During a recent presidential-primary debate, Hawaii congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard provoked controversy when she repeated a line that was once common parlance among Democratic politicians: “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare.” Even more surprising, Gabbard said that while she’d be willing to codify the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, she’d prohibit abortion during the last three months of pregnancy “unless the life or severe health consequences of a woman [were] at risk.”
The swift and severe censure she received from her own side was a stark reminder of how far left the Democratic party has moved on abortion policy over the past two decades. Under fire from progressives and opposed by all of her fellow Democratic presidential hopefuls — none of whom has articulated support for a single restriction on abortion — Gabbard received backup from an unlikely ally: the former president of Planned Parenthood.
Dr. Leana Wen — who was ousted as chief by Planned Parenthood’s board earlier this year in part because she hoped to prioritize expanding the group’s health-care services rather than ramping up its pro-abortion political activism — wrote on Twitter after the debate that, while she doesn’t agree with Gabbard on much, she appreciated that she had “brought up the third rail for Democrats: that abortion should be ‘safe, legal, and rare.’”
Until quite recently, this phrase was the Democratic tagline on abortion, popularized by President Bill Clinton two decades ago. But as the party has shifted to satisfy the demands of the Left’s most progressive abortion-rights advocates, that has changed.
In 2012, national Democrats excised the word “rare” from their official platform, writing instead that the party favored “safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay.” By 2016, they had taken their support for abortion a step further, by calling for the repeal of the Hyde amendment, a rider that has been added to federal spending bills on a bipartisan basis since Roe to prohibit the direct federal funding of abortion procedures.
These alterations marked a significant shift even from the rhetoric of Democratic politicians a decade ago. Barack Obama, in a 2009 speech at the University of Notre Dame, at least paid lip service to the importance of finding common ground with pro-life Americans and working to reduce the demand for abortions. Former vice president Joe Biden once staunchly supported the Hyde amendment; he repudiated that stance, during his current run for president, after coming under fire from progressive feminists.
As recently as her 2008 primary bid against Obama, Hillary Clinton routinely used the phrase “safe, legal, and rare,” even tacking on the line “and by ‘rare,’ I mean rare.” But by the time her 2016 campaign came around, Clinton had ceased using the phrase, rejected Hyde, and, in the third presidential debate, defended her vote against a bill banning partial-birth abortion procedures.
Today, with the exception of Gabbard, Democratic presidential candidates uniformly oppose the Hyde amendment and all forms of abortion restrictions. Several support a federal bill that would block any state law limiting abortion, even after fetal viability. Some have said they’d consider packing the Supreme Court to prevent the overturning of Roe and subsequent abortion jurisprudence. Most are on record saying they’d impose a litmus test on potential judicial nominees to ensure that they’d support Roe.
It isn’t terribly surprising, then, that Gabbard and Wen found themselves at the center of a left-wing firestorm for suggesting that Democrats ought to consider a position on abortion other than permitting it on demand, throughout pregnancy, underwritten by the U.S. taxpayer.
Brimstone descended on these half-hearted moderates — who still represent a position on abortion considerably more liberal than that of the average American — primarily because the pro-abortion movement has a central goal of ending what its activists call the “stigma” surrounding abortion.
On this view, any rhetoric or policy suggesting that there is something wrong with abortion significantly harms women who have had an abortion or who might have one someday. One prominent purveyor of this notion is the activist group Shout Your Abortion, which encourages women to share their abortion stories as a way of celebrating their choice.
Speaking of Gabbard’s debate remarks, Shout Your Abortion co-founder Amelia Bonow told Vice magazine, “I cannot think of a less compelling way to advocate for something than saying that it should be rare, and anyone who uses that phrase is operating from the assumption that abortion is a bad thing.”
Bonow’s statement represents the mainstream position of abortion-rights groups today. Activist Renee Bracey Sherman, until recently an employee of the National Network of Abortion Funds, lambasted Wen on Twitter, writing, “Demanding that abortion be ‘rare,’ is stigmatizing because at its core, it stipulates that having an abortion is a bad decision and shouldn’t be done.” Pamela Merritt, another activist and former Planned Parenthood employee, told the Daily Beast that the word “rare” is “a slam and a disrespect to every single person who’s had an abortion.”
In short, nothing less than unlimited abortion, on demand and morally sanctioned, will do. Advocating abortion “unshamefully,” as Bonow puts it, requires not only that left-wing politicians cease associating the word “rare” with the procedure but also that they promote policies treating abortion as a social good rather than as a necessary evil. This is why former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards, who helmed the group for the twelve years before Wen’s tenure, preferred the phrase “safe, legal, and fair” and led a campaign to abolish restrictions on federal funding for abortion.
The sheer volume of criticism heaped on Gabbard and Wen suggests that efforts to suppress “stigmatizing” language on the mainstream left have been largely successful. As the pro-abortion movement has grown in influence, its organizations and leaders have taken on an outsized role in shaping Democratic policy. No longer do Democratic politicians concern themselves with the reported one in three Democrats who call themselves “pro-life”; they are much more worried about the threat of losing campaign funding from behemoth PACs such as Planned Parenthood Action Fund or NARAL Pro-Choice America. And perhaps even more frightening to Democrats than losing financial backing is the possibility that influential abortion-rights advocates will exercise their considerable messaging muscle to brand an insufficiently pro-abortion politician “anti-choice” or “anti-woman.” When abortion-advocacy organizations decided it was time to dispense with “rare,” the Democratic party rushed to accommodate.
The party’s current view of abortion might pacify progressive activists, but, as Wen rightly points out, Democrats have placed themselves out of step with most Americans and plenty of their own voters. A January poll found that 60 percent of Democrats would allow abortion, at most, only in the first three months of pregnancy. A 2018 Gallup survey, meanwhile, found that only 13 percent of Americans and 18 percent of Democrats support legal abortion during the last three months of pregnancy.
The Democratic party’s extreme position on abortion also neglects the views of its minority members. For instance, while more than 80 percent of white Democrats support legal abortion, only 66 percent of black Democrats do. Thirty-five percent of white Democrats say voters should support only Democratic candidates who favor legal abortion, while just 7 percent of black Democrats say the same. A striking 40 percent of Latino Democrats say voters should support candidates only if they oppose abortion.
In their haste to appease progressive activists, Democrats have made unlimited abortion a cornerstone of their platform, leaving behind not only the average American but many of their own voters in the process.
This article appears as “Safe, Legal, and Unlimited” in the November 25, 2019, print edition of National Review.