Hands down, my favorite way to break the ice at an uncomfortable dinner party is to loudly ask everyone, “So what do you guys think about abortion?”
If religion and politics are seen as imprudent topics to openly discuss, then abortion is the bullseye between the two, and there is virtually no safe way to have any kind of honest conversation about it. As such, my guess is most of the left-leaning audience reading this will not like the conclusion I’m about to draw.
Post-election, there have been no shortage of self-flagellating liberal critiques about how the Democrats must reach out to working class whites and abandon Wall Street and bad trade deals. They have ignored the plight of the rural white voter! This, however, ignores the primary cultural issue that keeps most of those voters incapable of even contemplating anything but a Republican vote. Nowhere has there been any self-reflective take that Democrats must see the error of their ways on abortion.
Not to worry about the author of this piece, who believes in the autonomy of a woman’s body and her prerogative to do with it as she wishes, whether that’s have an abortion, get an IUD, or vote for Donald Trump. Yet the self-reflexive pro-choice position deserves greater scrutiny than it often gets. As author Mike Davis has pointed out, Trump did not win by vastly expanding the Republican electorate. He won due to a lag in Democratic voting in key states and by holding together the same coalition of economic royalists and pro-life, mostly Evangelical voters who have formed the backbone of the Republican electorate in every election of my lifetime.
How could Evangelicals vote for Trump? This is what the Democratic bubble asked itself over and over. How could they flip-flop so brazenly, defy their supposed morals so absolutely, and support this divorced, philandering, sexual-assault-declaring moral leper? But the pro-life voter did what he or she had to do. They rightly determined that if Clinton won, any chance at overturning Roe v. Wade would be lost for a generation, if not forever. If Trump won, however, thanks to Republican intransigence on Obama nominee Merrick Garland, he would likely appoint the fourth and fifth votes to overturn Roe (with Thomas, Roberts, and Alito already surefire). Given the age of several justices, including 83 year old Ruth Bader Ginsburg, it is likely Trump will now get this chance. The Democrats can halve this possibility by winning control of the Senate in 2018, but if I had to bet on it right now, I’d bet Roe is going down, and this will commit the Democrats to further purge their ranks of pro-life sympathies.
Within conventional liberal opinion, unfettered access to an abortion within the first two trimesters of pregnancy is viewed as a shibboleth. It’s as obvious that right-thinking people believe this as they do the reality of climate change or the immorality of torture. What’s lost on those of us who spend so much of our time within this bubble is that there are hordes of single-issue voters who view abortion with the same moral urgency that Leonardo DiCaprio views climate change or Bernie Sanders views income inequality. Take a moment to appreciate how this must feel.
You grew up in a town you really love, a place that has its flaws but nevertheless brims with good people. You work for a living—it’s not a glamorous job, it won’t make you famous, and it leaves an ache in your back every day from being on your feet for so long, but it’s honest, and it supports your family (sort of). Your major portal to the rest of the country is your TV, where wealthy actors tell you the weather is changing, and it’s your fault for driving too much, or a smirking comedian from New York ridicules your church or a liberal commentator scolds you for the Confederate flag, and you don’t even own a Confederate flag, but apparently that’s not allowed anymore. You’ve lived your whole life knowing in your bones that homosexuality is a sin until very recently when you were informed that this opinion makes you a “bigot,” and it’s not like you hate anyone, but the Bible says what it says about that issue, and now you just make sure not to bring it up in the wrong company.
And no one ever asks your opinion about any of this. You never see your life reflected in the media you consume, and if you do, there’s something vaguely insulting about it, some inchoate note struck in reality shows of the Duck Dynasty or Honey Boo Boo variety, which are entertaining enough, but you get the message. You are a punchline. Your life and opinions are not important. And yet as all these people bemoan you personally in all your supposed ignorance, they are proudly championing the legal murder of thousands of babies every single day. How dare they condescend to you about your life, tell you what you should think, when they are the ones who proudly identify with killing unborn children before those little ones even have a chance to draw a breath. How are you the one with the blind spot? They’re the ones who sit in the shadow of a blind spot so epic, so total, that it leaves you uncertain if you can even think of such people as morally alive.
This epistemic closure is total for both sides of the debate. If you were raised in a household that views the primacy of a woman’s control over her body as the main issue (as I was) than you have one inviolate opinion. And if you were raised in a home that views the life that woman carries as equal to (or greater than) her own well-being, then you have another inviolate opinion. Nothing, it seems, can span this gulf.
And yet, this debate is shadowed by several myths, one of which is that most people divide into the binary camps of pro-life v. pro-choice. This is not the case. According to the most recent Gallup polling on the issue, American opinion could not be more schizophrenic, which tracks well with the stickiness of the issue.
Polling the terms “pro-choice” and “pro-life” has never drifted far from a fifty-fifty split. During the Bush years, pro-choice identification nudged upward, and during the Obama presidency, pro-life respondents had the edge. Currently it stands at 47% to 46%, respectively. In the latest poll, 29% said it should be legal in all circumstances, 19% illegal in all circumstances, and a full 50% said legal only in some circumstances. You can see almost these same exact numbers if you scroll back to the year 1989. More interestingly, when asked if abortion is morally acceptable, the majority of respondents almost always favor “no.” Yet by a wide margin the majority of respondents do not want Roe overturned, 50% to 29% most recently, and this—like the rest of the numbers—tracks virtually the same over time.
The idea that women monolithically believe in access to abortion is one of the more counter-productive myths, one that women who disagree with abortion find enraging. Fluctuating between 2001 and 2015, women have at several different points in time been found to identify as pro-choice at a lower rate than men. 2015 marks the high-water mark for women identifying as pro-choice at 54%. Women, in a shocking development, are the same as men in that they don’t like being told what they are supposed to believe. The fact remains that approximately half the women in this country do not identify as pro-choice, and no amount of Lena Dunham PSAs seems likely to change this.
But the progressive wave! Opinions are changing! Gay marriage is legal now!
Unlike many other issues about which my generation has become vastly more left-wing than our parents or grandparents, abortion remains stuck in an even divide. While support for LGBT rights has skyrocketed, while notions of environmental protection and income inequality and war and peace and race have moved front and center, creating a burgeoning progressive majority in demographic terms, the needle on abortion has not moved at all. 53% of 18-34 year-olds identify as pro-choice, fewer than in 2001. There is some evidence that young people are even less accepting of abortion than their parents.
What are the political implications of this? There’s a fantasy bubbling up on the left that Hillary Clinton’s defeat marks an opportunity for a major realignment of the Democratic Party, a shift away from corporate-friendly attitudes and policies towards a true progressive vision. Sure, count me in. But the idea that candidates like Elizabeth Warren or Zephyr Teachout are going to sweep to victory in rural parts of the country with working class voters by criticizing Wall Street and TTP is a fantasy of the first order. As the Big Sort-ing of the country continues and cosmopolitan and rural areas becoming more and more homogenous politically, wholly progressive, ideologically lockstep candidates will continue to perform weakly where the Democrats are weak. Voters in non-urban centers will continue to vote for candidates who oppose abortion the way they have been doing their entire lives.
Think of abortion as a series of paradoxes: Paradoxically, opponents of abortion should support a robust health care system for women—especially poor women. They should support easy access to contraception and programs that subsidize decent housing, food, or, God forbid, a program of universal pre-K. Pro-life true believers, of course, typically support none of this because, in my opinion, their opposition is more rooted in a need to control people’s sexual behavior than it is about the lives of the unborn children they purport to care about.
Paradoxically, abortion is viewed as an un-nuanced, either/or proposition when, as mentioned above, all evidence suggests people carry in them a range of views that land everywhere but the fringes of the debate. When Gallup bores down into the nitty-gritty of abortion access laws, majorities favor a 24-hour waiting period before an abortion, a law requiring women under 18 to get parental notification, laws instructing doctors to inform patients of the (mostly non-existent) risks, laws requiring a pregnant woman to view an ultrasound of her fetus, and for the husband of married woman to be notified. Yet majorities oppose a ban on federal funding for abortion providers, oppose allowing pharmacists or health providers to opt out of providing medicine or procedures associated with abortion, and they definitely oppose a constitutional ban on the practice.
The fuzzy middle is vast.
Finally, and quite paradoxically, women’s reproductive freedom has never been safer than when the Democratic Party has contained a large and robust pro-life caucus. For a long time after the issue hit the national stage in the 1970s, the parties did not divide evenly. There were pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats. In the 2006 midterm elections, Democrats won a 31-seat majority with 37 pro-life members.
These congressional majorities advanced basically the only progressive legislation of the last forty years, including the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the Affordable Care Act, Dodd-Frank financial reform, and every other inch gained during the first two years of Obama’s presidency. It was all done with the votes of this large pro-life contingent.
What did a pro-life Democrat believe? Like America, this now-odd creature represented a range of views. Senate majority leader Harry Reid branded himself as pro-life, yet during his tenure he was a consistent friend to Planned Parenthood. Most of those pro-life Dems were supported by Democrats for Life of America, which proposed linking a ban on abortion after 20 weeks to paid medical leave for pregnant women, affordable daycare, and other laws that would support working mothers. Whether you agree or disagree, this faction at least allowed for the broad range of American views to have congressional representation.
Then, during the 2010 midterms following Michigan congressman Bart Stupak’s deal to keep abortion funding out of Obamacare, pro-life Democrats suffered enough defeats to basically wipe them off the map. What followed was an anti-abortion wave of hard-right zealots that continues to compromise the health, safety, and reproductive freedom of women across the country. Today, as Democrats reel from the November election results, the party has uniformly aligned itself as a pro-life party first and a party that challenges concentrated wealth, environmental pillaging, and structural racial and economic injustice second and only with incrementalism.
Therein lies the bad news: Since the issue first rose to national prominence, the Democrats have never held a majority in either chamber of congress that did not include pro-life members. If the Democratic Party wants to be a big tent, it has to be big enough to support and elect pro-life candidates. That is political reality. Even if demographics favor it in presidential election years (and a fat lot of good that did in 2016), in the House, the Senate, and most state legislatures it is, paradoxically, going to be impossible to challenge anti-abortion dominance without pro-life candidates.