Speak up on Abortion
Republican reticence on Dobbs is not going to win them any favors this November.
Republicans are risking important electoral percentage points entering the 2022 midterms by refusing to articulate and defend a strong position on abortion in the wake of the Dobbs decision. The Democrat triple incumbency, lacking a track record of successful policy implementation, particularly on the kitchen table issues that so often determine elections, has been desperate for an emotionally powerful message that will turn out their voters, especially the white female voters who by most accepted accounts turned the 2020 presidential race. They appear to think they have found it in abortion. Republicans, scared of agitating the Democrat base, have gone suddenly mum on the issue, and instead of trumpeting their victory, they are allowing Democrats to set the terms of debate and present the consequences of Dobbs in a way that alarms voters. In their silence, Republicans are giving the Democrats an opportunity to use the greatest victory of the modern conservative movement as the means for an unlikely escape from what should be a well-deserved electoral defeat and popular rebuke of their radical excess.
Following the Dobbs decision, Democrats shrewdly began emphasizing the potential for red states to prosecute women for aborting their fetuses, or arrest them for trying, once federal protections were withdrawn. They found a 10-year-old rape victim whom they claimed had been forced to flee from one state to another to terminate her pregnancy. The story developed an unforeseen twist when her rapist turned out to be an illegal alien, and the child’s immigrant mother seemed shockingly unperturbed by the incident. Preferring not to draw too much attention to a case with such crossed wires, the Democrats didn’t make as much of it as they might have.
A useful exercise for political campaigns when strategizing is to make up a familiar foursquare diagram: What do we say about us; what do they say about us; what do they say about themselves; and what do we say about them. Every issue can be graphed this way, but some political territory is just too explosive for either side to risk, a sort of mutually assured destruction, or “wash.” If one side will not mobilize information, however, the risk is gone. On the question of abortion, Democrats are taking full advantage of having the field to themselves..
Abortion is touchy because, though neither side wants to admit it, both sides have powerful points that resonate with voters on vital concepts of personal freedom and the preservation of life. The question of women’s autonomy, left unanswered, becomes a loser for conservatives. “Republicans oppose personal freedom” is “what they say about us” in the exercise. Conservatives can win this debate not on theoretical terms of individual liberty, but by stressing the grotesque reality of abortion as it is practiced, the Democrats’ glib indifference to the undeniable awfulness of abortion, and their refusal to acknowledge any limits to abortion whatsoever.
Pro-life Democrats like Mario Cuomo used to escape this issue by saying they “respect the laws of the land.” Bill Clinton famously wanted abortion to be “safe, legal and rare.” Every prominent Democrat spoke of late-term abortions as an unspeakable practice, to be used rarely and only to save the mother’s life. But today’s Democrats have no time for the distinction of a “late-term” abortion. Biden Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who took extended paternity leave while his surrogate recovered from the birth of his child, has justified abortion up until (and perhaps even after) the first breath. Mainstream, self-styled centrist Democrats today will not commit to opposing the practice of trying again after a baby has somehow survived an attempted abortion or accept any distinction between first and third trimester abortions. “Safe, legal and rare” has been replaced with “Legal, unrestricted and publicly funded,” because there is not a single prominent Democrat willing to discuss any limits on abortion whatsoever in the wake of Dobbs.
The GOP must recognize this, and engage Democrats on facets of the issue problematic for their delicate coalition of often-competing identity groups. Though abortion is a major issue for white boomer feminists and their younger sisters on and off college campuses, black churchgoers and Latinos are far less likely to cite it as a compelling cause. In fact, abortion is so divisive an issue among African Americans that Democrats tend not to campaign on it in fears that it could dampen turnout. For instance, a billboard in lower Manhattan caused a furor in 2011 with the message “the most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” Indeed, in New York City, more black babies are aborted than born, and nationwide, 36 percent are abortions are performed on black women. Enraged progressives forced the removal of the billboard. Bill de Blasio, NYC Public Advocate at the time, called the ad “offensive,” but he didn’t say it wasn’t true.
As the pro-abortion industry has become increasingly maximalist, the anti-abortion position has points in its favor it didn’t have before. Ultrasounds and in vitro imaging are a marvel, and deeply moving and profound, not only for parents but anyone equipped with a body resulting from this increasingly observable, revelatory process. Just as abortion opponents are not persuaded by appeals to personal liberty, the pro-abortion activists rarely gain converts with dismissive references to the casual disposal of “clumps of cells” that are, in fact, recognizably human.
In his debates with Hillary Clinton in 2016, Donald Trump said that his understanding of Hillary’s position was that she would allow doctors to “rip the baby from its mother’s womb in the ninth month. The last day!” Trump said out loud “what we say about them,” but usually only to each other. Hillary responded with visible disgust, objecting to the description, and emphasizing what a “difficult decision” it is to do so, and stating her strong belief that governments shouldn’t make the decision to mandate pregnancies or abortions. Tellingly Clinton did not choose to pursue the topic much further in that debate, or even in her campaign.
Republicans should make a virtue of virtue this electoral season by asking their pro-abortion opponents to defend late-term abortions. The issue is clear, the talking points are written, and the Republicans are going to take the hit from pro-abortion voters in any case. By reminding the voters why we fought so hard to overturn Roe, we will enliven the ones who care about the issue, and at least offer a counterpunch to the Democrats. Letting them own the question while we sit in silence is a double penalty.