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Is there a place for pro-life people in the Democratic coalition?

Can you be a Democrat and also hold pro-life views?

That old debate has broken out once again, as Democrats mobilize to win special elections taking place around the country. It all started with the mayoral election in Omaha, where moderately pro-life Democrat Heath Mello was endorsed by Bernie Sanders. Pro-choice liberals attacked him for ideological apostasy — and despite his own strong pro-choice record, Sanders seemed to make matters worse with a rather weak excuse. DNC chair Tom Perez later issued a statement saying that pro-choice views were "not negotiable" for the party.

However, this ignored a long history of squishy compromising on abortion, including from Hillary Clinton and her 2016 running mate Tim Kaine. That was further underlined when House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi disagreed with Perez in an interview on Meet the Press.

Abortion, like any morally complicated and divisive issue, raises interesting questions of political coalition-building. It is surely possible for someone to be against abortion and still remain part of the left coalition — but it depends critically on how that belief is applied to public policy.

Now, by left coalition, I mean one holding the usual egalitarian set of views: racial and LGBT rights, gender rights, labor rights, social insurance, poverty eradication, and so on. Access to abortion is a key policy plank (and one I strongly support myself). If women are to have equal standing in society, they must have access to reproductive health services, of which abortion is a necessary component.

So to start, imagine first an easy case: someone who is personally against abortion, but does not ever give voice to that view, and does not support any restrictions on abortion access whatsoever (akin to how Joe Biden expresses himself in this interview, though his actual record is mixed). Such a functionally pro-choice person could easily fit into a liberal coalition. Conversely, someone who is a fervent pro-lifer, ranking that issue above any other policy views they might have (think Rick Santorum), obviously has no place in the left coalition.

Now consider someone who dislikes abortion, and wants to use public policy to reduce the number of abortions. Here’s where details begin to matter. Something like a quarter of women who have an abortion report an inability to afford a child as among their reasons — suggesting that left-wing family policy, like paid leave, a child allowance, and a maternity grant would substantially cut abortions.

Indeed, this fact dovetails quite nicely with left-wing ideas generally. People having abortions because they are economically coerced into it is no victory for the left. The goal should be to allow everyone to have whatever family they want regardless of their income. To have full reproductive freedom, people need access to contraception, abortion, and a quality welfare state so they can have kids without falling into poverty.

This raises the question of legal restrictions on abortion. One could still be in favor of reducing the number of abortions, but draw the line at legal restrictions on access. If anti-abortion policy is restricted only to family benefit policy (akin to what’s mentioned above), then there should again be no problem fitting into the left coalition. Here’s an imperfect analogy: Many people believe that taking heroin is morally wrong and a bad choice — but do not support the prohibition on heroin, viewing it as counterproductive and enabling a lot of violent crime. Similarly, banning abortion outright would force a lot of people to get back-alley illegal abortions, leading to many injuries and deaths.

Which brings us to the support of actual legal restrictions, like time limits, waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, and so forth. If the vast majority of the country held ironclad pro-choice views, this would be an academic question. But Americans have been fairly evenly split for a long time between self-identifying as pro-life and pro-choice. For the sake of winning elections, there should thus be a general rule of thumb that says pro-life Democrats should be tolerated so long as they do not meaningfully impede access to abortion. Mello’s support of a bill requiring abortion patients to be notified of the possibility of seeing an ultrasound before getting an abortion is probably not worth running him out of the party over — especially given that there is no other more pro-choice candidate in the Omaha mayor’s race. Mandatory ultrasounds, by contrast, are a lot closer to a deal-breaker.

At any rate, opinion polls measuring pro-life versus pro-choice obscure the complexity of Americans’ views on abortion. An investigation by Sarah Kliff demonstrates that people’s views about abortion are complicated and wishy-washy, with both hardcore pro-lifers and pro-choicers relatively rare. But as Emily Crockett shows, only a small minority actually support overturning Roe vs. Wade.

For years and years Republicans have been advancing duplicitous abortion restrictions at the state level by claiming they are actually trying to improve health or other such lies. They do this because their true position — a total ban on all abortions — is extremely unpopular.

So if the Democrats can get over their palpable discomfort and speak honestly and directly, it ought to be easily possible to construct an effective pro-choice coalition.