Where do Americans stand on abortion? Well, they don’t so much “stand” as they do muddle in the middle. The latest Gallup poll says 50 percent of Americans call themselves “pro-choice”; 44 percent “pro-life.” (That’s a slight change toward the “pro-choice” position.)
But probe a little deeper, and it depends on how you ask the question. A CBS poll last March found 38 percent saying it should be “generally available,” 34 percent favored “stricter limits,” and 25 percent said it should be not available at all. A recent Pew summary found Americans were “roughly divided” on the issue—51 percent saying it should permitted in “all or most cases, with 43 percent saying it should not be allowed in all or most cases. And that same Gallup poll that showed movement toward the “pro-choice” view also found that a majority favored “more restrictions” on the practice.
Yet while the public continues to embrace several shades of gray, the two political parties have moved steadily toward more and more absolutist positions, while excising from their platforms any acknowledgment of those holding different views. As the recent Republican TV debate showed, this has the potential to cause real trouble for several of the Presidential contenders, with at least three—Scott Walker, Marco Rubio, and Mike Huckabee—rejecting the “rape or incest” exemption an overwhelming majority of Americans favor. (So do others who weren’t asked—Ted Cruz and Rick Santorum among them.)
There is, moreover, a case to be made that if the Republicans nominate a candidate with such views, it might spare the Democratic nominee from answering troublesome questions about the party’s own positions.
Some history charts the respective movements of the two parties. In 1976, the Republican platform took no position at all, but simply acknowledged that the issue “is one of the most difficult and controversial of our time.”
Four years later, the GOP came down in favor of a “human life” constitutional amendment, while recognizing “differing views.” By 1984—and ever since—Republicans were insisting that “The unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.” Any nod toward differing views has long since vanished. (Back in 1996, nominee Bob Dole tried in vain to soften the plank.)
The 2012 version also calls for Roe v. Wade to be overturned, and for the appointment of judges who support this view. Read literally, the GOP platform would forbid all abortions, even to save the life of the mother. (James Bopp, the drafter of the language, suggests a mother should be allowed to save her life with an abortion under a “self-defense” theory.)
There’s one key footnote to this; Republican presidential candidates have openly disagreed with this absolutist view—George W. Bush among them. They have suffered no political damage within the party (unless you count Mike Huckabee’s victory over Mitt Romney in the 2008 Iowa caucuses).
But this year, that distancing may not come cost free. In the March “SEC primaries,” eight Southern states will cast their votes, and candidates will face a GOP electorate where a significant majority declare themselves “born-again” Christians. Back in 2012, Santorum won 11 primaries, running as a social conservative opposed to virtually all abortions. For those Republicans with more nuanced positions—Jeb Bush, John Kasich—this could be a major problem. But for those embracing the “no exceptions” approach, what aids them in Dixie in March could be fatal nationwide in November.
What about the Democrats? Their platform has embraced the essentials of the “pro-choice” position for the better part of four decades. (Back in 1992, Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey was barred from even addressing the Democratic convention to argue for a pro-life position.) But up until 2012, it framed the issue the way Bill Clinton had: that abortion should be “safe, legal—and rare.”
In Charlotte, that last caveat was erased. As it now stands, the platform simply asserts that “The Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to make decisions regarding her pregnancy, including a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay. We oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
Read literally, this would permit abortions—paid for with public funds if necessary—for any abortion at any time for any reason. This is a view that the great majority of Americans reject.
It’s also a position that seems out of pace with the views of one Democrat in particular—Hillary Rodham Clinton. Over the years, she’s made it clear that she regards abortion as something other than a triumph for women’s empowerment. She said in 2008 that “I believe that the potential for life begins at conception,” while also arguing that it was not the government’s place to enforce such a view. She’s said, “We can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” and that she respects “those who believe that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available.” She’s often urged a move toward “common ground,” arguing that better access to birth control would reduce the number of abortions.
For some feminists, these views are unpopular. To call abortion a “sad tragic choice,” they argue, suggests that there’s something morally troubling about the practice, rather than the exercise of a fundamental personal right. To assert that it should be “rare—very rare,” as Clinton has done, is to cast the practice in a “negative light.” (See this Guardian piece for a sample of such arguments.)
If the surveys are right, that’s exactly how most Americans do view abortion: as a procedure that the law must allow, under many or most conditions, but one that inevitably raises hard questions about when and why a “potential human” life can be ended—especially as that “potential” life begins more and more to resemble a human being. It’s why there’s a massive majority behind “morning after” pills, and abortions early in the gestation period, and big majorities opposed to late-term abortions. (It’s also why in most “advanced” countries, abortions are subject to a range of restrictions after three or four months.)
In another time, a Republican candidate with a position like the one George W. Bush held might find some room to press the Democrat—OK, let’s assume it’s Clinton—on her views. “I disagree with my party’s platform, I favor exceptions,” this theoretical candidate could say. “Do you agree with your party that abortion should be permitted at any time for any reason? You’ve called those Planned Parenthood videos ‘disturbing.’ I find them disturbing too, for the casual way they deal with what you’ve called ‘potential human life.’”
But with the Republicans more and more embracing the most rigid possible position on the pro-life side of the divide, the more it will relieve the Democratic nominee of the need to defend the absolutist posture on her side.