How Democrats Lost Their Way on Abortion

Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) -- I hate to bring up abortion during the Democrats’ festivities, which are going so swimmingly, but I have a question.

Why has the party removed the sentence “Abortion should be safe, legal, and rare” from its platform? It was in the 2004 document but not in 2008’s or this year’s. Can’t Democrats just throw a crumb to the many millions who are pro-choice but not pro-abortion?

Last week, Democrats feasted on the extreme positions of Representative Todd Akin of Missouri (and vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan, for that matter) during the Republican National Convention. Yet Democrats have gone too far in the other direction, threatening their hold on the great American middle. Speaking Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Republican former House Speaker Newt Gingrich pushed the issue, claiming, “The president of the United States voted three times to protect the right of doctors to kill babies who came out of an abortion still alive” and arguing that the Democratic platform supports “partial-birth abortion.”

Abortion is a more delicate subject than our fierce, partisan arguments would have it. If you scroll backward, an intimate act (a horrible one in cases of rape or incest) occurred and a woman is pregnant. Most people outside partisan bubbles don’t like to talk, much less scream, about such things.

Party Differences

Because the Republican base contends that a fertilized egg has the same rights as a full, breathing human being, Republicans are in favor of forced motherhood -- regardless of its effects on an unwanted child. They have been promoting “personhood” legislation across the country, essentially dictating that the human clock starts ticking at conception.

Democrats, on the other hand, think that pregnancy is exclusively a woman’s business. And in the first trimester, at least, before viability kicks in, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling concurs. But over the years, Roe’s legal framework has been eroded by loopholes large enough for an eight-month-pregnant teenager to walk through. The “health of the mother” exception that enables abortions after viability takes into account psychological health. What 16-year-old wouldn’t be psychologically destabilized by an accidental pregnancy?

Polls show we are becoming a pro-life country; a slight majority likes to call itself that even though most Americans still support the pro-choice position in the first three months of pregnancy. For years, Republicans have pushed legislation designed to expose the moral quandaries inherent in abortion. They laid traps for Democrats, coming up with a grisly name -- partial-birth abortion -- and laws requiring doctors to provide medical care to any baby surviving a late-term abortion (Baby Born Alive acts).

Votes by former Illinois state legislator Barack Obama -- the votes Gingrich cited on “Meet the Press” -- sound shocking when presented without constitutional or practical context. Yet Obama and many other Democrats have opposed a ban on partial-birth abortion on the slim reed that its only exception is to protect the life and health of the mother. They say the procedure is exceedingly rare. But the health of the mother exception is vast, encompassing age, emotional, familial and state of mind factors broad enough to include virtually any woman in any circumstances.

It’s a terrible thing to force a 12-year-old who lives in chaos and hopelessness, with a boyfriend who has disappeared or an abusive uncle who hasn’t, to have a baby. But it’s worse to let her abort it after she waits so long for help that the only difference between the baby being born alive or dead is a gruesome procedure that Democratic Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said approximated “infanticide.”

Modern Miracles

Medical science is galloping ahead of Roe. When the case was decided, we barely had sonograms and it was a miracle for a 22-week-old fetus to survive. The difference now between a pregnancy at 12 weeks and one at 22 is life itself. Walk into any neonatal unit and you’ll see newborns weighing 2 pounds; they’ll be playing basketball one day.

The Christian Right was forged when Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973. For some of its members, abortion is the only political issue that matters. There are zealots who justify killing doctors. Many legislators in Washington and state capitals seek to make it impossible for a women who has been raped to get an abortion.

Pro-choice women would be more apt to acknowledge that Republicans have a point on some aspects of abortion policy if they didn’t fear that Republican legislators want to send their doctor and Todd Akin at them for an ultrasound probe. Abortion won’t be a defining issue for Democrats this election, but the party’s more militant posture guarantees that bipartisanship is still a long way off. On this issue, we can’t get along. But it wouldn’t hurt to put the word “rare” back in the platform.

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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To contact the writer of this article: Margaret Carlson at

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