In the left-of-center universes where I have mostly lived, worked and been politically active, it is now awkward to introduce oneself as a Democrat who supports the choice for life over that of abortion. The reaction is often polite but perplexed. I have regularly had people greet this news with a shocked silence — as though supporting universal health care, economic redistribution, minority rights, strong unions, environmental regulation, gun controls, criminal justice reform and freedom of expression but balking at abortion is so illogical that it can be explained only by some psychological deficit or religious dogmatism beyond rational discussion. A few outraged interlocutors have suggested that to be both a liberal and an abortion opponent is a form of insidious false advertising, just short of claiming to sell oneself as a benign Nazi.
My view is different. I joined the NAACP as a kid, picketed Woolworths in Chicago in solidarity with student sit-ins in the South, helped expose a segregated facility at my university, started in journalism as an intern at a labor and civil rights monthly, spent a week in jail as a Vietnam War protester, edited one liberal journal and wrote for many others, have never pulled a lever for a Republican and joined democratic socialist Michael Harrington in launching the group that eventually became today’s resurgent Democratic Socialists of America.
But credentials like those seem insufficient where abortion is concerned. Millions of Americans with liberal commitments and anti-Trump convictions, but who oppose abortion, feel they are being treated as something between an alien life form that should be uprooted from Democratic Party ranks or merely an endangered species that can happily die of its own accord. Time ran an essay last year titled “The Case for Keeping the Democratic Party Away from Anti-Abortion Candidates.” As Cosmopolitan put it, “Abandoning Abortion Rights Means Abandoning Women.” A Politico headline sounded the death knell: “If You’re a Pro-Life Democrat … You Know You’re Standing Alone,”
Consider the storm that blew up last year after Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez declared that an affirmative stance on abortion was “not negotiable” as a condition for party support. Pressed by pragmatists, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), the party finally clarified that it had no official “litmus test” on abortion, after which leaders of Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America called the flip-flop “shocking” and “folly.” Writing under the headline “Of Course Abortion Should Be a Litmus Test for Democrats,” an op-ed writer in the New York Times called the party’s decision a “morally putrescent idea” worthy of “cringing, bewildered invertebrates.”
This summer, the Missouri Democratic Party passed a platform affirming “a woman’s right to choose,” but with an amendment recognizing that “members of our party have deeply held and sometimes differing positions on issues of personal conscience, such as abortion.” The provision welcomed “all Missourians who may hold differing positions on this issue.” “Sickening,” was the reaction of Alison Dreith, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Missouri, who called such “anti-choice language … a slap in the face to the base.” A month later, the Missouri Democrats removed the language from their platform.
Obviously abortion is no simple matter. I’ve known women who felt compelled to seek abortions and those who chose otherwise, often resisting pleas from families and friends, even though giving birth meant upending their lives. I knew the children and, later, adults whose lives had been spared. And I knew that some of these women, whatever their own decisions, supported Roe v. Wade. Not simple.
Because I spent the better part of a decade in the burgeoning field of bioethics and altogether over three decades covering religion and politics, my circles have included abortion rights and antiabortion advocates appalled at the demonizing slogans to which both sides reduced this complexity. These people produced thoughtful moral, legal, political, and sociological arguments, probably more from abortion rights than antiabortion perspectives. Their analyses often altered my thinking. But when all was said and done, I found it impossible to convince myself that the unborn offspring of two humans was not, morally speaking, in an utterly different category than say a dearly beloved pet or even a crucial bodily organ that I might, with pain and regret, sacrifice to the surgeon for my well-being or survival. Here, instead, was a distinct organism with his or her unique genetic code and by eight weeks a beating heart, incipient brain waves, and a discernible human appearance. He or she was no less a member of the human community than an infant.
During the civil rights battles of the 1960s, when liberals were accused of “legislating morality,” they replied that law could not, in fact, be distanced from morality. But after the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, liberals agreed with the justices — that moral beliefs about abortion were so contradictory and irresolvable and what was at stake so personal that the law should stand back and leave moral judgments to the individual. The pre-Roe status quo really was untenable, and the issue of morality and law in a pluralistic society could not be dodged or disregarded. But even many abortion rights advocates believe this overreach invited the backlash that has roiled American politics ever since.
I knew that the law also had to accommodate as many differences as possible without completely abandoning moral concerns and, like a few others, proposed a compromise. My argument for revising Roe by pushing back the date for access to abortion to an earlier point in fetal development while setting aside the goal of repeal got no traction in the conservative camp or any notice in the liberal camp, where compromises like mine remained a distinctly minority position. This was tolerable as long as there seemed to be room for disagreement — when Democratic presidential platforms still acknowledged the “deeply held” differences on abortion within the party, before the abortion rights movement simply shut down any discussion of the moral standing of unborn lives.
But eventually polarization triumphed. Abortion became a wedge issue for Republicans and, in reality, a litmus test for Democrats. Many Democrats morally uneasy about abortion have often clung to “rare,” in the Clintons’ old formula, “safe, legal and rare,” as a common ground where liberal policies supporting women might converge with recognition of the moral standing of unborn lives. Today, pro-choice voices increasingly scorn “rare” as a weasel word and unacceptable concession. “Get rid of the ‘rare’ word,” Fran Moreland Johns insists, praising columnist Katha Pollitt for challenging this “apologetic strategy.” The onetime Democratic mantra, Pollitt explains, “contains the idea that abortion is a bad thing, we want as little of it as possible.” The formula is wrong because it stigmatizes and ultimately undermines abortion rights.
And yet I urge voters who support the choice for life to ignore the “not welcome” and “keep quiet” signs that liberal Democrats have hung on their party’s door; I tell them we should send Democrats, of whatever stripe, to Congress. Of whatever stripe means supporting — energetically — what will inevitably be largely candidates who support abortion rights. The blue wave I hope for would mean a House, and maybe even Senate, that supports abortions. A troubling prospect, I admit, for someone with my perspective.
But this isn’t just about the lesser of two evils, although it’s true that only a significant Democratic victory will check the president’s relentless assault on our nation’s political norms, its vulnerable people and its moral and material environment. Those who oppose abortion have their own moral reasons for looking beyond near-term abortion right advocates' victories and throwing themselves into a blue wave.
Put very simply, Donald Trump is the worst thing that has ever happened to the antiabortion movement. Roe v. Wade, I believe, will survive, even with the unfortunate seating of Brett M. Kavanaugh as a Supreme Court justice. If it didn’t, it would create a far greater backlash than what occurred in 1973. And, returned to the states, access to abortion will remain legal for the vast bulk of the population. In states where polls show personal opposition to abortion is strong, posturing Republican legislatures and governors promise to enact nearly total bans to abortion, which is a lot easier in the abstract than when faced with hard cases, political firestorms and dissenters willing to be jailed. In 2006 and 2008, such bans were put to referendums in strongly antiabortion South Dakota. They were rejected by a 10-point margin.
Without a deep change in our culture, in our trivializing sexual mores and in our unequal and abusive treatment of women, any antiabortion advocate victories will be short-lived. The antiabortion movement will not advance its cause yoked, as it has become, to the repulsive misogyny, dangerous machismo, racial bias, hypocritical religiosity and throwback economics of Trump and the party that is recasting itself in his image. Making a human case against abortion under a banner like that is worse than hopeless. It will only entrench the acceptance of abortion as a harsh necessity in a harsh society.