During the Obama years, liberalism became more aggressive in its support of abortion. Hillary Clinton’s campaign reflects this new attitude. If she is elected, her administration is likely to reach a new extreme in the depth of its commitment to keeping abortion legal, expanding subsidies for it, and insulating these policies from democratic review.
The first two Democratic presidents elected after Roe v. Wade took pains to project ambivalence about abortion. Jimmy Carter opposed a constitutional amendment to reverse the decision but said he wanted to minimize the number of abortions and opposed federal funding of them. Bill Clinton said that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare.” The phrase became part of the Democratic platform.
After John Kerry lost the 2004 election to George W. Bush, many Democrats, including Kerry himself, blamed the loss in part on the perception that their party was too identified with abortion. Democrats sought to change that perception. They recruited pro-life candidates to run for Congress in relatively conservative districts. In many cases, they changed their rhetoric. Howard Dean, then the party chairman, was no moderate: He opposed even requiring parental notification for minors’ getting abortions. But after the election he avoided using the term “pro-choice” — a term that had itself been adopted earlier to downplay abortion.
Like Dean, Hillary Clinton was in sync with the abortion lobby. As a senator she stuck with the party line on keeping partial-birth abortion legal even as many Democrats deserted it. Other Democrats voted for federal law to treat assaults on pregnant women as having two victims; not she. Clinton co-sponsored legislation to sweep away those state restrictions on abortion that the federal courts had left in place.
But also like Dean, Clinton saw the advantages of rhetorical moderation. In 2005, she gave a speech calling abortion “a sad, even tragic choice” and said that both sides of the abortion debate should work together to reduce the number of abortions. She did not give an inch on policy, and even in that speech implicitly compared pro-lifers to the Communist dictators of China: Supposedly, using the law to forbid abortion, as in pre-1973 America, is just like using the law to mandate it. But the news coverage emphasized Clinton’s search for common ground.
That kind of defensiveness has largely disappeared among Democrats, as it has from Clinton. The Democratic platform has not said since 2004 that abortion should be rare. The 2016 platform says its availability is a matter of “justice.” The platform had for years said that abortion should be available regardless of ability to pay; now it includes an explicit call to repeal the Hyde amendment, a budget provision in place since the late 1970s that keeps federal Medicaid funds from paying for abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, and threats to the mother’s life.
Clinton has herself said that Hyde should go. A right is “no right at all,” she says, if the government does not enable you to exercise it. (No word on whether people having a hard time buying guns will get Second Amendment subsidies.) In 1994, Clinton strongly supported health-care legislation that included robust protections for abortion opponents: Employers who objected to “abortion or other services” for moral reasons were not to be required to include it in their health coverage. Now Clinton, together with most of her party, condemns the idea that employers should be allowed to “impose their religious beliefs on their employees” through their coverage decisions.
Her Supreme Court appointees, she says, would continue to read the Constitution as protecting abortion: That’s just one of the commitments she would be looking for. “I have a bunch of litmus tests,” she says forthrightly.
Clinton opposes a ban on abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Like President Obama, Clinton occasionally and vaguely suggests that she would support a ban on very late-term abortions. It is a smaller concession than it appears. She says that any ban would have to exempt abortions done for health reasons. “Health” having been defined very expansively by the Supreme Court to include emotional health, it is not clear what such a ban would actually prohibit.
Clinton’s search for common ground seems also to have ended. Last August she said that pro-life politicians had “extreme views about women”: “We expect that from some of the terrorist groups, we expect that from people who don’t want to live in the modern world.”
The Democrats’ left turn on abortion is different from the one they made on same-sex marriage. On the latter issue, the public at large changed its opinion and Democrats moved with it. The public has not, however, become more pro-abortion. Ten years ago, Gallup found that 54 percent of Americans believed that abortion should be legal under few or no circumstances, while 43 percent believed it should be legal under all or most circumstances. This year the numbers were 56 and 41: essentially identical. Ten years ago, Gallup found that 51 percent of Americans considered themselves “pro-choice” and 41 percent “pro-life.” Its May survey had a tiny 47–46 percent advantage for the pro-choicers.
Pollsters don’t often ask about government funding for abortion, but it seems likely that a majority of the public remains opposed to it. In 2014, CNN found 56 percent opposition to the idea and only 39 percent support for it.
Democrats are trying to lead rather than follow public opinion on abortion. Many liberals have concluded over the last decade that they have been ceding too much ground on the issue. The years Democrats talked about making abortion rare and called it tragic saw an increase in the number of pro-life laws, from waiting periods to bans on partial-birth abortion. Many of them dislike that kind of talk on principle: Saying that abortion is “tragic” and to be reduced, after all, suggests that it is something more problematic than the removal of a tumor.
Liberals have also had less need to make concessions of any kind to conservatism in recent years. The collapse of the Republican party during Bush’s second term; its continued internal divisions and demographic decay; and, now, its embrace of Donald Trump: All have given them the sense that compromise is unnecessary. On abortion specifically, liberals have been liberated by the extinction of pro-life Democrats. And they have not been given recent reason to fear that extremism would have a cost. At no point since the debate over partial-birth abortion — the federal law against which was signed 13 years ago — have pro-lifers managed to keep the national debate focused on that extremism. Trump could change that now that the Democrats are openly campaigning on subsidies for abortion. But his own history on the subject and his lack of interest in it both argue against his taking the offensive.
Hillary Clinton would not be the most pro-abortion president the nation has ever elected. Her views on abortion are roughly the same as those of President Obama, which is to say well to the left of most Americans’. Her support for abortion could, however, be more consequential than his.
She would have an opportunity he has been denied: a chance to appoint Supreme Court justices who would tilt the law further in favor of abortion. (Obama replaced two pro-Roe justices with two other pro-Roe justices.) And she would be leading the most pro-abortion governing party our country has ever seen.