The word “abortion” first appeared in the Democratic Party Platform in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade made the procedure legal in every state. The language was succinct and bloodless, just two brief lines endorsing the Supreme Court decision and acknowledging the “religious and ethical nature of the concerns which many Americans have on the subject.”
The platform position stayed basically the same until until 1984, when the word was replaced by the more euphemistic “reproductive freedom.” That became “reproductive choice” in 1988 and reverted back to “abortion” in 1992.
In 2016, the platform officially rejected the Hyde Amendment’s ban on federal funding for the procedure, but remained the same kind of policy baseline: Abortion is a medical procedure and the government shouldn’t impede access to it.
That there is room to say and feel more here seems obvious, but after nearly 45 years—while Republicans and the anti-abortion movement fostered a nice little culture war and the vocabulary to go with it—Democrats are still very bad at talking about abortion and its sometimes complicated place in people’s lives.
So when it comes up, as it did last week, when Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez endorsed a local candidate with a record of supporting anti-abortion legislation, people tend to show their asses.
Sanders has a strong voting record on abortion rights and reproductive health, but has never really incorporated either into how he talks about income inequality. This is an absurd blind spot since the rollback of abortion rights in this country is fundamentally an assault on poor women. The means to control if, when, and under what circumstances you have a kid is deeply connected to women’s educational and financial lives. Motherhood shouldn’t be a poverty sentence, and there is no economic justice without full abortion rights.
He could have said any of this when asked about his endorsement of Omaha mayoral candidate Heath Mello—who had already communicated his intention to leave his personal views out of mayoral policy, but had to telegraph that more bluntly after his race was unexpectedly nationalized. But instead, Sanders told NPR:
If we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose, at the end of the day we’re going to need Democratic control over the House and the Senate, and state governments all over this nation. And we have got to appreciate where people come from, and do our best to fight for the pro-choice agenda. But I think you just can’t exclude people who disagree with us on one issue.
Whether you think this is pragmatic or another example of Sanders’ lack of perspective on the issue probably depends on how you voted in the Democratic presidential primary, but it was received by many reproductive health advocates, not unreasonably, as an indication that Sanders was willing to make political concessions that could erode abortion rights as part of his 50-state strategy.
In response, Tom Perez issued a statement swinging the pendulum in the other direction, insisting: “Every Democrat, like every American, should support a woman’s right to make her own choices about her body and her health. That is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.”
And so the question of the week for cable news hosts became whether or not there was room for “pro-life Democrats” in the big tent, which was as absurd as it was disingenuous, since Democrats who oppose abortion rights—and legislate that way—are already well-represented in the party. Of course there is “room” for them—they currently reside within the tent. But Democrats, from Chuck Schumer to Nancy Pelosi, nevertheless leapt at the opportunity to answer in the affirmative. (“We’re a big tent party,” Schumer said this week on “Morning Joe” while still offering that the big tent was also “pro-choice.”)
To summarize, Sanders and Perez endorsed a candidate who is already within the Democratic Party mainstream on the question of reproductive rights—one whose current position is not terribly dissimilar from that of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 running mate, or the erstwhile Democratic Senate majority leader. They faced backlash for it, then responded to the backlash with statements that created more confusion about where the Democratic Party actually stands on abortion.
There’s a reason this is so confusing for everyone. The Democratic Party’s longstanding insistence on using euphemisms instead of direct language about a very common medical procedure has created a baseline level of incoherence underlying all of its conversations and messaging about abortion. The reality is that “pro-choice” and “pro-life” aren’t incredibly useful labels when it comes to how most Americans think of their views on abortion, and Democrats would do well to address that in their fumble toward 2018.
As Sarah Kliff reported at Vox through an extensive survey conducted back in 2015, many Americans have nuanced and sometimes self-contradictory views on abortion:
In our poll, we found that 18 percent of Americans... pick “both” when you ask them to choose between pro-life and pro-choice. Another 21 percent choose neither. Taken together, about four in 10 Americans are eschewing the labels that we typically see as defining the abortion policy debate.
But by using precise language in the poll, Kliff found that people are more likely to express support for abortion rights when the focus is on women. She also found that a majority of respondents could agree that they wanted a woman’s abortion experience to be “affordable,” “comfortable,” “nonjudgmental,” and “without added burdens.”
The Democratic Party’s clear discomfort talking about a very normal part of women’s lives becomes all the more baffling when you realize that most of the country is on their side, and that speaking candidly about abortion is one of the ways to bring the procedure out of the fantasy space of the culture wars and into the lived experiences of millions of women and their families.
This isn’t the same thing as calling for a return to Clinton’s contrite “safe, legal, and rare”—it’s the opposite. Democrats can better explain their stated platform position—which is that the government shouldn’t be involved in a person’s decision to terminate a pregnancy—by being honest about the range of ways a person can feel about abortion while still believing that the government should stay out of it. It means more talking about abortion, not less.
Most Americans are not pro-life activists, even if they are sometimes swayed by pro-life messaging. Abortion is a thing that happens, and people feel different ways about it. That’s as true for Democratic leadership as it is for their constituents.
This is the real opening for the Democrats’ “big tent” strategy: Not rhetorical evasions about “pro-life” or “pro-choice” that they hope will be vague enough to please—or at least confuse—anyone who might be paying attention, but an honest acknowledgement that abortion is a fact of life, and that, once we grant that, we have to decide how we wish to treat the millions of women who experience it. This stuff shouldn’t be that hard.