To: Democratic Party Leaders
From: Imaginary Democratic Consultant
Re: Late-Term Abortions
Dear Democratic Leaders,
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Last week I watched as our senators voted down the Republican bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. Our people hung together. Only three Democrats voted with the other side. Yet as I was watching I kept wondering: How much is our position on late-term abortions hurting us? How many progressive priorities are we giving up just so we can have our way on this one?
Let me start with some history. Before Roe v. Wade, the abortion debate looked nothing like it does today. Many leading anti-abortion groups were on the left. The first pro-life rally on the National Mall was organized by the National Youth Pro-Life Coalition, which a co-founder described as “an extremely liberal group.” The National Catholic Welfare Conference endorsed a platform that included a right to a living wage, a right to collective bargaining and a right to life from the moment of conception.
In 1971, Ted Kennedy could declare, “Wanted or unwanted, I believe that human life, even at its earliest stages, has certain rights which must be recognized – the right to be born, the right to love, the right to grow old.” And in the 1960s, conservative states like Mississippi, Georgia and Kansas passed laws legalizing abortion.
In 1973, Roe v. Wade changed all this. At first, people didn’t understand what the decision meant. “Plainly,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote, “the court today rejects any claim that the Constitution requires abortion on demand.”
But then everything polarized. The pro-life movement grew on the right and withered on the left. Republicans introduced an anti-abortion plank into their platform in 1976. A new electoral coalition was born.
The GOP became an alliance between its traditional pro-business wing and its burgeoning pro-life wing. Millions of Americans became single-issue voters. They consider the killing of the unborn the great moral issue of our time. Without pro-life voters, Ronald Reagan never would have been elected. Without single-issue voters who wanted pro-life judges, there would never have been a President Donald Trump.
I understand that our donors (though not necessarily our voters) want to preserve a woman’s right to choose through all nine months of her pregnancy. But do we want late-term abortion so much that we are willing to tolerate President Trump? Do we want it so much that we give up our chance at congressional majorities? Do we want it so much that we see our agendas on poverty, immigration, income equality and racial justice thwarted and defeated?
Let’s try to imagine what would happen if Roe v. Wade were overturned. The abortion issue would go back to the states. The Center for Reproductive Rights estimates that roughly 21 states would outlaw abortion. Abortion would remain legal in probably 20 others. There’s a good chance that a lot of states would hammer out the sort of compromise the European nations have – legal in the first months, difficult after that. That’s what most Americans support.
The pro-life movement would turn its attention away from national elections. Single-issue anti-abortion voters would no longer be automatic Republicans. The abortion debate would no longer be an absolutist position on one side against an absolutist position on the other.
Roe v. Wade polarized American politics in ways that have been fundamentally bad for Democrats. If you don’t believe me, compare the size of the elected Democratic majorities in 1974 to the size of the Republican majorities in 2018. Without Roe v. Wade the landscape would shift.
We need to acknowledge our vulnerability here. Democrats support the right to choose throughout the 40 weeks of pregnancy. But babies are now viable outside the womb at 22 weeks. As Emma Green wrote in The Atlantic, scientific advances “fundamentally shift the moral intuition around abortion.” Parents can see their babies’ faces earlier and earlier.
We’re learning how cognitively active fetuses are. A researcher from Britain recently found that fetuses prefer to look at facelike images while in the womb. Early in the pregnancy they can recognize and distinguish between tastes. Late in the term they can recognize words, tunes, languages. They seem to begin crying, for example, by the 28th week. It could be that one of the current behaviors that future generations will regard as most barbaric is our treatment of fetuses.
We also shouldn’t take millennial voters for granted. Boomers saw the pro-choice movement as integral to their feminism. Millennials do not. In 1991, 36 percent of young voters thought abortion should be legal in all circumstances; now only 24 percent do. Young voters don’t like the Republican total ban. But they don’t like our position, either. Moreover, young pro-choice voters are much more ambivalent or apathetic than young pro-life ones.
I’m asking us to rethink our priorities. What does America need most right now? One of our talking points is that late-term abortions are extremely rare. If they are extremely rare, why are we giving them priority overall of our other issues combined?
Your Imaginary Consultant