These days it’s easy to give up hope that reasonable public discourse on abortion is possible. I admit to long suffering from what might be called abortion-politics fatigue, an ailment that flairs to acute levels as elections draw near and single-issue activists get louder, depicting their opponents as dangerous extremists. My condition, characterized by discouragement and bouts of cynicism, likely affects millions of voters given how out-of-sync abortion debates are with how most Americans approach the issue.
Social conservatives (who helped elect Donald Trump president because of his promise to appoint judges who would chip away at abortion rights and potentially overturn Roe v. Wade) are emboldened after the passage in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio of so-called fetal heartbeat bills that essentially ban abortions starting at six weeks after conception, a time when many women don’t know they are pregnant. Last week, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that would outlaw abortion at any stage in a woman’s pregnancy. Alabama’s law does not allow exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest. Doctors who perform abortions could face ninety-nine years in prison. (Even anti-abortion Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson called it “an extreme law.”) Supporters of such legislation anoint themselves as paragons of prolife values even as they slash Medicaid, which pays for nearly half of all hospital deliveries, and do nothing to address the fact that the United States is alone among modern industrial nations in failing to guarantee paid family leave. USA Today columnist and CNN commentator Kirsten Powers, who in the past has challenged pro-choice organizations and argued for the Democratic Party to be more welcoming to prolife politicians, wrote last week:
Am I still a “pro-life” Christian? My faith is as strong as ever, but today I’d say I’m like many Americans who see themselves both as pro-choice and pro-life. What I do know for sure is that I care about all lives, and that includes the lives of women contemplating abortion. The anti-abortion movement pays lip service to caring for women, but what the recent spate of laws shows us is that in the end there is only one thing they care about: the embryo or fetus. The lives of young rape or incest victims are accepted as collateral damage, and women who want to protect their health are cast as sinister actors incapable of searching their own consciences for a way forward when a wanted pregnancy goes awry.
The Democratic Party and some progressive activists have responded to growing extremism on the right with their own orthodoxy, imposing purity tests on party members that are miles from the “safe, legal, and rare” framework coined by Bill Clinton in 1996, or even President Obama’s 2009 call for civility and common ground on abortion. “So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies,” Obama said during his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame a decade ago. “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” This kind of sensible appeal is rare these days. In 2017, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Sen. Bernie Sanders were criticized by abortion-rights advocates for appearing at a rally for a Democratic mayoral candidate who had sponsored bills to restrict abortion. The backlash from pro-choice leaders was so intense that Perez quickly put out a statement asserting that abortion rights are “not negotiable” for Democrats, and that Democrats should speak with “one voice” on the issue. Nancy Pelosi jumped in with a reminder that a broad, inclusive agenda for progressives also means making room for those who don’t hold a monolithic view on abortion. “This is the Democratic party. This is not a rubber-stamp party,” Pelosi told the Washington Post. “I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland, in Little Italy, in a very devout Catholic family, fiercely patriotic, proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people—my family, extended family—are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”
Pelosi’s approach feels out of fashion at a time when younger leaders in the Democratic Party and a new generation of activists on the left are quick to question even pro-choice politicians they fear are not pro-choice enough. In 2017, organizers for the Women’s March removed a prolife group called the New Wave Feminists from their website and list of partners after the Atlantic published an article about prolife women who were planning to attend. In a recent New York Times article detailing Joe Biden’s abortion record over the decades—which, early in his congressional career, included votes to limit abortion that he later changed his mind on—Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, warned that Biden is “going to have to really get with the times.” After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that removed nearly all restrictions on abortion and protected the right to abortion after the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, One World Trade Center was illuminated in pink, a celebratory gesture that struck many as tone deaf. Then there was Rep. Brian Sims, a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, who filmed himself bullying an elderly woman and three young girls peacefully protesting outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, a stunt that only strengthens the same political and cultural forces he opposes.
As a Catholic progressive who believes in the sanctity of life—from the unborn in the womb to the undocumented immigrant to the dying person in hospice—I have resisted using the label “prolife” to define myself. The term has become a single-issue, partisan-identity marker associated with the marriage of political convenience between Catholics and evangelicals, and the rise of the religious right, in the 1980s. In the decades prior to Roe, the politics of abortion didn’t break down neatly along partisan lines. There were pro-choice Republicans and prolife Democrats, while the prolife movement was not even exclusively defined by a conservative political ideology.
“For the most part, the public rhetoric of the movement tended to be grounded in liberalism as seen through a mid-20th-century Catholic lens,” the historian Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn, told Emma Green of the Atlantic for her article “The Progressive Roots of the Pro-Life Movement”: “It’s New Deal, Great Society liberalism.” The politics of abortion began shifting in a noticeable way before the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon (and his Catholic advisor Pat Buchanan) recognized its usefulness as a wedge issue to peel Catholic voters from the Democratic Party. Nixon won reelection with a majority of Catholic voters backing him, setting the stage for other Republicans around the country to unite Catholics (and later evangelicals) behind the party.