How Democrats Always Get the Abortion Question Wrong

Every election year we hear Democrats voice their awkward opinions on the issue of abortion. They usually fall back on the tried and true response that the government should not be involved in a woman’s reproductive choices. While this argument appeals to a certain contingency on the left, it comes across as cruel and uncaring for those who consider an unborn child a person.

We haven’t heard much about abortion this election cycle, but the issue was briefly thrown into the spotlight in September when Bernie Sanders spoke at the conservative Liberty University. He was asked specifically about the issue of abortion, and he was given a golden opportunity to speak about the issue to a captive audience of die-hard conservatives. It was a great opportunity, and how did Bernie respond? By saying that it’s a woman’s right to choose. Ugh. The only thing the audience heard was that Bernie Sanders thinks women should have the right to murder their children. Way to win them over Bern.

If I was Bernie Sanders’s campaign manager, here is what I would have told him to say to the students at Liberty University when asked about the issue of abortion:

(Try to imagine Bernie’s voice here)

There is not a person in this room who hates abortion more than me. It fills my heart with great sorrow to think about the number of abortions that we have in this country every day. As a father of four, I understand how precious children are, and I love my children more than words can express. So the tragedy of abortion is not lost on me. When people mistake my pro-choice stance as an indication that I’m in favor of abortion, or that I don’t care about the termination of unwanted pregnancies, it bothers me a great deal because nothing could be further from the truth. If you see my pro-choice stance as hypocritical or inconsistent, please let me explain my position.

If I could wave my hand and stop every abortion from happening, I would do it. But neither I nor anyone else has such power. As long as people have sex for reasons other than procreation, there will be unwanted pregnancies, and as long as there are unwanted pregnancies, there will be abortions. Making abortions illegal will not end all abortions, but it will make them much more dangerous for the mother. Bill Clinton said that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare; and that’s exactly how I feel. Our sisters and daughters should not die as a result of getting an illegal abortion. I’m not in favor of abortion, but I am in favor of women not dying from abortions.

Our goal should not be a ban on abortions as a ban will not end a great many abortions, but will instead create a serious health risk to a great many women. So here’s what I propose we do.

We provide education to young women, and we increase access to contraceptives. If we do this, we can substantially reduce the number of abortions in this country. A study last month coming out of Washington University School of Medicine showed that if women at risk of unwanted pregnancies received the birth control of their choosing at no cost, the national abortion rate would plummet.

Planned Parenthood gets a lot of flack for being an abortion Wal-Mart, but we know that no organization in this country prevents more abortions than Planned Parenthood. If the pro-life movement understood the causal effect that Planned Parenthood’s efforts have had on reducing the abortion rate in this country, they’d be advocating for the construction of a Planned Parenthood on every street corner.

I’m not a Planned Parenthood spokesperson, but I think it’s worth noting that 35% of their funding goes towards providing contraception while only 3% of their funds go toward abortions. So while it’s true that Planned Parenthood does provide abortions, significantly more time, effort, and money is spent on preventing unwanted pregnancies, providing contraceptive services, and educating women on how to avoid scenarios that lead to abortions. This is how we stop abortions in this country, not by signing a piece of paper at the Capitol Building.

You and I have a lot more in common on the issue of abortion than you think. We have the same goal in that we want to see abortions reduced to their lowest possible levels. How we reach that goal is where we come together and work as one. That will require that pro-life advocates move past the idea of a ban and work with both sides of the aisle to take meaningful steps that haven been proven to reduce unwanted pregnancies.

(End Bernie’s voice)

In case anyone is questioning my progressive credentials, let me make them clear. I have been a registered Democrat since the age of 18; I am a proud liberal; and I am pro-choice. That being said, Democrats get the issue of abortion wrong every time. They use euphemistic language like “reproductive rights” to describe the abortion issue, as if abortions are merely an extension of our individual liberties. Continuing with this rationale, Democrats sometimes make the case that anti-abortion legislation is an affront on American women, and it’s a continuation of the conservative agenda to keep women subservient and in the home. In the frenzy of talk about freedom, liberties, misogyny, and big government, there is something inherent to the issue of abortion that Democrats don’t talk about: the loss of life.

Here are some interesting numbers. A survey conducted by the nonpartisan group YouGov.com found that 66% of people believe that fetuses in the womb are people. Only 16% of polled participants did not consider an unborn baby a person. The poll also revealed that 52% of Americans believe that life begins at conception. No matter how you slice it, the majority of Americans place some value on the life of an unborn child. So when Democrats talk about a woman’s right to choose, they’re abandoning any hope of attracting voters for whom abortion is among their most important issues.

There are many undecided voters, moderates, and one-issue voters who struggle with the abortion issue in every election. Aborting fetuses doesn’t sit well with them, and the talk of getting government out of a woman’s uterus rings hollow when clearly Democrats don’t mind letting government intervene in many other facets of our lives (e.g. healthcare, education, regulation of business, etc.). Pro-life voters don’t want to hear about a woman’s choice. They want to hear that Democrats care about the lives of our most vulnerable. Fortunately for Democrats, these two things are not mutually exclusive.

When Democrats are asked about the issue of abortion, they need to respond in a way that’s honest and compassionate. My belief is that you can be all of these things while still maintaining a pro-choice stance. This is an easy victory for Democrats. They can stay consistent on their pro-choice position without moving their line in the sand. They just need to change the way they communicate this issue to the people. I am by no means advocating that Democrats be dishonest or oversell their position of compassion to manipulate the voting public. I am merely suggesting that we add nuance to our position and stop relying on the callous, unpersuasive “woman’s choice” mantra.

Abortion is an issue where the Democrats should be beating the Republicans. While politicians like Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal throw red meat at their evangelical base by talking about the prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade, they offer nothing in the way of actually stopping abortions in this country. They neglect the role that education and contraceptives play in reducing the problem, and they pretend that a new law will end abortions. Rather than manipulate the Christian voters in America, in the tradition of the Republicans, Democrats should be shouting from the rooftops what they are actually doing to reduce the abortion rate in this country. That’s a winning message that even pro-life voters can’t ignore.

– Nathan

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4 Responses to “How Democrats Always Get the Abortion Question Wrong”

  1. Clinton’s quote was and remains the clearest expression of my motivation in endorsing the pro-choice position — especially in dealing with the overwhelming messaging on the issue that I see and hear as a Catholic. To make abortions rare takes a commitment to education and supporting whole people that very few on the right seem interested in making. No one I know had an abortion because they wanted to be in that position.

  2. Well, here goes…

    I have tried my best to acknowledge the things we agree on and could work together on, without sacrificing my principles on this issue. I definitely appreciate the thought you put in to narrowing the gap, and I wish to respond in kind. “Bernie’s speech,” so to speak, still reveals a pretty large gulf between our respective ideas, however, and I also want to illuminate that–not to beat you over the head, but to foster mutual understanding. It’s fair to say that perhaps I misunderstand you as well, even after reading and re-reading your post. For example, your proposal that I “move past the idea of a ban” sounds to me like you want me to give up on the idea altogether. That isn’t going to happen. Maybe all you mean is that we need to begin on a different level than that in order to work together on this problem. That, I can do. What I can also do is agree to take measures to reduce abortions. Reduction is good. But it will never be sufficient. The following is not intended as a point-by-point refutation of your post, it just looks that way in the first paragraph.

    “There is not a person in this room who hates abortion more than me.” If a pro-choice candidate ever actually said this to a conservative audience, he would be booed off the stage before another word came out of his mouth. Don’t open with this. They just won’t believe you. Hopefully the rest of this will help you understand why.

    Nobody needs to explain that there is risk to the mother. But to trumpet your concern for the mother by insisting that killing the baby is a reasonable solution rings hollow. You’ve gotta remember who you’re talking to. This reads as, “Let’s keep murder safer for the perpetrators.” You’ve gotta remember that your audience does not see the life of the baby as any less precious than that of the mother. OF COURSE none of us want women to die in abortions. But in EVERY abortion, a baby dies, whether the woman dies or not. Both deaths are tragedies, but only one is a murder. The real tragedy here is that anyone ever thought that killing the baby was a reasonable solution to the myriad problems of unwanted pregnancy. What we really want is for abortions to be unthinkable. For people in general to be so horrified by the idea that it simply isn’t an option.

    A lot of pro-life folks are very much in favor of a lot of the things PP does and provides. We aren’t all “abstinence-only education” folks. And offering free or affordable cancer screenings and such is undeniably a good thing. But the percentage of their funding that goes to abortions is irrelevant. Unless it’s 0%, they are an abortion provider, and ANY funding that goes to PP is therefore funding for abortions. More free contraception? Great! More free and affordable healthcare? GREAT!! Just stop performing abortions!

    I (and a great many others) see this issue very similarly to the old practice of lynching blacks for trivial offenses (like “being an uppity n****r”). Civil rights leaders rightly demanded a ban, and/or demanded that a ban be enforced. A certain amount of cultural shifting was necessary to achieve this. There is probably a fringe element in society that would like to continue the practice. Some might even argue that it still happens in different forms, and maybe they’re right. But I think we’re all in agreement that it’s better than it was. The civil rights act didn’t end racism. A lot of people think, and they’re probably right, that everyone is a little bit racist in some way or another. But flat-out white supremacy is now pretty rare. That kind of cultural shift requires a lot more than just a piece of legislation. But that doesn’t mean the legislation shouldn’t be there. What if MLK had been convinced that pushing for a Civil Rights Act was just too troublesome?

    I can acknowledge that simply pulling the plug on abortions tomorrow would result in a fallout of unimaginable proportions. And that wouldn’t happen anyway, because the country and the government simply aren’t there yet on the issue. Structures have to be put in place so that women who might feel like they have no other option than abortion can see that they do. Every effort we can make towards support of single mothers, women in poverty, etc., must be exhausted. All the stops have to be pulled out. Private organizations, public social services, whatever. And there ARE organizations that do this. But we need more of them, and they have to become the first thing people think of when they have an unwanted pregnancy. This will take time. Even if we elect the most vehement pro-life president ever, Roe v Wade is not going to be overturned the following week. When I speak of banning abortions, I don’t mean tomorrow, with a single swipe of a pen. It’s more complicated than that, because…

    …What makes this difficult, even as an issue of murder, is that the perpetrator/accomplice often is herself a victim. She might be a victim of poverty and despair. Maybe the father has abandoned her. There might be a host of reasons to consider her a victim. We can, and must, have tremendous compassion for these women and try to help them all we can. But neither their status as victims nor our compassion can change the fact of murder.

    This last point is perhaps the most volatile, but it has to be said nonetheless. Unless the mother is a rape victim, then she is pregnant because she chose to have sex. Whether someone is getting educated about contraception or not, whether that contraception is available or affordable or not, we all know that no method of contraception is 100% guaranteed to work. We all know this. If you’re having sex, you can get pregnant. If you aren’t able or willing to face that consequence, DON’T HAVE SEX. I will not advocate the murder of innocent babies just so we can have sex with impunity. That is perhaps the worst justification for mass murder in the history of the world. I can see you throwing up your hands in frustration. I expect people not to have recreational sex? No. I just expect people to accept the consequences of that decision. ALL the potential consequences. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask. I realize that we men have it easier on this point. The guy can just leave, and the woman is stuck with a kid, alone. Well, maybe there should be stiffer penalties and more enforcement on those things. But it sure isn’t the baby’s fault, and shame on us for acting like it is. Getting pregnant used to be somewhat of a deterrent. Now it’s not. I think that’s stupid and inexcusable, and I cannot advocate abortion. What I see is people who are so unwilling to accept the consequences of their decisions that they are willing to dehumanize a baby to justify killing it. I will not get on board with that, ever.

    A reduction of abortions goes in the win column. On that much, we agree. My problem with your proposal is that it utterly fails to call abortion what it is, namely, murder. I could see my way to considering part of your proposal as a stepping stone to a future ban. The abortion rate now is roughly a million a year, down from a high of 1.6 million in 1990-ish. I’m glad about a reduction of 600,000. But it still doesn’t sit very well when there’s a million more. And making sure it’s safe and affordable…I would be selling my soul. Again—totally in favor of more affordable or available contraception. I don’t think extramarital sex is a good thing, but people are going to do it, and it isn’t murder. I’ll trade that to stop abortions any day of the week. Yes, I realize that married women also use contraception and have abortions. But contraception makes sex outside marriage a lot easier. The abstinence-only crowd fears that providing contraception will encourage more extramarital sex, especially among teens. I’m just saying that I’m willing to make that concession if it results in fewer abortions.

    I am willing to take measures to keep abortion rare, and to make it seem less like “the only option.” But rare is insufficient. You will never hear me say, “let’s keep abortion safe and legal.” I want people to have the same reaction to abortion that they do to Auschwitz. Nothing less will do. I realize that comparing anything to the Holocaust always seems like overreaching. But consider this: from my point of view, we have long surpassed the Holocaust in numbers, and the reason is basically the satisfaction of our sexual proclivities with no consequences. That fills me with such unbelievable horror, and unless you see it that way too, there is no way you hate abortion as much as I do. You want me to move past the idea of a ban? No. I have no interest in moving past that. But I do recognize that it isn’t so simple as just passing a law. Working to reduce abortions in advance of a future ban is definitely something I can agree to. But I will never give up on the issue itself. I can’t.

  3. Joel – You wrote, “You’ve gotta remember that your audience does not see the life of the baby as any less precious than that of the mother.”

    You’re making the case that a fetus’s life is worth as much as a woman’s life. If this is truly your position, it indicates to me that you are a fringe voter (I don’t mean for that to sound pejorative). Polling data over the years reveal a fairly steady trend: Only about 10% of Americans are in favor of an abortion ban that does not provide an exception to save the life of the mother. If you’re someone who is willing to let a woman die for the sake of saving a fetus, we are not likely to find common ground on this issue. That being the case, this blog piece may not be targeted to you. It’s targeted towards the other 90% of Americans who are willing to allow abortions in at least some circumstances.

    My problem with discussing abortion with people is that individuals on both sides are quick to adopt extreme positions. With fringe conservatives, they give a zygote the same consideration they give a mother of two who is pregnant with her third child. Similarly, fringe liberals talk about a fetus as if it’s a disposable object that carries no more value than an empty water bottle. Both of these strike me as extreme.

    Would you agree that aborting a microscopic collection of cells that has yet to attach to a uterine wall is morally different from aborting a fetus at 37 weeks gestation, which is viable outside the womb? If your answer to this is no, it indicates to me that you have taken a relatively-extreme position and Democrats are not going to reach you on this issue. If you say yes (these two abortions are morally different), it tells me that you concede the notion that not all living things are equal and we can move forward.

    In terms of labeling abortion a tragedy, the stage of development plays a big role for me. For instance, if a woman were to obtain an abortion one week before her due date, that would be extremely unsettling to me and in my opinion, some level of murder. However, if a woman wants to get an abortion five weeks into her pregnancy, she is aborting a pregnancy that is about the size of a sesame seed, has no limbs, looks like a tadpole under a microscope, and has no organs. This to me is not murder. Sure, the collection of cells has the potential to become a human being, but then so does every egg in a woman’s body. To suggest that every potential for life is equal to a life puts you on a path dangerously close to the Catholic position of no birth control.

    If your goal is to reduce the number of abortions in this country to its lowest possible number (which is my goal), a ban is not the best answer? Look at what a drug ban has done to drug rates in this country. We’ve criminalized drugs and stigmatized drug users, but we’ve done nothing to slow its use. As I’ve said before, I think a ban on abortion would provide a moral victory to the politicians, but only the delusional believe that it would actually end abortions.

    Finally, it would be remiss to point out that quality of life matters. If your dream came to fruition and every unwanted pregnancy came to term and was delivered, you now end up with millions of unwanted children, many of whom would be raised by teenagers, single parents, people in extreme poverty, and people who just aren’t fit to be parents. (The notion that these people will all turn to adoption is pie in the sky thinking.) Conservatives love to talk about the life of a fetus, but once that child is delivered, the compassion seems to fizzle. If you force an unwanted baby to be born, and that unwanted baby is born into a world of abuse, neglect, and poverty, have you done anyone any favors? You recommended that we “pull out all the stops” to care for single mothers, but the same politicians calling for an abortion ban are the same ones working day and night to squash every social program in existence. So the notion that an abortion ban will coincide with great social resources is not realistic.

    This is indeed a complex issue. I just hope we can find enough common ground to move forward. Every day that the left and right can’t figure out a better solution is another day with 3,300 abortions in this country.

    – Nathan

    • Ok, I guess I need to clarify one or two things. First, I DO support an exception to save the life of the mother. This is in no way at odds with my assertion that the life of the unborn baby is just as valuable as that of the mother. In fact, I think those who do not support such an exception are making the equal and opposite error as abortionists: instead of saying that the unborn life is less valuable, they’re saying it’s more valuable. Neither is true; they are of equal value. Therefore in the unthinkably horrible situation in which someone has to decide between two human lives, I will not judge someone for what choice they make, nor would I advocate a law which would do so. Also, in that case I wouldn’t call it murder. Murder is a legal term which implies intent to kill. If a pregnancy is terminated to save the life of the mother, then the ultimate intent really is to save, not to take, a life.

      I will concede that I have a different emotional response to a zygote than to a 37 week fetus, or even to an 8 week fetus (which can feel pain, as is my understanding). But I can find no reason to consider them different morally. If that makes me extreme, so be it. And honestly, if I were president, and someone put a bill on my desk that restricted abortion to the first 5 weeks, I would sign it in a heartbeat. Someone out there would say I’m not “really” pro-life because I didn’t insist on a ban, but that would be a huge win in my book, and I think most others.

      Your point about politicians opposing both abortions and also social services is spot on, and it makes me angry. It’s a blindness to the reasons why abortions take place, and it’s straining out a gnat to swallow a camel. Let me say this: I would sacrifice capitalism itself to stop abortion. Seriously. I don’t know if that would be the answer (look at China), but that’s how serious I am. Whatever social services are needed to deal with the fallout from an abortion ban, I am in favor of. Whether it comes from the government, from private individuals and organizations, from Churches,…whatever. Maybe it would take a conservative pro-life politician to simply tell people, “Look, you can’t ban abortion and also pull the plug on social services. You wanna keep those babies alive? You gotta pay for ’em.”

      I don’t know if an abortion ban will ever actually be feasible. Passing the civil rights act in ’64 required years of work convincing people that different races were not different levels of humanity. We can talk about zygotes all day long; the fact is most states don’t restrict before 20 weeks. Were I a lawmaker in a position to do anything about this, I would be willing to have a lot more free contraception and rally any and all possible social services, and maybe (hopefully) get that 20 week window substantially reduced. I would consider that a huge step in the right direction.

      As a side note, your argument that a ban wouldn’t work is the same one that gun nuts use to oppose gun control. Just sayin.’ Not trying to change the subject. (P.S. I might be more in favor of gun control than you’d think)

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