The Problem with Moral Nuance On Abortion For Democrats
The New York Times received numerous responses to an opinion piece it recently published—from a man—about how the Democratic Party should tone it down on abortion to win back Catholic voters. So, being the Times, and obviously committed to diversity and airing opinions from a range of voices, it decided to run a follow-on piece discussing the responses—from two men.
So we have two white men who, if they were women, would be well beyond reproductive age, discussing access to a reproductive health procedure most commonly proscribed, via Medicaid funding limitations and state-level restrictions, for young women, poor women and women of color. Because make no mistake, that’s what we’re talking about here. Not some political strategy like where ad dollars should be spent or which voters should be targeted. We’re talking about access to a legal reproductive health procedure that gravely impacts the future life, health and prospects of a woman and, in many cases, her existing children.
Thomas Groome is sticking to his contention that Barack Obama was more “nuanced” on abortion than Hillary Clinton, and that’s why she lost, not that, as one of the commenters noted, “She lost because her campaign was horrible.”
Groome distills Clinton’s entire history of discussing reproductive rights in a nuanced and complex manner to her obviously angry response to Donald Trump’s contention in the third presidential debate that abortion was basically viable fetuses being ripped from their mother’s wombs days before birth. “I strongly support Roe v. Wade,” she said. Was it the best response in that moment? Maybe not, but she wasn’t the only candidate in 2016 who found it maddeningly difficult to respond to Trump’s hot-button pushing falsehoods. In any case, that’s a poor argument for dumping the party’s unequivocal support of abortion rights.
But it’s Groome’s fellow co-respondent, Steven Krueger of Catholic Democrats, who shows just how cynical this strategy of abortion appeasement is. According to Krueger, Clinton:
..used more one-sided rhetoric than [Obama] did at the expense of the moral dimension of this issue — as well as proposing to repeal the Hyde Amendment. This cost her with many Catholic voters and in all likelihood did not win one additional vote for her.
First, a little history fact-check. As a presidential candidate, Obama said he opposed the Hyde Amendment and campaigned on repealing it. He didn’t back down on that pledge until after the election, when it became clear it was politically inconvenient. And, for the record, he also campaigned on making abortion part of the package of basic health services available under health reform and backed down from that as well.
But the bigger issue here is the sheer cynicism of this strategy, which is a long-running theme in abortion politics. Politicians campaign in support of the Hyde Amendment as a way of telegraphing their moral disapproval of abortion to the electorate, ensuring that the women who most need access to affordable abortion don’t get it. Similarly, moderate Democrats have often supported “reasonable” measures like waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds, which are based on the premise that women don’t understand the “moral dimensions” of abortion, which only serve to prevent women from getting wanted abortions by putting so many roadblocks in their way that they give up.
What Groome and Krueger are saying is that Democrats should talk about how much they dislike abortion out of one side of their mouths, while out of the other assuring their base, especially women, that they technically, though regretfully, support the legality of the procedure. The only problem is Democratic women aren’t having this anymore.
To see the difficulty in executing this abortion two-step, you only have to look to the gubernatorial race in Virginia, where former Congressman Tom Perriello is challenging Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam for the Democratic nomination.
Northam, who is a pediatric neurologist, has been an outspoken supporter of reproductive rights during his terms as a state senator and lieutenant governor. He spearheaded opposition to the state’s infamous transvaginal ultrasound measure and took a lead in fighting Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) regulations designed to shut-down facilities that provide abortions. And, in the “Democrats don’t support measures to reduce abortion” column that Groome contends leads to election deficits with Catholics, Northam has advocated for a measure to give women free IUDs.
Perriello, on the other hand, is best know as the co-founder of Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which came to attention in the WikiLeaks dump of John Podesta’s emails as the organization Podesta backed to foment a “Catholic Spring.”
Catholics in Alliance was formed in the wake of the last Catholic panic, after John Kerry lost the Catholic vote to George W. Bush by five points. Officially, the idea behind the organization was to help the Democrats reclaim “moral and religious language” using Catholic social justice teaching. But organizations like Catholics for Choice claimed that the real purpose was to move the Democratic Party away from its support of abortion rights in an effort to court conservative-leaning Catholic voters.
According to a report from Catholics for Choice, Catholics in Alliance (CACG) asserted that anti-poverty measures would be sufficient to reduce abortion:
In concentrating on reducing the number of abortions, rather than the need for abortion, CACG is simply repackaging the antiabortion stance of the most conservative elements of society and denigrating those who argue for full sexual and reproductive rights.
At the time, the organization stated: “Catholics in Alliance is pro-life. We support full legal protection for unborn children as a requirement of justice and as a matter of essential human rights.” The organization also equated war, torture and abortion as “affronts to human life.”
Perriello left the organization when he was elected to Congress in 2008 as part of the Obama wave. While in Congress, he was one of a bloc of mostly Catholic Democrats who voted for the infamous Stupak Amendment that the Catholic bishops lobbied to add to the Affordable Care Act to prevent private funding from going to health plans that covered abortion participating in public exchanges. Reproductive rights advocates warned the measure would force most insurance plans to stop covering abortion all together. Eventually, Obama signed an executive order stipulating that no public funding would go to abortion in exchange plans.
Now, Perriello finds himself running for governor in a state chock-full of educated suburban women who support abortion rights—more than ever since the election of Trump made a full-out assault on reproductive health a reality. So what happens to all his moral nuance on abortion? That’s out the window.
Just days after announcing his candidacy, and after coming under criticism from reproductive rights advocates for his previous stance on abortion, Perriello declared on Facebook:
I have always been pro-choice and a supporter of Roe v. Wade. I believe that women should have the constitutional right to make their own decisions in consultation with their family and physician and without meddling from politicians. I’m proud of the pro-choice votes I took in Congress, including against efforts to restrict funding to Planned Parenthood, and bar the District of Columbia from spending its own money for abortion services.
At the same time, I want to be very clear that I regret my vote on the Stupak-Pitts Amendment. At the time, I had extensive conversations with my constituents in Virginia’s Fifth and pledged at dozens of public meetings that I would support health care reform only if it was consistent with the Hyde Amendment. I believed at the time that voting for the Stupak amendment was the only way to meet that pledge.
Perriello says while he has always been pro-choice and worked for reproductive rights after he failed to be reelected and went to the Center for American Progress, he has evolved on the issue of the Hyde Amendment as he came to “better understand the intersection between denial of service and race and class.”
While such an evolution may be authentic, it also conveniently tracks with the evolution of the Democratic base, which increasingly sees repeal of Hyde as a fundamental reproductive justice—and core Democratic—issue.
Not only does the type of wish-washy abortion rhetoric Groome and Krueger recommend not square with the current priorities of the Democratic base, but it’s completely divorced from political reality, reading like recycled “common ground” recommendations from 2007, when Democrats were similarly urged to express their fervent desire to reduce abortions.
As Micheal Wear, the former head of Obama’s faith-based office recently noted in Politico, the Obama administration spent an enormous amount of time on fact-finding and listening sessions with pro-choice and pro-life groups to come up with a viable, bipartisan strategy to reduce the need for abortions:
But zero-sum politics won. Anti-abortion groups, most of which might as well be legally incorporated into the Republican Party, did not want to give a pro-abortion rights president the victory of leading the charge to reduce abortions. Moreover, they had already warned the country that the president would be the “most pro-abortion president in history,” thus making it difficult to partner with him.
Abortion is a divisive issue because abortion is a divisive issue. It gets to the heart of how people feel about women, family, children, personal autonomy and divinity. No amount of softened rhetoric the Democrats can use will change that, and voters, who are more attuned to authenticity in politicians than ever before, will smell the stink of abortion equivocation a mile away. For better or worse, this is a fight that must be fought head-on.
This piece was originally published by Religion Dispatches.