often been on top. The latest numbers, from this year, have 50 percent of the public “pro-life” and 41 percent “pro-choice.”
In 2004, many Democrats blamed their inability to prevent George W. Bush’s reelection as president on their party’s abortion liability. John Kerry, who had just lost the election, told a pro-choice gathering that the party gave the impression that it liked abortion. Democratic operative Donna Brazile told the New York Times that she had trouble explaining to her family “that we are not about killing babies.” Howard Dean, who had run to Kerry’s left in the primaries the year earlier, tried to change the debate once he became chairman of the party — recruiting a few pro-life candidates and avoiding not only the word “abortion” but even the label “pro-choice.”
The shift in public opinion has several causes. The diffusion of ultrasound technology changed the tenor of the debate: While pro-choicers had once insisted that the “fetus” was a mere “blob of protoplasm” or “collection of cells,” the being inside the womb even early in pregnancy looked like a baby to more and more people. The decline of anti-abortion violence in the early 1990s took away an obstacle that had kept many Americans from identifying as pro-life. The controversy over partial-birth abortion, which began to dominate the congressional abortion debate in 1995, made the pro-choice side look extreme. The rising acceptability of out-of-wedlock birth made abortion seem less defensible, especially to young people.
The activists most strongly committed to abortion pointed to another reason for this lost ground: the cowardice of their political allies. David Garrow, an academic historian and partisan of the abortion movement, lamented the safe-legal-and-rare rhetoric. “Once the pro-choice movement sent the message that abortion was undesirable, we were on a slippery slope headed downhill,” he told Newsweek in 2005.
Democrats on both sides of their internal debate saw Barack Obama as an ally as he ran for president. He had a very strongly pro-abortion record — but his campaign, with the help of a compliant media, made that record look murkier than it was. While he was a state senator in Illinois, a nurse had reported that in her hospital infants routinely survived attempted abortions and were abandoned to die. The state attorney general said that existing law did not cover these cases, and legislation was proposed to fill the gap. Obama opposed the legislation.
#page#When he ran for president, his campaign and his apologists claimed, as they do even today, that he opposed the law because it duplicated existing law, or because it required doctors to make extraordinary efforts to save the affected infants, or because it did not include language clarifying that it should be read so as to pose no conflict with Roe v. Wade. None of these excuses were valid: One of the versions of the law Obama opposed included that no-threat-to-Roe language, for example. He explained the real reason for his opposition: He did not believe that the law should recognize human beings before “viability” as having a right to life, even if they were entirely outside their mothers’ bodies.
Like Clinton before him, Obama said that he would nominate only Supreme Court justices who favored maintaining Roe. He led many observers to believe, during the campaign, that he was open to narrowing it so that late-term abortions would be allowed only in cases of serious threats to a woman’s health. He then clarified that he had meant only that the Supreme Court already took this view, which is false. He wasn’t actually in favor of moderating existing abortion policy, in other words. He was in favor of spinning it to sound more moderate than it is.
The 2008 Democratic platform dropped the Clinton-era language about “safe, legal, and rare.” It kept the party’s endorsement of a right to abortion “regardless of ability to pay,” or, in other words, with taxpayer subsidies. The 2012 platform follows suit. President Obama also, however, talked about finding common ground on abortion. In a commencement speech at Notre Dame in 2009, he said we should “work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions” and “honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion.”
That was a long time ago. During this election year the Obama administration has issued a rule requiring almost all employers, including religious employers, to include coverage for contraceptives and sterilization. Its definition of contraceptives includes the drug ella, which likely causes abortions in some cases. Notre Dame is among the institutions suing the administration over the rule. The Democrats have accused the rule’s opponents of waging a “war on women.”
The Democratic offensive heated up in August because of a conjunction of events. Romney selected as his running mate Paul Ryan, who opposes abortion except when needed to save a woman’s life and makes no exception for cases of rape and incest. Ryan had co-sponsored legislation declaring that human life begins at conception and affirming the power of legislatures to act accordingly. Much of the press treated the bill as a ban on abortion without a rape exception, and even as a ban on in vitro fertilization. Ryan had also co-sponsored legislation to bar federal funding for abortion except in the cases of rape or threats to a woman’s life. The bill referred to “forcible rape,” in an attempt to block subsidies for abortions resulting from statutory rape. Democrats charged Republicans with trying to “redefine rape” to exclude forms of coercion such as drugs, and Republicans changed the wording.
Also in August, Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin provoked a national furor by justifying his own opposition to abortion in cases of rape in part by claiming that women’s bodies protect them from impregnation by rapists. And the Republican party prepared to ratify a platform that is, like its predecessors since the Reagan years, silent about what exceptions a ban on abortion should allow.
While Romney says he believes abortion should be legal in cases of rape, in 2007 he responded to a question by saying he would welcome the day the country reached a consensus against abortion, “period,” and would be “delighted” to sign a ban. The Obama campaign has taken this comment to mean that he wants to ban abortion in cases of rape, even though he has said the opposite in his only explicit comment on that issue. It has run ad after ad reinforcing this fiction. The Democratic line is set: Akin, Ryan, and Romney are all more or less interchangeable extremists on abortion.
#page#The press, which tilts heavily to the pro-choice side of the debate, is aiding the Democratic campaign through its reporting. Journalists pored over the Republican-platform language on abortion for its implications about cases of rape and grilled Republican candidates about it, knowing that only about a fifth of the population favors a ban with no rape exception. The Democratic platform is as silent about limits to the abortion license as the Republican platform is about exceptions to a ban, but Democrats have rarely faced any questions about it. Taxpayer funding of abortion is only slightly more popular than opposition to a rape exception, but few outlets even reported that the Democratic platform endorsed it.
The Democrats’ war-on-women rhetoric — which folds together the controversies over abortion and the contraceptive mandate with arguments about pay equity — has inspired a fair amount of angst among Republicans. It is probably a reason so few speakers at the Republican convention spoke about abortion or the right to life (although Romney’s speech worked in a reference). Romney is doing worse among women than among men, as Republicans usually do, and there is a widespread assumption that abortion has something to do with it.
There is very little evidence for that. Research on public opinion about abortion has never found large differences between the views of men and women. Women on both sides of the debate seem to feel more strongly about it than men, but pro-lifers have almost always been found to be more likely to vote on the issue than pro-choicers. Women tend to be more liberal than men on welfare-state and national-security issues, so it’s not surprising that Republicans tend to lag among them — or that Democrats lag among men. Assuming that “women’s issues” are responsible for these patterns appears to be as false as it is lazy.
Those liberals who chafed at the Democrats’ previous restraint on abortion are welcoming the new approach. Irin Carmon lauded it in Salon during the Democratic convention: “In a striking departure, Democrats have embraced the opportunity to do something they haven’t done on a national level in a while: reframe the debate. Democrats are moving off the conservative terrain of the ’90s, and actually arguing that safe abortion access is part of a comprehensive agenda of women’s rights. Not ‘privacy.’ Not a ‘tragedy.’” The word “rare” no longer appeared in the platform language, she explained, “because pro-choice activists . . . dislike the implicit stigmatizing of women who choose abortion.”
Swing voters have generally seemed not to like thinking about abortion and to react negatively to those who bring up the subject. Both parties therefore generally couch their discussions as responses to the other side’s aggression. The Democrats are still following that rule, portraying Romney as poised to go on an anti-abortion rampage the minute the election is won. Voters may, however, find it odd to see a political party endlessly harping on the other side’s alleged fixation on an issue that only it is spending much time discussing.
At a time when the country has become more pro-life, the Democrats have shifted their rhetoric in the other direction — in part because of activist frustration at the drift in public opinion. They still try to avoid the word “abortion,” though. It could be residual caution. Or it could be that the euphemisms have taken on a life of their own.