How Democrats Need to Talk About Abortion

Jonathan Capehart praised Pete Buttigieg’s Fox News appearance (which I didn’t see), and in particular praised Buttigieg’s answer to an abortion question.

“Do you believe at any point in pregnancy,” Wallace asked, “whether it’s at six weeks or eight weeks or 24 weeks or whatever, that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?” The back-and-forth between Buttigieg and Wallace was instructive, especially the mayor’s initial response.

This part is a transcript of the Fox conversation:

Buttigieg: I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of who gets to draw the line, and I trust women to draw the line when it’s their own health.

Wallace: So just to be clear, you’re saying that you would be okay with a woman, well into the third trimester, deciding to abort her pregnancy.

Buttigieg: Look, these hypotheticals are usually set up in order to provoke a strong emotional—

Wallace: It’s not hypothetical, there are 6,000 women a year who get abortions in the third trimester.

Buttigieg: That’s right, representing less than 1 percent of cases. So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it’s that late in your pregnancy, then it’s almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name. Women who have purchased a crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or the life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice. And the bottom line is, as horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.

I’ve seen worse answers, but I’m still not satisfied with that. Here is what (I would like to think) I would have said.

(Hypothetical conversation follows.)

Wallace: Do you believe at any point in pregnancy, whether it’s at six weeks or eight weeks or 24 weeks or whatever, that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?

Me: I support the Roe v. Wade guidelines that have been the law of the land for 46 years. That decision protects a right to abortion for any reason until the fetus is capable of surviving outside the womb, which medical science tells us is at about 23 weeks’ gestation, or late second trimester. The Roe decision said that states may restrict abortions after that point except when necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

So when people opposed to abortion create these fantasy scenarios in which women close to term waltz into an abortion clinic to end the pregnancy and destroy the fetus for no good reason, they are talking about something that already is illegal and isn’t happening in the real world. Let’s talk about what is happening in the real world.

Wallace: There are 6,000 women a year who get abortions in the third trimester.

Me: That’s right, representing less than 1 percent of cases. So let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation  (etc.; the rest of Buttigieg’s answer was okay).

(End hypothetical conversation.)

Why is it so hard to actually explain what the law is now? Why don’t people do that? Nobody, not even NARAL, is fighting for elective abortion in the third trimester. Why is it somehow forbidden to say that?

The most recent polling on Roe. v. Wade (from April 2019) says that 65 percent of adults nationwide support Roe v. Wade and don’t want it overturned, as opposed to 32 percent who want it overturned. That’s a healthy majority.  Stand with Roe v. Wade. Why do we allow ourselves to be put on defense?

See Paul Waldman, On abortion rights, time for Democrats to go on offense. See also Why I Don’t Give Money to NARAL.

13 thoughts on “How Democrats Need to Talk About Abortion

  1. I think your answer is fine. (I'm going to ramble – these are random thoughts that may or may not intersect with your own thinking; my main point is, I'm not criticizing anyone else's – just thinking out loud, because I feel like it.)

    I think it's important to remind people to think about the opposite direction. "Well, remember, pro-life people are of the opinion that it is first degree murder to kill a fertilized egg which is a single cell…  but only if it's in the uterus, because calling fertility clinics mass murderers doesn't poll well." (The "doesn't poll well" is a key bit to throw in – remember, Trumpsters (= "all of the GOP not calling for President Trump's resignation or impeachment") love to pretend they don't follow polls. )

    Force people to own "we oppose abortion, and, in face, even pregnancy prevention that might result in the death of an undifferentiated collection of fertilized cells". (The "pregnancy prevention" is also important – drive home the point that one aborts *pregnancies*.)

    Force people to confront "well, if abortion is really cold-blooded murder, then you shouldn't really have exceptions for rape; but if it *isn't*, then why are you trying to restrict abortion? What moral grounds? Remember: if you say it's murder, I'm asking why rape is a special case; if you say it *isn't*, I'm asking what the crime *is* – and why rape makes it okay.

    The reason abortion is a key issue is that people have been trumpeting "abortion is murder!" for so long that a lot of people believe it on a gut level without ever questioning it. And the notion that abortion is murder is incompatible with a free country – that is, one where people get to make decisions freely, even if they make other people queasy. Because it makes an objectively innocuous-seeming act (causing the death of a single cell) murder, and because western civilization agrees force is justified to stop murder, you can't hold that position, and expect to live in a free society. You can only hope that the society is in chains of which you approve.

  2. I don't see any improvement over Pete's answer. He and Elizabeth Warren give complete and thoughtful answers. I see no reason to nit pic.

    • The improvement is that it directly refutes the myth among Fetus People that women can obtain abortions "on demand" right up to the moment they deliver. They cannot. There is no where in the U.S. that a woman  legally can obtain a completely elective abortion in the last three months of pregnancy.

  3. You definitely have a point Barbara, Mayor Pete's response was lacking.  He allowed the distortions and exaggerations of the fetus people about late term abortions to go unchallenged.  The arguments of the rabbit hole crowd are littered with pitfalls like this.  They score points and queer the argument even against a talent like Mayor Pete.

    He does make quite a good point against governmental interference in very difficult decisions involving belief systems.  It never hurts to remind the right of the Terri Schiavo debacle.  Wow can they make a senseless stupid mess of things.  

  4. For what it's worth, I object to the phrase:  Life begins at conception.  Actually, life is always  present.  You cannot take 2 dead cells (a sperm and an ovum) put them together and voila, you have life.  These cells are part of a living being.  If they do not unite, they eventually die. Sperm are killed with each ejaculation and an unfertilized ovum is discarded with menstruation.  Also, a fetus is not a single cell.  From the moment of conception, it begins dividing and continues until the finished product.  I guess you could say this is an ingenious method but it has been working this way for millennia.  Abortion may not be a good thing but in ancient China, poor people killed their babies after birth if they couldn't take care of them.  Read Pearl Buck's "A Good Earth".

    • Poor people around the world have killed babies they couldn’t take care of after birth. It was common practice in medieval Europe to just take a baby out into the woods and leave it there.

    • Technically, it's not even a fetus until *way* past the "single cell" stage, but keep in mind that the pro-life movement has been stuck arguing "it's a full person, with *more* rights than any other person has, from the moment of conception," because otherwise, they have to accept that a sufficiently early term abortion *isn't* murder.

      (More rights? Hey, you don't have the right to demand to attach to *my* body so *I* can provide you with life support.) 

      They don't want that, because that doesn't have the same ragegasm potential and same deep cultural rift. No, they like to say abortion is murder, so people who Trump screws over might sadly say "but maybe God wanted Trump to prevent abortion" which really only makes sense to me if what he meant was "God wanted Trump to protect those innocent BABIES from BEING MURDERED." 

      (Yes, that paraphrase is from a news story – guy's wife was deported, but maybe Trump will restrict abortion, so maybe it's necessary.)

  5. Last time America was great and there was negative unemployment among illiterates I was employed by a foundry.  Because it was so hard to retain men–and it was 100% men–to work around molten metal the foundry was forced to use outmates from the local county jail.  My understanding is that a plurality of the outmates were there for failure to pay child support.  At that point, prior to DNA testing, paternity was the mother's word–in Pennsylvania.  Parenthood can be complicated.

  6. Why is it so hard to actually explain what the law is now? 

    Because the narrative against abortion has been firmly set by years of constant demonization. Things like the partial birth abortion where people are lead to believe that a fully developed and healthy baby can be killed when it's exiting the birth canal. I remember years ago when the anti- abortion crowd was railing against Bill Baird and his establishment of abortion clinics where they framed them on par with McDonald's franchises claiming his only incentive was to make money by exploiting vulnerable women with his abortion mills.

     There has been years and years of messaging that works against the anguish experienced by women who are faced with the need to get an abortion. The anti-abortion crowd has portrayed the act of undergoing an abortion as a causal disregard for life or an alternative for birth control without any mention what a women experiences in having to make such a difficult decision.


  7. Abortion is a bad idea. Banning abortion is a bad idea. Education is a good idea. Contraception is a good idea. The same folks who want to ban abortion are (usually) opposed to sex education and access to contraception. Last trimester abortions are rare (and only legal under special circumstances) Pregnancy due to rape and incest is rare. (Why is the debate for both sides built around minority circumstances?)

    Pete isn't wrong about one thing – central to the debate is the question, "Who decides?" Framing the argument around late-term abortions or about rape-incest avoids the central (and difficult) very personal decision that the woman and her doctor should be making.  A health provider who is doing regular abortions for the same woman should be counseling that the woman consider birth control options. It's still a medical discussion.

    • Re: "abortion is a bad idea" – I rather liked the framing Amanda Marcotte put on it. (I'm not sure if she was explicitly discussing abortion, but the analogy is still spot on.)  Abortion isn't a tragedy; it's a choice, a woman might make, when faced with the *real* tragedy: a pregnancy she doesn't feel she can carry to term.

      (I'm 100% certain that I saw her say this regarding divorce; "divorce isn't a tragedy; a broken, unworkable marriage is a tragedy; divorce is a possible result." I've also been 100% certain, and wrong, before, but it would be odd for me to think "that analogy works *great* for abortion, too!" when the original analogy was *about* abortion.)

      It's an interesting thing: I was fairly old (think "late 20s, at least") before I realized that the right to abortion has nothing to do with bearing children, and everything to do with the health choices of the pregnant woman. Pregnancy is always a big burden (however much one might be happy bear it), and carries a non-trivial risk of death. Well, however much we might have agreed as an immature society that it's okay to restrict people's rights because "they might do something that makes me feel all up-chucky"in any free society, you have to balance that burden, and that risk, against other life issues that present similar situations.

      In short, "we must restrict abortion, because it makes people feel up-chucky" isn't good enough. Draining an abscess – or, better, a cyst – might also make a person feel gross, but you can't restrict medical procedures on that basis, even if they are fixing things that carry *less* burden and risk than pregnancy.

  8. Abortion and infanticide are part of the entire recorded human condition. I can remember pre-Roe newspaper pictures of women dead from failed abortions being removed from motel rooms. The #StopTheBan rallies and other women's protests are good signs. The political "pro life" movement has always been based on the fallacious argument of wedge issues.


  9. This is a knee-jerk approach for Democrats because they still believe splitting the difference between doing the right thing, where “right” is defined by either what current law says it is or what a majority supports, versus what they think won’t get the GOP/rightwing/conservatives riled up and is thus the politically safe thing to do.  Thinking that “somewhere in the middle” is that safe middle ground that won’t anger either side.  It’s like those who insist that when two opposing sides have a disagreement on established facts, that the “truth is somewhere in the middle,” regardless of whether the facts clearly demonstrate one is right, the other wrong.

    This is why people view the democrats as not standing for anything, because far too often, like with abortion, they refuse to take clear-cut stands on issues.  Why they continue to think they will obtain  some political cover/benefit from doing this when it never works out like that is beyond me.  Maybe they’re just cowards more concerned with their jobs and donors than their constituents.

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