The Vanishing Anti-Choice Democrat: Rethinking the Party’s Strategy

With Bart Stupak grabbing every moment he can to go on television to denounce the non-existent possibility of federal funding for abortion, one might get the impression that he’s somehow representative of at least some of the base of the Democratic Party on this issue.  Certainly it’s well known that part of the 50- state strategy the Democrats concocted to win more elections included having a “big tent” approach, recruiting more conservative Democrats to win conservative districts. And sadly for pro-choicers, it’s often reproductive rights that are thrown under the bus in these efforts. The downplaying of reproductive rights is something the Democrats may regret every time Bart Stupak goes on television to proclaim his ignorance about what’s in the bill he’s opposing as smugly as possible, but even if that wasn’t true, there’s a reason to believe that now is the worst possible time to consider reproductive rights a negotiable issue when recruiting new blood to the Democratic party.

Why? Because views on abortion rights specifically are becoming more, not less partisan.  While overall views on abortion rights have stayed relatively stable in the U.S. since 1975, as this data from Gallup polling shows, partisan loyalties increasingly predict someone’s opinion on abortion rights.  In 1975, 18 percent of Republicans, 19 percent of Democrats, and 24 percent of independents felt that abortion should be legal in all circumstances.  In 2009, 12 percent of Republicans, 20 percent of independents, and 31 percent of Democrats thought it should be legal in all circumstances.  (This is down from a high of 38 percent of Democrats, probably due to the propaganda blitz from anti-choicers that implied that late term abortions are done for “convenience,” when most are done for health reasons.)

But that’s not all!  Thirty-three percent of Republicans want to ban all abortions, even those done to save a woman’s health or life.  But only 12 percent of Democrats feel the same way.  Those who want to keep it legal in “certain” circumstances are about the same in both parties—53 percent of Democrats and 54 percent of Republicans—but I’m fairly certain that if Gallup started to ask people about specific restrictions, you’d find that the Republicans probably have a much stricter view on average than the Democrats about who should be allowed to have an abortion.

What’s going on here?  Matt Ygelsias has a quick and accurate read on the situation:

There are presumably two reinforces dynamics at work here. One is that people with strong views on abortion [tend] to align themselves with the right party. And the other is that people with shallow convictions on abortion are aligning their views to conform [to] their co-partisans and the politicians they like.

Abortion has only been a major political issue for two generations, whereas most of the issues that define the party differences—size of the military, social spending, federal government, gun control—have been huge issues for 4 or 5 or more generations. It took some time for the political identities around reproductive rights to really form, and that’s a big part of why you’re seeing this polarization.

But a lot of the polarization has to do with feminism, its place in society and its place in the two parties.  It’s well worth remembering that the language of Roe v. Wade actually disappointed a number of feminists, because the decision abandoned the arguments about women’s equality for an argument that was more about the importance of medical authority and the right to privacy in the doctor/patient relationship.  In subsequent years, however, abortion has moved away from a public health issue for much of the public and has come to be seen as a women’s rights issue.  The memories of septic abortion wards are fading, and so people who might be hostile to women’s rights overall are far less likely to be swayed into supporting abortion rights by images of women with coat hangers hanging out their cervixes.

At the same time, the Democratic and Republican parties were shaped by the mainstream media to be, well, the feminine and masculine parties.  Because of inherent sexism in our society, Republicans were extremely happy with this.  Democrats have to walk a tighter line, trying to find ways not to be the “girlie party” that sets off misogynist alarm bells in the voters, but also trying to woo the growing numbers of female voters that have very specific feminist desires to see pay equity, better health care, and more social support.

Abortion and reproductive rights overall have become the stand-in issue for a whole host of culture-war struggles over a woman’s role in society.  Thirty years ago, I doubt you could say with much certainty that you could predict a person’s opinion on pay equity, federally subsidized day care, gay rights, health care reform, or even environmentalism from their opinion of abortion.  But nowadays, you can predict it with startling accuracy.  Supporting abortion rights is lumped together with all these other stances that are viewed as not just feminist, but feminine.  And where you fall in that milieu has less to do with your sex or gender identity, and more to do with what constellation of beliefs you find more compelling.

George Lakoff placed abortion into the constellation of “liberal” and “conservative” views in his book Moral Politics. In this book, he proposes that conservatives are hierarchy-oriented and liberals are egalitarian and nurturing.  From that perspective, the polarization about abortion makes complete sense.  Opponents to abortion see abortion as an escape hatch that allows women to behave sexually in ways that don’t fit into the strict moral framework they’ve created.  Liberals see sexuality as a matter of expression and individual taste, and see abortion rights as a public health issue, and an issue of rights, the exercise of which enables women to make choices in building the lives they choose to have.  Many Americans swing between these two extremes, depending on the situation.  But as time moves on and the debate over the issue becomes calcified, we’re going to see more, not less of this partisan polarization on the issue.

One thing is certain: As abortion becomes more polarized as an issue, the group of people who might be liberal on some issues, but are conservative on abortion, grows tinier by the day.  And investments by the Democratic Party to recruit that vanishing population would be far better spent elsewhere.

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  • jgbeam

    Stupak pointed to eight areas in federal law that prevent tax dollars from funding abortions.

    “Take any one of these eight, insert the language [into the health care bill], and we’ll be happy and we can support this legislation,” Stupak said. “We voted for health care before. I want to see health care passed. I agree with [Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius] — people are being priced out of the market. We must have health care. But, boy, there are some principles and beliefs that some of us are not going to pass.”

    Abortion is not health care.


    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • leftcoaster

    It may not be health care you would choose, but then I chose to be childless. That doesn’t mean I have to forego sexual activity.


    Those “principals and beliefs” need to be adjudicated through the court system, considering abortion was deemed a right 37 years ago. Get over it, or keep trying to whittle it down through stupid state laws. But DO NOT interfere in my health care. Abortion is one of two treatments for the condition known as pregnancy, and it is selected by at least one-fourth of all pregnant patients. If you’re going to de-fund it, you will also need to de-fund the *other* treatment, which is maternity/prenatal care — and labor & deliver, and post-natal care.


    Unless you want to see your rights stripped away, leave this one alone, “pro-lifer.”

  • leftcoaster

    That I see multiple areas in the CONSTITUTION which would forbid the recently hatched “faith-based initiatives” that fund MY TAX DOLLARS to religious organzations. I’m an atheist, and I resent that. So please don’t pick and choose your outrage over violations of federal law.

  • amanda-marcotte

    Stupak’s utter lack of honesty about his affiliations with the C Street Family disincline me to think he’s honest about anything else.  Either he’s lying or stupid, though.  The Senate bill has no federal funding for abortion services, and to add to it, it has the misogynist aspect where women are told to write a separate check for a rider. 


    It’s clear as day that Stupak either is in on a plan to stop health care reform, or his religious brethern have made him a useful idiot.  If he was simply concerned about federal funding for abortion, his “concerns” would be satisfied. 


    I’m forced to judge the man by what he does (stalls health care reform; lies about what’s in the bill) than what he says. 


    That said, he has made squawking noises about the evils of all reproductive rights, which includes any funding that would go to contraception, STD screening, cancer screening, and possibly prenatal care, especially for low income women.  So perhaps making sure that the government blocks any access to basic reproductive health care is his intention.  His snarling contempt for women’s health has really come out in these past few months, so it wouldn’t surprise me.  I keep waiting for him to put “women’s health” in McCain-esque scare quotes.

  • jgbeam

    If Obama were serious about health care reform and abandon his pro-abortion adenda, the bill would pass.



    Abortion is not health care.


    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • colleen

    If Stupak and the USCCB were serious about healthcare reform or ‘life’, for that matter, they would stop trying to force their religion down our collective throats via legislation.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

      Dr Warren Hern, MD
  • jgbeam

    It’s about saving unborn children.  Religion or no religion.  God or no God.  Whatever you believe or don’t believe – it’s about saving lives.


    Abortion is not health care.


    Jim Grant, Pro-lifer

  • frolicnaked

    Whatever you believe or don’t believe…

    Unless, of course, one believes in the right of the individual woman to make her own decisions regarding what happens with respect to her own uterus.

  • belker

    unless you happen to be born with a uterus.  If you have a uterus in your body then you would understand how abortion IS health care.


    Abortion is not healthcare like invetro or viagra is not health care.  Stupak is an enemy of equal rights for women.

  • amanda-marcotte

    There is no federal funding for abortion.  The notion that you folks can be placated by “compromising” has been proven wrong.  You got your demands and you are pretending you didn’t.  So you can justify opposition to health care reform—to saving lives!—while pretending to be “pro-life”.  You know, even though the lack of universal health care in this country takes lives. 


    They should have put free abortions on demand in the bill.   You’re going to claim it’s there  no matter what they do, so why not actually get it?

  • amanda-marcotte

    Real lives!  Those of people with families, minds, hearts, brains, friends, jobs, consciousness!


    If you care about saving lives, you support health care reform.  You don’t lie about what’s in the bill to stir up resentment towards sexually active women.

  • crowepps

    “The Senate bill, which will apparently be the subject of the first vote in the House late this week, has a strikingly large number of anti-abortion provisions. (I am indebted to Washington and Lee law professor Timothy Stoltzfus Jost for much of this analysis.) In layman’s terms, these provisions include:


    A prohibition preventing insurance companies from using federal funds, including tax credits or cost-sharing assistance, to pay for abortion services that go beyond the longstanding Hyde Amendment restrictions long enshrined in Medicaid (threat to the life of the mother, rape, and incest);


    A prohibition preventing the Secretary of Health and Human Services from requiring the coverage of any abortion services as part of the “essential health benefits” for any qualified health plan in a state insurance exchange;


    A mandate that if an insurance company offers a plan in a state exchange that has abortion coverage that goes beyond the Hyde abortion restrictions, that company is required to collect a separate second premium payment from each enrollee who wants that abortion coverage–they actually have to write what I would call an “abortion check”;


    A further mandate that said insurance company would then be required to deposit these separate abortion checks into what could equally well be called an “abortion account” consisting solely of these payments and used exclusively to pay for these services;


    A mandate that state insurance commissioners ensure that health plans comply with these abortion segregation requirements in accordance with generally acceptable accounting principles on fund management as specified by the Office of Management and Budget;


    A permission (going far beyond the current House bill) allowing states to pass laws prohibiting the inclusion of abortion coverage in plans offered in a state health insurance exchange, even if those plans do not receive a public subsidy;


    A reaffirmation of federal conscience protection clauses banning qualified health plans from discriminating against any health care provider or facility because of its unwillingness to provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or even refer for, abortions;


    And then there are two deeply pro-life measures in the bill that some of us have been advocating for quite some time:


    Establishment and funding of programs to support vulnerable pregnant women and thus prevent abortion from the demand side;


    Increase of the adoption tax credit and a provision to make it refundable so that lower income families can access the tax credit.


    … Personally, I am an evangelical Christian who seeks to live by a consistent pro-life ethic. I deeply desire to see thirty million of my uninsured neighbors in this country to be able to visit a doctor when they are sick and avoid 45,000 preventable deaths a year. I also deeply desire to see a country that turns away from abortion as a routine social practice.


    Whatever else might be said about health care reform, in the bill that will be voted on this week both goals are front and center–health care for tens of millions, and stark limits on abortion. I think that pro-life legislators should accept the victory they have won while they can get it.”


  • leftcoaster

    Does he think women abort in groups out of a desire to belong, or that 50 million of them have chosen independently to terminate unwanted pregnancies since Roe v. Wade ?


    Hint: It’s not the first. “Stark limits” on ANY right are unacceptable.

  • prochoicegoth

    Obama is pro-choice. Must you continue to spew your nonsense and dumbassery?