The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why abortion — not sexual misconduct — is likely to decide the Alabama Senate race

Roy Moore is trying to save himself with a tried and true conservative move: resorting to the politics of abortion.

Over the past 40 years, Republicans have created a new politics with opposition to legalized abortion at its core. (AFP/Getty Images)

If Republican Roy Moore survives allegations of sexual misconduct (several involving minors) and beats Democrat Doug Jones in Alabama’s Senate election Dec. 12, evangelical single-issue abortion voters will likely deliver the victory.

A Pew Research Center study conducted in 2014 showed that the vast majority (58 percent) of adults in Alabama who say that abortion should be “illegal in all or most cases” are churchgoing, white Protestant evangelicals who self-identify as political conservatives and vote or lean Republican. They have long been an important part of the Republican political base — and Moore must turn them out if he hopes to win (three new polls out this week show that after falling behind Jones, Moore is now up 5 to 6 percentage points).

Understanding the power of the abortion issue, Moore’s wife, Kayla, claimed at a rally that Jones is the real threat to children, because he supports “full-term abortion,” which she defined as “suck[ing] a child’s brains out at the moment before birth.” Such a procedure, however, simply does not exist, as states generally restrict abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy, except in cases of medical necessity.

Moore’s attempts to win the race by playing abortion politics has led to intense scrutiny of Alabama’s evangelical voters. The spotlight on them is especially harsh since the race is occurring both against the backdrop of a national reckoning over sexual misconduct and assault, and at a moment when Republicans need every vote they can get in the Senate as intraparty squabbling has thwarted their agenda for months.

Roy Moore, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Alabama, said in a speech on Nov. 29 in Theodore, Ala., that LGBT people “want to change our culture.” (Video: The Washington Post)

Antiabortion voters like Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey who cite this latter factor as a reason for supporting Moore look hypocritical: they claim to want to protect children (which they deem unborn fetuses to be), but appear to actually care more about securing a vote for their legislative priorities, even if that means backing an alleged predator who is accused of assaulting girls as young as 14 while he was in his 30s.

But we should not be surprised to see Moore’s campaign talking about abortion. Beginning in the 1970s, conservative Republicans capitalized upon a backlash against legal abortion that was led by Catholics and evangelicals who opposed the procedure on religious grounds. Conservatives soon forged a new politics rooted in the traditional nuclear family — with opposition to abortion at the center of Republican rhetoric and voter mobilization strategies. A politician’s stance on abortion became a guide to his positions on an entire nexus of issues, which Republicans dubbed “family values” concerns. The family values label signaled to the very traditionalist voters who will decide the Alabama election that a politician shared their worldview.

Before the 1960s, an American woman could obtain a legal abortion only by traveling abroad or having a local doctor persuade a (typically all-male) hospital committee that a pregnancy threatened her life. In practice, this allowed wealthier and better-connected women, who were the family and friends of doctors, to obtain legal, safe abortions under false pretenses — while everyone else was forced to seek illegal, often deadly, abortions.

Fed up with this situation, male reformers from medicine, law and some more progressive religious communities began trying to legalize abortion. They made little progress until the late 1960s and early 1970s, when various feminist factions supplied crucial language and political muscle to push 17 states and then the federal government (through a pair of Supreme Court decisions in 1973, most notably Roe v. Wade) to legalize abortion under certain conditions.

Although not all feminist groups supported legal abortion, most seized upon the issue because it fit their larger priorities quite nicely. They wanted to redefine womanhood outside the strict confines of motherhood and domesticity, and as part of this project, they strove to reform the law to offer new opportunities to women. Having the legal right to choose whether to become a mother thus became the ultimate expression of women’s rights.

At first, both major parties supported legal abortion and other related modern feminist priorities in almost equal measure, especially since opponents were less organized. But that changed as the 1970s progressed.

Highly organized feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women took advantage of reforms that decentralized control of the Democratic Party. They began to wield real power and influence, as protecting legal abortion — a top feminist priority — became a top Democratic priority. Since 1976, the Democratic platform has consistently included support for legal abortion and other feminist priorities.

These developments were sometimes uncomfortable for stalwart Democrat politicians, notably those from the party’s Catholic base in the north. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) began saying that although as a devout Catholic he was uneasy with legal abortion, he respected the court’s decisions. Jimmy Carter, a Southern evangelical, said the same as he campaigned for (and won) the presidency as a Democrat in 1976.

Meanwhile, conservative Republicans wrested control of their party away from liberal and moderate “Rockefeller Republicans” who had dominated it for decades and supported reforms such as legal abortion. They did so in part by tapping into the backlash against legal abortion and tying it to their other priorities. Conservatives turned seemingly unrelated issues, such as lowering taxes, a longtime Republican priority, into a way to strike a blow against legal abortion (by eliminating Medicaid funding for the procedure).

This focus on abortion gained Republicans new allies, including Catholics and certain evangelical sects that had traditionally voted Democratic — voters for whom the issue was a top priority, and who were willing to swallow positions with which they disagreed in exchange for a crusade against legal abortion.

By the late 1970s, conservatives wisely began to frame their opposition to legal abortion under the umbrella of “family values.” By that time, no politician wanted to be viewed as opposing legal rights — to do so conjured up unpopular images of Southern lawmen like Alabama segregationist Bull Connor brutalizing nonviolent demonstrators during the civil rights era. Thus, opposing legal abortion, which reformers had positioned as the ultimate expression of women’s rights, became backing the traditional American family (a particularly powerful expression because the nuclear family arrangement had long been promoted as distinguishing America from its communist adversary, the USSR).

The family values framework shrewdly allowed religious women (many of whom were homemakers with more flexible schedules) to organize against legal abortion and other feminist goals while avoiding the pretense that they were opposing their own rights or subjugating their own sex — even as they ironically took advantage of the new opportunities for women in politics that feminists had won for them.

The economic recession in the 1970s, which left many male breadwinners struggling to keep their jobs, made it easier for conservative Republicans to portray the efforts of feminists and their Democratic allies as a systemic assault upon the family unit. They claimed that by pushing for more opportunities for women, feminists and Democrats were undermining male breadwinners and taking their jobs at a time when men needed them most.

In other words, while individuals may oppose legal abortion for sincere, religiously or ethically backed reasons, abortion in the political arena is deeply intertwined with broader concerns about gender and sexuality. These concerns are starkly delineated along partisan lines — indeed, they are baked into the very essence of what each major party has stood for for more than 40 years.

When Moore and his supporters court single-issue abortion voters — notably, Alabama’s evangelical Republican base — they are saying: Doug Jones is for feminism, which means he backs women, like Moore’s accusers, who are trying to diminish male power and seize it for their own purposes. Mentioning Jones’s abortion stance also signals that he rejects the traditional nuclear family and women’s domestic and maternal responsibilities within it.

Moore, on the other hand, is presented as a conservative Republican who, whatever his personal failings, is fighting a spiritual battle for Christian values as well as the traditional nuclear family and its prescribed gender roles. This means that as a man, his expressions of sexuality need not be questioned, while a woman’s must be channeled into motherhood. In this sense, rallying to save unborn children is perfectly consistent with backing a candidate accused of assaulting minors.

Will it work? The polls look better for Doug Jones since the allegations against Moore surfaced. But it is unlikely that the most entrenched antiabortion voters will cast their ballots for him. Jones will have to run up the numbers with other groups of voters to have a chance.