Correction: An earlier version of this column stated incorrectly the percentage of Americans who believe abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances, according to Gallup polling. This version has been updated.
Christine Emba edits The Post’s In Theory blog.
Is it possible to be a good progressive and oppose abortion? This long-simmering question was brought to the fore recently when Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) announced their support of Heath Mello, a candidate for mayor of Omaha who is also, inconveniently, antiabortion.
Under pressure from abortion rights groups, Perez quickly walked back his support for Mello and said that being pro-choice was “not negotiable” for Democrats. That reversal was in turn rebuked by a chorus of high-ranking Democrats, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.). In the end, Perez walked back his walk-back, announcing there was no litmus test after all.
But is there? Should there be? Increasingly, abortion opponents hear a resounding yes. The message they get from progressive activists and commentators, if not from Democratic Party leaders, is increasingly hostile: As much as the party professes to be a big tent, those who oppose abortion rights aren’t really wanted.
This is a mistake — and not only because it limits Democrats’ ability to keep or expand their voter base. It also reduces the core values of the progressive movement to a single symbol and constrains the debate on how to best achieve broader goals of social and economic equality. The associated contempt for antiabortion activists often relies on outdated assumptions about their aims and origins and fails to take into account the complexity of most Americans’ views on abortion.
Ironically, restricting abortion was once a progressive cause. Early defenders saw protecting the unborn as an extension of society’s responsibility to shield the poor, weak and otherwise defenseless. Many were wary of abortion’s eugenic potential and of how it allowed men more leeway to exploit or abuse women without consequence.
But after the Supreme Court established the right to abortion in 1973, the issue became more and more a matter of left-right divide, and the antiabortion cause was folded into a broader portfolio of social conservative goals. Yet recent years have seen the emergence, or perhaps reemergence, of activists who oppose abortion from a divergent and sometimes frankly left-wing perspective — secular humanists; “consistent life ethic” activists who oppose abortion, capital punishment and euthanasia with equal fervor; and antiabortion believers otherwise fed up with the Republican Party.
Democrats, and progressives more broadly, should be welcoming such people rather than disdaining them. Assuming bad faith on the part of anyone who opposes or is even willing to accept limits on abortion rights makes it too easy for the left to embrace a narrow perspective when deciding how best to pursue progressive goals.
Equating non-support of abortion to a total abandonment of women’s rights, the way a pointed headline in New York Magazine did last month, ignores the reality that women’s rights should include far more than that — from an end to pervasive sexual harassment to broader support for mothers. And yes, economic factors may play a role for many women deciding whether to obtain abortions. But suggesting, as did ThinkProgress’s Bryce Covert in a recent New York Times op-ed, that an unyielding abortion rights stance is the only way to ensure women’s ability to achieve financial security confuses cause and effect.
Equating progressivism with being pro-abortion rights assumes that providing a single, simple solution — making it easier to terminate pregnancies — is worth more effort than addressing the root causes of the problem. An equally if not more progressive strategy might focus instead on addressing the lack of maternal leave and child-care policies, demanding a living wage, and pushing back against an economic system that penalizes women for having and rearing children in the first place. And while one might argue that Democrats are already doing all of the above, the willingness to excommunicate those who disagree with one strategy even if they adhere to all others makes it clear which issue matters the most.
Of course, even if progressive successes made it possible for every woman to care for an unexpected child, there would still be women who didn’t want to continue an unwanted pregnancy. And this is where enforcing cut-and-dried allegiances — “supporting abortion in all circumstances is the only possible Democratic stance” — is at odds with the conflicted way that most Americans, even those who would by and large support progressive policies, approach the issue.
According to Gallup’s 2016 polling, 47 percent of Americans think that abortion is morally wrong, but a full 79 percent believe it should be legal, though the circumstances in which they would allow it vary. Attempting to neatly slice these shades of gray in order to most perfectly define a “true Democrat” would leave many thoughtful Americans out in the cold.
Movements need defining tenets to unite around. From there, individuals within the community can debate the best ways to achieve their goals. But the Democratic Party, and the progressive movement more generally, should be wary of replacing the goals of social and economic justice with the proxy of being pro-abortion rights. Flatly writing off antiabortion progressives alienates potential supporters of the larger cause, while narrowing the spectrum of discussion to the perspectives of a purist few.