Do Democrats Have the Right Message on Abortion?

Photo: Anna Gassot/AFP/Getty Images

Intelligencer staffers Irin Carmon, Benjamin Hart, and Sarah Jones talk about the Democratic reaction to a raft of strict abortion laws around the country.

Ben: Is it fair to say that Democratic lawmakers and the pro-choice movement were initially caught flat-footed by the avalanche of new abortion restrictions that have recently passed — and which await legal challenges — in the South and Midwest?

Sarah: I’m not sure that flat-footed is the right description. Heartbeat bills, for example, aren’t new on the scene; pro-choice activists have been fighting them for years. And I think, too, that the movement understood what a Trump presidency could mean for reproductive rights. Anti-choice legislators are emboldened by a sympathetic administration and a sympathetic Supreme Court. I do think that the Democratic Party has handicapped itself with its vaunted big tent, and I wonder if the reproductive-rights movement has spent its resources as effectively as it could have over the last decade or so.

Irin: I think it’s absolutely right to see these new laws as being on a continuum rather than different in kind, which is somehow how they were received. What’s different now is that the anti-choice movement’s strategists have lost control of their ranks.These laws have been in the wings for a while, but conservative legislators emboldened by Trump want it all banned, right now. I think Democrats were unprepared for the backlash to these laws’ mirror images, which are the blue-state laws protecting Roe.

Ben: This raft of ultrastrict laws has galvanized the pro-choice side, much as the laws Irin mentioned, inaccurately described as allowing infanticide, galvanized the pro-life contingent earlier this year. There are nationwide protests today, and many Democrats have weighed in with their support. But how much does this public awakening matter, when the presidential election isn’t for a year and a half, and when the issue is really ultimately up to the courts, many of which are stacked with conservative ideologues, to decide?

Irin: I think it matters a lot to clarify the stakes for more people than those immediately adjacent to the reproductive-rights movement.

Sarah: It could matter very much! I think it’s a mistake to think about it simply in terms of electoral politics, though obviously that’s important. What holds the Christian right together on the issue of abortion? Conviction. The pro-choice movement — hell, liberals as a category — could use a dose of conviction.

Irin: I’ve been covering this for about a decade, and the past week has brought more interest from people who have never asked about it before than I can remember. People are realizing this isn’t a talking point, it’s real. And the trick is explaining the damage that’s already been done without minimizing the seriousness of what could be ahead.

Ben: Sarah, you mentioned the “big tent” could be a problem for Democrats. Can you explain?

Sarah: I’ve been harping on Dan Lipinski a lot lately, but he’s such a perfect example. The DCCC is raising money for him! In a district that a more progressive candidate could actually win! Henry Cuellar, too — his district isn’t so conservative that only an anti-abortion Dem can win it. The usual logic doesn’t even apply. Then there was the Heath Mello debacle a couple years ago. The anti-abortion movement has its divisions on questions of strategy, but it’s very much unified around a central premise, which is that abortion is murder. Democrats, in contrast, aren’t as unified or as emphatic on the right to abortion.

Irin: I get why people are upset about those examples, and they matter. But what’s had a much bigger impact is that the Christian right turned out for Donald Trump because of abortion (and curtailing LGBT rights and more), and not enough Democratic voters did the same when, with the Supreme Court and in the world we have, abortion’s legality was clearly on the ballot in 2016. So I guess my question is whether the attention to these bans might change that.

Ben: Do you think the frames that most Democrats use around the issue — that it’s a woman’s choice, that the government shouldn’t be interfering with women’s bodies, and so on — generally work? Could they be doing something more effective in the face of often dishonest Republican attacks that focus on rare circumstances like third-trimester abortions?

Irin: I was talking this week with a pollster who’s done a lot of surveys and focus groups on the question, and she says that it’s striking the intensity that Democratic voters are bringing to the issue, and that they’re moving away from the “private decision between a woman and her doctor” and toward talking about it as control over your body. One Latina woman said to her in a focus group, “You have to ask the president now if you want to go to the bathroom.”

Of course, that’s Democratic voters. Across the board, polling on later procedures is scary for politicians. But I pointed to some of the research in my piece about how that changes when you talk about the reasons people need later procedures (and we should distinguish, in a way anti-choice people haven’t, between, say, 20 to 24 weeks, and the abortions after that, which in many states have to meet exceptions for health and life.)

Sarah: Speaking frankly, the bodily autonomy argument is what converted me originally from being anti-choice to pro-choice. I think it can be quite powerful to emphasize the notion of control. Do you think you have the right to your own body or not? It’s a clarifying question to ask people.

Irin: I hesitate to add to the avalanche of praise for Pete Buttigieg, but he did have a deft way of handling it when he said people want to talk about where to draw the line, but the question is who should draw it.

Ben: I’m curious about another messaging tactic. Though it’s true that all the Alabama senators who voted for the state’s draconian ban were men, the genders aren’t far off in their opinions of abortion, and many of the most powerful pro-life advocates and politicians are women (including Alabama’s governor, Kay Ivey, who signed that bill into law). When the pro-choice side frames all these restrictions as a “war on women,” does that elide some important context? And is it okay if it does?

Sarah: I’m sympathetic to that framing, but I don’t really think it’s the most effective way to make an argument. Not only does it give anti-choice women a pass, it sort of fights the war on the Christian right’s own turf, as a culture battle. Again, I think pro-choice advocates would be better off if they focused on the notion of bodily control. It’s a deeply feminist argument, but it sidesteps the culture war.

Irin: You saw a lot of Democrats adopting that line in 2011–12. I see it less now. I think it fails to account for anti-choice women like Ivey. We have to draw attention to gaps in representation everywhere, but they won’t tell the whole story. In the age of Ivanka Trump, with pseudo-empowerment having gone wide and a (likely) majority of white women voting for Trump, I hope more people can become familiar with the long-standing feminist observation that some women are deeply invested in the patriarchy.

Sarah: Yes, agreed. I remember trying to make this point when The Handmaid’s Tale first premiered on Hulu. The Christian right’s always had its share of Serena Joys, and is successful in no small part because of their efforts.

Irin: Yeah, Serena Joy and Aunt Lydia should make this a lot easier to understand. But just like the right’s true intentions for uteruses, it’s a lesson we have to keep relearning.

Do Democrats Have the Right Message on Abortion?