US Democrats are going wrong in their campaign for abortion rights

Women who choose to have abortions cite several factors, including financial, timing, partner-related reasons, and the need to focus on other children.
Women who choose to have abortions cite several factors, including financial, timing, partner-related reasons, and the need to focus on other children.

Summary

  • The party may be making all the right noises on the issue but its publicity material is diversity deficient. Democrats should tell the stories of a wider cross-section of America.

For years, the Democrats’ political and rhetorical approach to abortion was the Bill Clinton model. Make it safe, legal and rare. Three decades later, when abortion is illegal or severely restricted in 21 states, the formula is essentially this. Make abortion safe and legal, and mainly about privileged Caucasian women who need medical, not elective abortions. This is the narrative preferred by the Biden campaign, which has spent millions on ads featuring this story. They should tell a more complete story on abortion.

In its focus, this strategy ultimately stigmatizes certain women and certain abortions, even as it aims to expand reproductive freedoms for all women. Democrats have rightly judged that the most politically effective way to approach abortion is to have women tell their own stories. To be more effective, Democrats must include a wider array of women. De-stigmatizing abortion will make it more politically palatable, which would help all women.

Some facts about abortion: Roughly one in four US women will have an abortion by the age of 40. Women who choose to have abortions cite several factors, including financial (40%), timing (36%), partner-related reasons (31%), and the need to focus on other children (29%). Most women who choose to have abortions are low-income. 

Six in 10 women who have abortions are already mothers. Women in their 20s account for over half of abortions. African-American women account for 40% of abortions. Hispanic women account for 21% and Caucasians, the main focus of the Biden campaign ads, just 30%.

In Prosecute, Austin Dennard, an obstetrician-gynecologist in Dallas, talks about having to flee her state to get an abortion because of a foetal abnormality. Willow’s Box features the story of Amanda Zurawski of Texas, who was denied an abortion, got sepsis and almost died. An ad in Arizona, which just repealed an 1864 abortion ban, features several Latinas silently, with President Joe Biden providing the voiceover.

Obviously, Democrats have judged that it is easier and more politically palatable to tell the story of upper-income Caucasian women dealing with planned pregnancies that go horribly wrong. This worked for Democrats in 2022. Yet it’s unclear how potent this approach will be in a presidential election over multiple states with a bigger electorate.

Including women who elected to have abortions to continue their college education, for instance, to get a better job and lift their families out of poverty would allow Democrats to make an economic argument around abortion. When US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen linked abortion to economics, arguing that eliminating abortion access would “set women back decades," she was rebuked by the likes of Republican Senator Tim Scott and other conservatives. 

Yet, she was right, particularly when it comes to low-income women who don’t have six months maternity leave and the ability to pay for day care. Reproductive freedom is economic freedom. A broad spectrum of young voters get it.

Forcing women to have children they can’t afford makes upward mobility difficult. And this isn’t just about women. Men, too, have an interest in making sure the women in their lives have access to abortions. The Biden team recognizes this to a degree—it recently released an ad aimed at Latino men featuring a Marine talking about his daughter’s freedoms. 

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff is pushing more men to join the fight. “This is an issue of fairness to women. Women are dying," Emhoff said in an interview with NBC News. “It’s affecting [men’s] ability to plan their lives. And it’s also an issue of what’s next, what other freedoms are at risk. And these freedoms are affecting all Americans, not just women."

It’s a good start. Democrats are rightly concerned that highlighting the stories of younger and more marginalized Americans might alienate certain voters, but they must take a big-tent approach to abortion politics. Give all women (and men) who believe that women should decide when they want to have a child a voice, rather than making certain abortions “good" and others more taboo. This is good politics.

The truth is most Americans know someone who has had an abortion. Women who have had abortions, elective and medical, are Democrats, Republicans, independents, and often people of faith. Yes, people who go to church, too. To win, Democrats will need a diverse coalition of voters. So, they must find a way to speak to them about this key issue.

Democrats like to say that they trust women to make their own decisions when it comes to their bodies. But if they continue to exclude certain women from the conversation on abortion, it suggests they only trust certain women. ©bloomberg

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