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Why It’s A Mistake to Pin the Dems’ Problems on Abortion


I tried to go into today’s NY Times op-ed column “Why Pro-Choice is a Bad Choice for Democrats” with an open mind. I really did. But it’s going to take a better column than this one to convince me that Democrats should soften their stance on abortion rights (more than they already have).

Here’s why: the points that the author, Melinda Henneberger, makes in the article are riddled with holes.

For example, Henneberger states that one of the reasons Democrats lost so-called security moms in 2004 was the party’s rigidity on abortion:

Again and again, these voters said Democrats are too unwilling to tolerate dissent on abortion. It is a point of orthodoxy no more open to debate within the party than the ordination of women is in Rome.

That might have been true in 2004 — maybe (I concede nothing). But it’s not now. The Democrats have shown that they are willing to tolerate dissent — look at the candidacies of Bob Casey Jr. and Heath Shuler. Henneberger is right that Dems were slow to broaden the tent when it comes to abortion rights, but it seems as if they have been recently. To pin Democrats’ chances in 2008 on this is a false excuse.

Henneberger also hitches her wagon to the star of Gonzales v. Carhart. She calls the Democratic candidates’ condemnation of the decision as wrongheaded and contrary to public opinion.

Today, in a similarly oblivious way, the leading Democratic presidential contenders are condemning the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. An overwhelming majority of Americans, polls show, support a ban. Legal scholars have underscored the narrowness of the ruling in the partial-birth case, Gonzales v. Carhart, which does not even outlaw all late-term abortions. Yet the leading Democratic candidates, all of whom are lawyers, choose to overstate its impact.

To me, the phrasing here seems either disingenuous or honestly confused. Either way, it’s utterly without nuance. Yes, the Dem candidates — lawyers all — are making a big deal out of the case. It is a big deal. Because despite what may appear to be a narrow ruling, the case will have a huge ripple effect. The case essentially declared that a health exception is unnecessary and that the federal government can stick its head not only into the doctor’s office but between a woman’s legs. And what’s more, women — regardless of their stance on abortion rights — should be appalled by the sexist language in the Carhart decision.

The Democrats had a lot of problems in 2004. Perhaps the party’s somewhat staunch support of abortion rights was one of them. But it wasn’t the only one. And given the softening in 2006, that’s not an excuse anymore. I’m also not convinced that being the party that supports reproductive justice is a bad thing. The democrats just need to focus on reframing not retreating. They need to start talking about real reproductive justice: about child care, health care, paid parental leave, and, yes, about abortion access and medicaid coverage and real sex-ed. The problem is not abortion. But abortion is everyone’s favorite scapegoat. Including, it seems, Melinda Henneberger’s.

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