Why the Hell Does Anyone Think Democrats Should Embrace Anti-Abortion Rhetoric?
Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz

Why the Hell Does Anyone Think Democrats Should Embrace Anti-Abortion Rhetoric?

The "abortion debate" isn't about finding a way to respect two competing ideological beliefs—it's a question of whether women should have full access to healthcare.
May 12, 2017, 2:35pm

The past month or so has seen the proliferation of a certain breed of op-ed, spawning forth with alarming rapidity to play devil's advocate for God: What if, writers in basically every major outlet have pondered, the Democratic party became more accepting of anti-abortion arguments?

As several of these articles note in the first paragraph, the Democratic Party is currently in deep trouble, having lost of the House, the Senate, and the White House to a pack of conservative sociopaths. A potential solution for this, they invariably continue, would be to welcome Democrats who are opposed to abortion into the fold. This would appeal to red state voters, which is undeniably necessary, and to progressive Catholics who can't bring themselves to vote for a candidate who supports abortion access.


My personal belief is that it's laughably hypocritical to claim you care about gender equality while supporting policies that would force women to carry pregnancies to term against their will, especially considering the atrocious state of maternal health and maternity leave in the US. With that said, I can understand where the argument is coming from, in general: We are losing, and we can't afford to have an ideological litmus test! It makes sense when you put it like that. However, "the abortion debate," as it's often called, isn't just ideological, and much of the hand-wringing about accepting "pro-life" Democrats obscures that fact—as though indulging people who say abortion should be illegal won't have terrifying policy repercussions. It also fails to engage with the dangerous effects of banning abortion: that women face arrest, injury, and death when they're forced to resort to unsafe and illegal alternatives.

Read more: Letters from Women Pleading for Abortion, Sent in 1917, Mirror Emails Sent Today

It's a truism that abortion is one of the most divisive issues in the country. This is because it's a clash of two fundamentally incompatible—and extraordinarily polarizing—human rights claims. "On the pro-life side, this issue is all about the right to life for the unborn," says Daniel K. Williams, a prominent legal scholar and author of Defenders of the Unborn, a comprehensive history of the anti-abortion movement before Roe v. Wade. "On the pro-choice side, it's about protecting the right to equality, the right to bodily autonomy."

This ideological divide didn't always exist along party lines; in fact, the early anti-abortion movement was led by liberal Democrats, who grounded their arguments in progressive Catholic social justice ethics. After Roe v. Wade, the anti-abortion movement largely abandoned this progressivism—they chose instead to focus on attempting to pass a constitutional amendment that would grant fetuses full legal protection from the moment of conception—but progressive-leaning anti-abortion activists have always existed, despite dominant trends in the movement. They typically argue that the best way to fight abortion is by reducing the social factors that lead to abortion, such lack of access to contraception, sexist policies that effectively punish new mothers, and the shameful lack of affordable childcare in the country. Of course, they also think abortion should be illegal.


Today's anti-abortion Democrats share this perspective. "I support bigger, more robust welfare programs that would help women and families: a child allowance, state-paid parental leave, and single-payer healthcare," Elizabeth Bruenig, a journalist and pro-life feminist, told VICE, adding that better access to social services is "a way to help [women] choose life."

In a recent op-ed for the LA Times, Janet Robert, the president of Democrats for Life America, made a similar argument. "Abortion activists claim that the fetus is just a mass of tissue, and that women are too weak to succeed without abortion," she wrote. "Not only do pro-life Democrats accept the settled science that shows the prenatal child is a human organism, we know that with the right support, women are more than up to the challenge of difficult or unplanned pregnancies."

If a woman is forced to give birth against her will, it doesn't matter how much state support she has; she's still stripped of the ability to decide what happens to her own body.

Neither of the cheerful and progressive situations outlined by Robert or Bruenig engages with the fact that, if the anti-abortion movement were to succeed in its aims, these hypothetical women would have been forced to carry their pregnancies to term. Instead, both frame the prospect of involuntary motherhood as the government–facilitated choosing of life, or a challenge women can meet with aplomb if provided with appropriate resources.

If abortion were illegal but women with unplanned pregnancies were given sufficient federal assistance, how would that mitigate the fact that the government was imposing anti-abortion ideology on its citizens? It's logically incoherent to argue that implementing social welfare programs will encourage women to "choose life" while aligning oneself with a political movement that actively works to eliminate that choice. If a woman is forced to give birth against her will, it doesn't matter how much state support she has; she's still stripped of the ability to decide what happens to her own body. That fact is unavoidable when talking about the ultimate goals of the anti-abortion movement—but it's something that anti-abortion groups rarely, if ever, acknowledge.

What do we mean when we say that Democrats should change the way they talk about abortion? Pro-choice organizations already openly acknowledge that "the Democratic Party has room for those who identify as personally opposed to abortion," as Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, told me in an email. "The real question," she continued, "is when candidates and elected leaders force their own ideology and religious values on their constituents and the women of this country."

When anti-abortion Democrats urge their fellow party members to soften their stance on abortion, there's often an insidious elision between personal beliefs and policy, as though they're of equal value or import—or as though you can't have complicated moral feelings about abortion without insisting that everyone in the country should abide by them. "Democratic politicians should publicly acknowledge that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern," Thomas Groome, a professor of religion, argues in a New York Times op-ed, which was titled "To Win Again, Democrats Must Stop Being the Abortion Party." A paragraph later, he becomes markedly more extreme, and his real goals become clear: "Democrats should not threaten to repeal the Hyde Amendment," he admonishes, referencing a piece of legislation that prevents poor women from accessing abortion care.

The debate over abortion isn't merely a question of rhetoric or finding a way to respect two competing ideological beliefs: It's a question of whether we believe women should have full access to reproductive healthcare. I'm fine with acknowledging that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern, but I'd like to ask why anti-abortion advocates—Democrat or otherwise—are so reluctant to discuss the actual realities women face when their access to abortion is cut off.