Ever since the disastrous 2016 election season, myriads of articles, think pieces, podcasts and blog posts have been dissecting the reasons for the election outcome, their authors offering countless pieces of advice to the Democratic Party on how to gain back the support of voters who either stayed home on Election Day or, even worse, ended up voting for Trump. Recently, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) decided to take action. During an interview with The Hill, the DCCC head Ben Ray Luján announced that the DCCC will be funding both pro- and anti-choice Democratic candidates running for office. Understandably, the move has drawn criticism from numerous women’s and reproductive rights groups, including, among others, Planned Parenthood, NARAL and MoveOn. All of these organizations pledged to not back anti-choice candidates themselves. Leaders within the Democratic Party have also spoken up. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Kristen Gillibrand (D-NY) both stated that they are committed to only supporting pro-choice candidates within the party. At the same time, some of their Democratic colleagues, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) voiced agreement with DCCC’s new position.
The arguments in support of DCCC’s statement generally converge on the need to form a broader coalition of Democratic candidates, thus attracting moderate voters from both sides of the political spectrum who may support parts of the Democratic agenda but for whom abortion may be a deal-breaker. Luján himself framed the decision as building a “big family in order to win the House back.” A recent post by FiveThirtyEight offers some empirical support for that argument. The post points to a difference in abortion attitudes between white and black Democratic voters, citing a poll conducted by YouGov this past May. In it, 7 percent of black Democratic voters said that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) should only support “candidates who think abortion should generally be legal”, with 56 percent saying that the party should support “candidates regardless of their views on abortion.” At the same time, 35 percent of white Democratic voters said that the DNC should only support pro-choice candidates. Since the party needs to increase turnout among black voters next year, the FiveThirtyEight post concludes that a strong position on abortion does not appear to be the right way to achieve that goal.
However, some of the other trends discussed in the same post show a Democratic base that has become increasingly supportive of the right to choose over the past two decades. Among Democratic voters overall, support for abortion has increased from 66 to 75 percent between 1996 and 2017. While it is true that the percentage is somewhat lower for black Democratic voters, the polls still show that about 66 percent of black Democrats support abortion, as do about 64 percent of moderate/conservative Democrats. White voters and voters identifying as liberal within the party support abortion at even higher percentages – about 83 percent and 88 percent of each group, respectively. And, the support has increased over the past two decades among all polled groups of Democratic voters.
So, although it might be true that pursuing a strong pro-choice agenda might not be sufficient (at least not on its own) to increase voter turnout in 2018, especially among black and moderate Democrats, the polls do not indicate that supporting anti-choice candidates would be particularly helpful either. And, although it is possible some swing voters might be swayed by an anti-choice agenda, it is also possible Democrats who feel strongly about abortion will be demoralized and unmotivated to vote, donate, canvass or volunteer come election season. Given that a significant majority of Democratic voters express support for abortion rights, the latter possibility is a very tangible one.
In another line of defense for DCCC’s announcement, some within the party are pointing to the nuance in policy priorities among anti-choice politicians. In a piece entitled “Democrats Don’t Need to Be Afraid of Antiabortion Liberals” Kristen Day, head of Democrats for Life of America, lays out the reasons anti-choice Democrats are different from anti-choice Republicans. She explains that pro-choice Democrats generally try to “focus on … reducing incentives to have abortions rather than creating penalties.” Day goes on to outline the efforts of anti-choice Democrats to promote paid family leave and provide better economic and social support for pregnant women. While those are very important initiatives that we should undoubtedly champion, we cannot pretend that these policies alone will magically prevent every woman in the country from ever needing an abortion (especially since contraception did not make it on Day’s list of initiatives, though access to contraception seems like a very logical first step towards preventing unwanted pregnancies and, by extension, the need for abortions). Moreover, while I agree that not actively pursuing abortion bans is better than doing so, such passivity (which is the best we can hope for from an anti-choice candidate) will not help prevent or reverse some of the damage being caused by anti-choice legislatures across the country.
More generally, by publicly declaring their willingness to give up abortion rights as a core party value, the DCCC is essentially sending the message that protecting women’s lives, health and autonomy over their own bodies is an issue of marginal importance, readily disposable when times get tough. At a time when women’s rights are threatened in so many ways across the country and the world and casual sexism is alive and well (and possibly even on the rise) in our daily lives, this is a very disappointing stance to take.