You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Why Democrats Are Debating Abortion Yet Again

The Heath Mello controversy was just the culmination of a dramatic shift in the party's tone on women's reproductive rights.

Democrats devolved last week into an intra-party dispute over abortion. It began with a controversy over Senator Bernie Sanders and Democratic national chairman Tom Perez’s support for Heath Mello, a mayoral candidate in Omaha, Nebraska, with a mixed record on the issue (though not as mixed as originally reported). NARAL Pro-Choice America pounced, calling the DNC’s move “not only disappointing” but “politically stupid.” By Friday, Perez had released a strong statement saying all Democrats must support a woman’s right to choose:

I fundamentally disagree with Heath Mello’s personal beliefs about women’s reproductive health. It is a promising step that Mello now shares the Democratic Party’s position on women’s fundamental rights. Every candidate who runs as a Democrat should do the same because every woman should be able to make her own health choices. Period.

Perez told The New York Times he respects Democrats with “personal beliefs” against abortion, but vowed to fight any politician who tries to legislate against women’s reproductive rights. Other party leaders took a different tone. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was “of course” possible to be pro-life and a Democrat. “I have served many years in Congress with members who have not shared my very positive, my family would say aggressive, position on promoting a woman’s right to choose,” she said. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer described the Democratic Party as both “strongly pro-choice” and “a big tent.” Democratic strategist Lis Smith told MSNBC, “My concern is that if we impose these purity tests that we will purify ourselves into irrelevance, and we will purify our party to the point where we can only win elections in states that touch salt water.”

For Democrats who oppose abortion, the past few days have been particularly frustrating. “Pro-life Democrats have never felt as isolated as they do after this week,” Michael Wear, an adviser to President Barack Obama on faith outreach, told me. But that isolation, he added, has been growing for a long time.

During the Obama years, the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights became more strident, a shift in tone that critics contend has alienated voters. At the same time, feminists and reproductive-rights advocates have cheered efforts to de-stigmatize abortion. The party is already split over how to balance class concerns and identity issues—as represented by the Sanders and Clinton wings, respectively. Will Democrats have to reckon with another, equally thorny divide?

At the Democratic National Convention in 2012, the party made what the Daily Beast’s Eleanor Clift called “a sharp departure from two decades of modulating their views on [abortion] with the phrase ‘safe, legal, and rare.’” Longtime political commentator Cokie Roberts declared on ABC News that the rhetoric “was really over the top.” “Every single speaker talked about abortion,” Roberts said, “and, you know, at some point, you start to alienate people. Thirty percent of Democrats are pro-life.”

But 2012 didn’t hold a candle to 2016, when for the first time the party platform called for repealing the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for most abortions, and the Helms Amendment, which blocks foreign aid from funding the procedure. Hillary Clinton, who had frequently invoked “safe, legal, and rare” in 2008, gave an unprecedented defense of late-term abortion in her third debate with Trump. “I have met with women who have, toward the end of their pregnancy, [gotten the] worst news one can get,” she said. “That their health is in jeopardy if they continue to carry to term. Or that something terrible has happened or just been discovered about the pregnancy. I do not think the United States government should be stepping in and making those most personal of decisions.”

The website Slate said “Hillary Clinton’s Debate Answer on Abortion Is Why We Need More Women in Politics,” but Wear felt it deepened the isolation of pro-life Democrats, who just want their views treated with respect. “Hillary Clinton had decades of experience with these politics and she knew better,” he said. “Pro-life Democrats are willing to vote for the party just as long as we’re not throwing a ticker-tape parade at the convention about how great abortion is.”

Wear faults influential abortion rights groups and activists for pushing the party too far on these issues. They’ve certainly been working to change the conversation. In 2015, The Washington Post reported on the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign, which was cheered on by Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America:

By presenting a collection of nuanced narratives, #ShoutYourAbortion aims to advance a message of broader acceptance: If your abortion experience was hard and sad, that’s okay. If your abortion experience wasn’t hard or sad, that’s also okay.

This marks a significant tonal shift in the cultural conversation about abortion. Even abortion rights advocates have often posited abortion as a less-than-desirable outcome, the result of a difficult choice.... The most prominent arguments for keeping abortion legal have usually focused on extreme examples, ones most likely to seem morally palatable—cases involving incest, rape, medical emergencies or catastrophic birth defects.

But those circumstances don’t apply to all women who seek abortions, and not all women feel burdened or distraught by the decision to end a pregnancy...

Wear says he opposes “hard-right misogynist shaming” of women who get abortions, but he is also leery of the effect of this activism. “It has moved the center of the debate in the Democratic Party,” he said. “In the past, there would be little penalty to pay for Democratic candidates who were where these groups wanted them to be on the votes, but were rhetorically more moderate. That was all seen as acceptable. As long as they voted the way they were supposed to vote, it was fine. Now we’re at a place where Democratic politicians have to pay for even standing side-by-side with someone they disagree with on the issue or expressing rhetorical concerns. I’m not sure how much it’s changed the policy of the party. What it’s done is changed the posture of the party.”

To be clear, no one in the mainstream of these debates is arguing that Democrats can’t have a personal objection to abortion. “If people want to identify as personally pro-life, of course that’s their prerogative to do so,” said Kierra Johnson, executive director of the pro-choice group Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity (URGE). This is not about telling people they are right or wrong about what they believe; it is about defending legal access to a medical procedure that makes it possible for a woman to determine her own future,” NARAL Pro-Choice America Communications Director Kaylie Hanson Long said in a statement. She stressed that “7 in 10 Americans support access to legal abortion”; a Pew poll in January found that 69 percent oppose completely overturning Roe v. Wade. “This majority stretches across state and party lines,” she said. “This majority is comprised of Americans who believe abortion is morally acceptable, as well as Americans who do not feel it is right for themselves or their family.”

Wear argued that the abortion issue could have been decisive in Clinton’s loss. “If the Democratic Party had not put repeal of Hyde on the party platform,” he said, “I think that alone could have moved enough votes of moderate Catholics in the Rust Belt to make a difference.” (After Obama won Catholics nationally in 2008 and 2012, initial reports concluded Trump carried these voters last fall; the latest analysis finds Clinton won them narrowly.) But Hanson Long rejects that analysis. “Hillary Clinton made history not only as our nation’s first female nominee for a major political party, but also because she ran on a platform that actively highlighted reproductive rights,” she said. “To people who think that cost her the election, I want to point out that not one single ad was run against her on these issues. Because our opponents know that their stance on abortion access is a losing issue for them.”

Johnson’s group, URGE, was among those that pushed Democratic lawmakers to oppose the Hyde Amendment and change the way they talked about pro-choice issues. URGE traveled to college campuses last year on an #AbortionPositive tour, encouraging students “to take action and proclaim abortion access as a public good.”

“We spent the last 20 years being apologists around abortion, because we thought somehow that was the right thing to do as a movement,” Johnson said. “I think for a long time our own movement bought into this idea that we shouldn’t talk about it very much or talk about it in a positive way.” She believes the party could motivate young voters more with even stronger statements on the issue. “The more that we de-stigmatize abortion and show how much abortion access matters, the more young people we attract to our work,” she said. “I think any attempt to go bolder in our support of progressive values only aids the party.”

Hanson Long said that the divide in the Democratic Party over abortion is “contrived,” and she may be right. Many Democratic politicians who are personally pro-life—like Senator Tim Kaine, Clinton’s running mate last year—support a woman’s right to choose, and party leaders like Schumer and Pelosi are hardly advocating for candidates who support laws restricting abortion.

But Mello’s case does suggest that national pro-choice groups can be overzealous in policing progressive politicians. “I would have appreciated it if NARAL had taken the time to talk to some of us on the ground,” Megan Hunt, a reproductive-rights activist in Omaha, told The Nation. Nebraska Democratic Party chair Jane Kleeb told the magazine, “It was Heath’s credibility with pro-life legislators that enabled him to take mandatory ultrasounds off the table and substitute a bill that stated that women had a choice to have one and to see the image.”

No one on the left is suggesting that pro-choice groups let up on the substance. But perhaps the lesson from Nebraska is that what makes sense for the party in a national election doesn’t make much sense in the intervening elections, where Democrats will have to be more flexible if they’re ever going to claw their way back to power.