Views My Own

Democrats Need to Change the Way They Talk About Abortion

The debate should be about more than simply being pro-life or pro-choice.

by Eve Peyser
11 May 2017, 8:30am

Art by author; images: Eric Thayer/Stringer, Joshua Lott/Stringer, Karen Bleier via Getty Images

The Democratic Party is undeniably in trouble. Not only did it lose the presidential election to a reality TV clown, it also ceded control of the House and Senate back in 2014 and has seen Republicans take over state and local governments across the country. Hillary Clinton may blame James Comey, Wikileaks, and the media for her shocking defeat—but she has lots of time to do that, because she lost. Prominent Democrats who want to win future elections have to look for new ways to build support and enthusiasm for their party. In an effort to garner new support from social conservatives, prominent Democrats like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi think the party should welcome anti-choice candidates.

"I grew up Nancy D'Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family," Pelosi told the Washington Post last week. "Most of those people—my family, extended family—are not pro-choice. You think I'm kicking them out of the Democratic Party?"

Pelosi isn't an outlier. Even America's most popular politician, Bernie Sanders, is prepared to accept candidates who shy away from pro-choice orthodoxy. Sanders recently campaigned on behalf of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello, a Democrat who in the past had voted for legislation proposed by pro-life politicians, who failed to unseat the Republican incumbent on Tuesday.

Sanders's support of Mello led to a rapid response from pro-choice Democrats. "No Bernie, There's No Economic Justice Without Abortion Access," a Feministing headline declared. Writers for Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Salon echoed similar sentiments. Even Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez weighed in, declaring that all members of the party should toe the pro-choice line. But the way Sanders sees it:

If we are going to protect a woman's right to choose, at the end of the day we're going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can't exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.

It's easy for me, a New York City–born and -bred millennial leftist feminist, to hold rigidly pro-choice views, and to expect the same of my elected officials. I've never had to make a decision between voting for an anti-choice Democrat and an anti-choice Republican.

But not all Democrats are going to be as socially liberal as those found in New York City. "When we say the Republican Party is pro-life and the Democratic Party is pro-choice, what we're really describing is their tendencies," said Christina Wolbrecht, the director of the Rooney Center for the Study of American Democracy at Notre Dame. Pointing out that former first lady Barbara Bush is in favor of abortion rights, while Al Gore was once pro-life, Wolbrecht added that though politicians are often pressured to voting in certain ways, they have some wiggle room in the positions they take.


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Once upon a time, the Republicans were where the Democrats are now, weighing the potential consequences of striking a hard line on abortion. A New York Times article from 1992 describes a platform debate: "[Barbara] Bush's comments on abortion came as the Republican Party struggles to retain the loyalty of its conservative wing without alienating voters who favor abortion rights." The GOP's pro-life orthodoxy is relatively recent, a product of years of activism from the conservative movement.

"There have been pro-life Democrats," Wolbrecht said. "There have been pro-choice Republicans. They exist. What Sanders says is not particularly noteworthy."

One of those pro-life Democrats is Elizabeth Bruenig, an assistant editor at the Washington Post (full disclosure: We've previously worked together). She's a Christian socialist who believes abortion is morally wrong, except when the mother's life is at risk. Her pro-life views echo many Republicans, but unlike conservatives she believes that to fight abortion we should expand the social safety net.

"What I aim for is to reduce abortions peacefully, without involving the penal-carceral system, which I'm highly skeptical of," she told me. "I support bigger, more robust welfare programs that would help women and families: a child allowance, state-paid parental leave, and single-payer healthcare." Better access to social services, she reckoned, is "a way to help them choose life."

In a 2014 article for the American Conservative, Bruenig cited multiple studies that found the majority of American women get abortions for economic reasons. "If the goal really is reducing abortion and supporting the ability of mothers to care for their infants," she argued, "the data directs us to a very intuitive solution: give would-be moms, especially the poorest, the financial boost they need to give birth while maintaining financial security. A child allowance program fits the bill neatly."

This isn't how the abortion debate usually goes. One side typically argues that women should be allowed the personal freedom to end a pregnancy, Wolbrecht explained, while the other is concerned with the rights of the unborn child. Framing the abortion conversation as such makes it so it feels impossible for these opposing views to ever be reconciled. "There are efforts to talk about reducing the need for abortion, but because of the way the issue has been framed, it's very hard for people to publicly enter into those discussion without seeming to concede a fundamental position to the other side," Wolbrecht told me.

We can't consider abortion in a vacuum, however. While I believe all women should be able to make a choice about whether to terminate their pregnancy, the truth of the matter is, women don't actually have the right to choose in this country if they're getting abortions for economic reasons. Access to contraception and sex education could reduce unplanned pregnancies women might feel the need to abort. If the government provided childcare, maternity leave, and improved welfare programs a baby might seem like less of a burden.

When Democrats tackle abortion, then, they might not need to start by declaring themselves pro-choice or pro-life. Instead, they could emphasize policies that give women better access to contraception and social services. Rather than talking about whether life begins at conception, they could talk about how the government's responsibility to protect a child doesn't end when the child is born.

I don't want to vote for any candidate who isn't pro-choice; I think America needs a party that champions women's rights. But if the Democratic Party runs pro-life candidates in conservative areas, those candidates should have a comprehensive platform that envisions a world where poor women don't have to get abortions simply because they can't afford to.

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