Why Southern Democrats Struggle With The Politics of Abortion

Democrats–particularly Democrats outside of the South–do a tremendous disservice to the party when they insist that pro-life candidates should not have a seat inside of our Big Tent.
(Disclaimer: I believe in the fundamental right to privacy, and I believe that this fundamental right inherently protects a woman’s agency over her body. But this is a discussion about political messaging and not a legal analysis). In the American South, the pro-choice Democrat officeholder, at least one who is outspoken on the issue, is on an Endangered Species list, alongside the Roosevelt Republican, and this is largely due to the ways in which the religious right has defined the terms. You are either pro-life or pro-choice. Those are the only two options available. No in between, No ambiguity. Well, sort of. If you are pro-life, a drop-down menu appears, and you are then allowed to clarify the exceptions to this ostensibly sacrosanct belief of yours–except in the case of rape? or incest? or age? or the mother’s life being in danger? or a medical determination that the fetus is severely suffering from debilitating pain as a result of an injury that will cause fatality? The overwhelming majority of self-identified pro-lifers agree to all of these exceptions, which means they actually are all pro-choice too. But it never works the other way. A person cannot claim to be pro-choice as a matter of public policy but pro-life as a matter of their own personal practice or religious beliefs. Joe Biden got away with it, but he is from Delaware. There’s no drop-down menu under pro-choice, no nuance, no exceptions. Other than, maybe, a question about “partial-birth abortions,” an issue that helped accelerate the extinction of the pro-choice Southern Democrat more effectively than anything else. The religious right learned how to message on this issue incredibly well. You see, there’s really no such thing as a “partial birth abortion.” It’s not a medical term. It was coined by Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee to describe a procedure that doctors would use in these rare and heartbreaking cases in which a fetus that had not yet reached viability had to be extracted intact, usually due to some sort of complication. It was a safe procedure, almost exclusively conducted in rare instances in which the physician determined it to be necessary. But pro-life organizations were galvanized by the photos of these intact fetuses and capitalized on their shock value to lobby for its prohibition. Chances are that you’ve seen a few of these images on protest signs. They are difficult to look at; that is the point. A divided Supreme Court–more than once–banned that particular procedure, even using Douglas Johnson’s focus-group approved neologism to describe it (henceforth confusing people into believing it was ever really happening just as the name implied). As a result, today, physicians administer lethal medication prior to extracting the fetus or are forced to perform other procedures that are much more gruesome than what the law had previously allowed. Conservatives declared victory, and today, any time a pro-choice politician is forced to explain their position, they are asked “Do you support the ban on partial-birth abortion [which, again, isn’t an actual thing]?” Last year, during one of the three presidential debates and in response to a question about the partial birth abortion ban, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of supporting women having abortions when they are 9 months pregnant, which is medically and even legally impossible. But again, the religious right has mastered the messaging on this. Despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of people who consider themselves to be pro-life acknowledge that the law should carve out exceptions, the anti-abortion crusaders used images of intact fetuses to ban a particular procedure that women had to endure in the most devastating moment in their lives and now, as a result, women in the same situation today are forced to endure something much more traumatizing. At the same time, by framing this as a partial-birth abortion ban, they perpetuated two powerful and totally false narratives that continue to resonate: First, that they were successful in ending what they argued was a barbaric procedure, thus preserving the dignity of the unborn fetus; and second, that they banned women who were well into their pregnancy from having a medically-unnecessary abortion on-demand. That has always been illegal. An “abortion” at 9 months pregnant isn’t called an abortion; it’s called a C-section or a stillbirth, Mr. President. And this is one of the primary reasons it is difficult–if not impossible–to win in parts of the American South as a pro-choice candidate. The religious right has so thoroughly confused well-intentioned and decent people into believing that being pro-choice means believing that women who are well into their pregnancy should be allowed to murder a viable baby, which, again, has never been legal. I don’t discount, at all, their successes–many of which were short-lived–in passing TRAP (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers) laws, but it works to their advantage to pretend as if they are waging a righteous battle against laws that don’t actually exist. So, back to my original point about national Democrats who argue that the party shouldn’t bother with pro-life Southern Democrats: How about, instead, we all stop allowing the religious right to define the terms of this debate? The litmus test question should not be “Do you identify as pro-life or pro-choice?” It’s a purposely false dichotomy that forces people who believe in the right to an abortion in the rhetorical trap of putatively admitting that they are not fans of human life. Instead, we should ask something like, “Do you believe all women, regardless of age, health status, or disability, should be required by state and/or federal law to carry to viability a child, whether that child was conceived consensually or as a result of rape or incest, and whether or not the child has a fatal condition that assures its death before or soon after birth?” If the answer is “no,” then we will put you down as pro-choice. A “no” answer on that question means that you do not believe this should merely be a question left up to the states, or, alternately, that states cannot enact a law prohibiting access to abortions. If the answer is “yes,” fine, call yourself “pro-life,” but we’re going to put you down as a “forced birth advocate.” Instead of allowing politicians to proclaim themselves to be “pro-life” and then moderate their fundamentalism by explaining the circumstances in which they are not, we should ask whether they believe in forced birth and then give them the opportunity to explain who, exactly, they would force to give birth (women between certain ages? what disabilities or health conditions would exempt a woman from this forced birth mandate? what if they falsely claim to have been raped but the accused rapist is found not guilty?). The problem isn’t that pro-life Southern Democrats betray the party’s values (though there are definitely a handful who do); the problem is that the terms of the discussion are inherently dishonest.