Progressive Revival

Eric Sapp is a Democratic faith outreach strategist and former partner at Common Good Strategies.  He is currently director of, and founding partner at the Eleison Group.


(cross posted to faithfulldemocrats) Let’s be honest, up until recently, the Republicans have, as my grandma would say, “whipped our petuties” on the issue of abortion.  They have been smart, and we’ve been not so smart in how we talk about it.   As any of us who have tried to avoid imagining a pachyderm know, framing can win a debate.  The Republicans have framed this debate, and up until recently Democrats had insisted on fighting it on their terms.


Given the alternative of “choice” vs. “life,” most people will choose “life.”  And the truth of the matter is, to most Americans on both sides, this debate has little really to do with “choice”; it is rather solely about when human life begins and when it becomes murder to kill a baby/fetus.  After all, we’d never argue a mother should be given the choice of killing her newborn.


But all of the old, tired rhetoric overlooked a rather important question–especially since the debate is a political instead of theological one:  what are we going to do about abortion? 


Whether we are pro-life or pro-choice, we should all be able to agree that the fact that 1 in 5 pregnancies in this country end in abortion reflects a serious societal problem that needs to be addressed. 


When the debate shifts from when human life begins to how we reduce the need for and numbers of abortions, this shifts from a Republican strength to a Democratic one.  After all, most of the public policy prescriptions for reducing abortions are straight out of the Democratic platform…and thanks to tireless work by some smart Democrats (and if what I hear is true, by Obama himself), “abortion reduction” is actually now IN the Democratic platform. 


Americans are extremely receptive to a practical argument about how to reduce the need for and number of abortions (Stan Greenberg did a great poll on this). And Democrats have some really great legislation that recognizes that abortion is merely an end result of a long string of social ills.  So it tackles the root of the problem by vastly improving services to prevent unwanted pregnancies and targeting the underlying factors that lead pregnant women to choose abortion by improving adoption services, expanding pre and post natal healthcare, creating programs to allow pregnant women to go back to school, etc.  If fully implemented, these programs could cut abortions in half in the next decade.  Catholics in Alliance has a great study that builds on some powerful reports by Third Way that provide ample data for those interested.   . 


The Republicans solution on the other hand is, of course, to criminalize abortion.  Putting aside the fact that 7 of 9 Supreme Court Justices are GOP-appointed and it will never happen, let’s assume Roe was overturned.  If Roe was overturned, the decision on outlawing abortion would be turned over to the states.  And if you look at states with legislatures that have tried to limit abortion or with greater than 45% of their population self-identifying as “Pro-Life” (two of the best indicators for whether a state would outlaw abortions if given the opportunity), you come up with around 16 states that would be likely to outlaw abortion, which account for around 10% of abortions in this country.  So even if all those states banned abortions, and none of the women from these states crossed the border to get an abortion, overturning Roe would only reduce abortions in this country by around 10%.  


When we talk about actually addressing the problem instead of arguing whether it exists, Democrats win, and America wins, and women win.  The only losers are the GOP and groups on both the right and left that make all their money by ensuring the debate continues. 


Thankfully, Democrats have been wising up to this fact.  In a “Nixon in China” moment in ’05, Senator Clinton went before NARAL to argue that Democrats must be willing to express a heartfelt concern about the number of abortions in our country.  Senator Obama used much of the same messaging earlier in this cycle, but both he and Sen. Clinton had been hesitant to move much past the “reducing unwanted pregnancies” part of the equation to also include the important (from a policy and messaging–and heck, plain old core Democratic values–perspective) part about supporting pregnant women so that those who want to carry the child to term have options. 

But that hesitancy finally went out the window this past weekend on ABC, when Obama said that he wished he’d given the following answer to the abortion question at Rick Warren’s event last month: 

“What I do know is that abortion is a moral issue, that it’s one that families struggle with all the time. And that in wrestling with those issues, I don’t think that the government criminalizing the choices that families make is the best answer for reducing abortions.

“I think the better answer — and this was reflected in the Democratic platform — is to figure out, how do we make sure the young mothers, or women who have a pregnancy that’s unexpected or difficult, have the kind of support they need to make a whole range of choices, including adoption and keeping the child.”

This is a HUGE step forward for Democrats and is a great way to take some attention off Palin and put it back on the issues.   Abortion can be a winner for us if we keep to this track and unabashedly stand up to the GOP hypocrisy on this issue.


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