Whether or not the Democrats can ride what appears to be the impending overturning of Roe v. Wade to victories in November turns on one word: rare.
When I wrote about this last week I said that I liked Bill Clinton’s formulation that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” I suspected when I wrote that that “rare” was going to be some sort of a problem for the hard-left in the Democratic Party. Then an alert reader confirmed that for me, sending me a link to a 2019 article in Vox. And, yes, that was three years ago and, yes, that does demonstrate just how out of touch I am with the latest liberal fashions. Actually, I work hard at trying to ignore the latest liberal fashions.
So according to Vox, it turns out that since 2016 or so abortion rights activists and liberal Democratic politicians (including Bill Clinton’s wife) have expunged “rare” from that phrase. Apparently, the view on the hard-left is that there’s nothing at all wrong with abortion and “rare” suggests that they should make some apologies for the procedure. The new chant seems to be “free abortion on demand without apologies.” If your goal was to come up with a phrase that produced maximum damage to your movement, well, I suppose “defund the police” might have been worse, but not by much.
This is just an extension of the ongoing and growing differences between idealogical, hard-left activists and practically minded moderates in the party. The activists do not trouble themselves with winning elections. Every week they invent new ways to alienate persuadable voters. State your pronouns, insist on “Latinx” when only 4% of Hispanics use that word to describe themselves, pass laws banning discrimination based on hairstyles, and on and on and on. The identity-obsessed hard-left agenda looks like trivia to a voting population worried about inflation, crime and immigration — all issues, by the way, on which Republicans have an advantage in the polls.
But now inject abortion into that list. Access to abortion is an issue that is both substantive and on which Democrats generally have an advantage, at least in most parts of the country. That includes Wisconsin where the pro-choice position holds a 10 point advantage.
Except that it’s not as simple as those surface numbers suggest. While the majority of Americans say they support Roe, actually they don’t. That’s because a majority of folks who say they support Roe actually oppose abortions in the second trimester, when Roe says they must remain legal.
As long-time, respected NPR legal analyst Nina Totenberg pointed out last week, “the majority of Americans support abortion rights with some restrictions… they support ‘safe, legal and rare’.”
And yet — and this is a problem with most issues — the Democratic messaging on abortion is coming from its hard-left elites. In that world you may not say that abortion should be rare. So, Democrats will eschew a phrase that works brilliantly to unite all pro-choice voters from those who would support it in any circumstances to the majority who have qualms about it. Instead, they’re likely to drive a message that appeals to maybe one in four voters — all of whom would have voted for Democrats in any event — while they push away everybody else. Nice work.
Count me among those with qualms. I support the right to abortion for practical public health reasons and because our current track is actually reducing the number of abortions. Abortions in Wisconsin are down by two-thirds since 1988 and the national trend in only somewhat less positive than that. But I don’t see the right to abortion as absolute — any more than your right to have a gun is absolute. A fetus is not a gallbladder. It’s a potential human life and, as such, there is some level of societal interest in the pregnancy. It is not, in fact, simply and purely a decision for the woman. If it were then the most ardent feminists would have to oppose Roe because Roe allows for restrictions after the second trimester. The very existence of Roe points up the nuanced reality of the situation. Essentially, if you follow Roe, the societal interest in the fetus grows along with it.
For me and the majority of Americans the most sensible path is the one we’ve been on since the 1980’s. Keep abortion safe and legal and continue to make it more and more rare. That is not only the best public policy, but it’s also the winning message in November. But held hostage to their out-of-touch hard-left elites, there’s almost no chance the Democrats will hew to it, so expect them to squander their advantage.
Want to read more curiously conservative views from a liberal? Pick up a copy of Light Blue: How center-left moderates can build an enduring Democratic majority.