Dems to ladies: You are important

With assists from Akin and Ryan, Democrats are willing to put reproductive rights at the campaign's center

Published September 5, 2012 5:57PM (EDT)

              (AP/Orlin Wagner/Reuters/Larry Downing)
(AP/Orlin Wagner/Reuters/Larry Downing)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- We all know why the Democratic National Convention this week has included a robust and explicit defense of reproductive rights, with the unprecedented presence on the main stage of NARAL's Nancy Keenan, Planned Parenthood's Cecile Richards and activist Sandra Fluke. It's the same reason why the Republican National Convention last week plopped onstage all the women it could find, even as it confined open discussion of abortion rights to two men, Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum.

Ladies, if it hasn't been drummed into your head yet: This campaign season, you are important. The question is, will reproductive rights actually make the difference with women voters?

The right cannot deny that there is a gender gap, but they can plausibly argue that abortion rights aren't driving it. The National Review's Ramesh Ponnuru has pointed out that Gallup poll data shows no significant correlation between gender and opinion on abortion, and it hasn't changed much: "In 2007, they found 46 percent of men and 45 percent of women calling themselves 'pro-life.' In 2011, the numbers were 46 and 44. The most recent data point we have, though, from 2012, does show a bigger gap than usual: 53 percent of men and 46 percent of women identified as 'pro-life' in Gallup’s 2012 poll. (Both men and women were more likely to call themselves 'pro-life' than “pro-choice.')"

But here's the thing: Polling on reproductive rights is notoriously tricky and depends on how you frame the question, and this election has been an opportunity for Democrats to reframe it. In 2012, more people than ever identified as "pro-life," but as Mother Jones' Adam Serwer noted, that doesn't necessarily mean that Americans want to ban abortion -- 77 percent of them want it to be legal in all or "certain circumstances." And with a little assist from Todd Akin and Paul Ryan, more Americans have had an opportunity to hear which party officially wants abortion to be legal under no circumstances. In any case, Democrats don't have to speak to all women; they have to energize a base amid stated fears of an enthusiasm gap, and they have to get single women who stayed home in 2010 -- and who had voted for Barack Obama over John McCain 70 percent to 29 percent -- to vote.

In a striking departure, Democrats have embraced the opportunity to do something they haven't done on a national level in a while: reframe the debate. Democrats are moving off the conservative terrain of the '90s, and actually arguing that safe abortion access is part of a comprehensive agenda of women's rights. Not "privacy." Not a "tragedy." Women's full participation, without coercion.

Put another way, Republican overreach has given Democrats an opening to argue that reproductive rights are about more than just abortion, though they have to include abortion, and that abortion restrictions are about a profound contempt for women's decision-making and autonomy, not just concern for fetuses. This has been enabled by the convergence of clueless conservative men, from Rush Limbaugh to Akin, and a vigorous reframing of comprehensive reproductive freedom.

Whether the Obama administration was setting a trap for Republicans in the primary debate by unveiling its women's health provisions, including mandated coverage for contraception, or throwing a bone the way of pro-choice groups after the bitter Plan B capitulation, the timing was brilliant. Activists had a case to make for Obama to women who already care about this stuff but might have been losing enthusiasm for the president, throwing the attempted defunding, both public and private, of Planned Parenthood into the mix, and Republicans were plausibly coming for your birth control.

Contrast that with the "safe, legal and rare" days of Bill Clinton -- a phrase no longer a part of the Democratic platform, because pro-choice activists are fine with "safe and legal" but dislike the implicit stigmatizing of women who choose abortion in "rare." The current platform language includes a broader call-out to women's rights -- "We understand that economic issues are women’s issues," and "We understand that women’s rights are civil rights" -- but also this vision of reproductive rights as broadly conceived: "The President and the Democratic Party believe that women have a right to control their reproductive choices. Democrats support access to affordable family planning services, and President Obama and Democrats will continue to stand up to Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood health centers. The Affordable Care Act ensures that women have access to contraception in their health insurance plans, and the President has respected the principle of religious liberty. Democrats support evidence-based and age-appropriate sex education."

There's also an unapologetic abortion-rights stance: "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." (Regardless of ability to pay! This, from Democrats who habitually tout the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding for abortion as if it were an acceptable status quo. What a difference an election year makes.)

By contrast, Republicans added to their platform for the first time a "salute" to "the many States that have passed laws for informed consent, mandatory waiting periods prior to an abortion, and health-protective clinic regulation." It sounds so reasonable, this "informed consent" thing, unless you start talking about transvaginal ultrasounds and even "state-sanctioned rape," which is what happened this year, reenergizing a debate about laws that have existed in one form or another, with only limited controversy, for over a decade. Obama has never much wanted to talk about abortion -- at least while his message was about uniting and not falling prey to old partisan divides -- but there he was in April, criticizing abortion restrictions that don't do that badly in public opinion polls when they're framed as "informed consent."

“Now we’ve got governors and legislatures across the river in Virginia, up the road in Pennsylvania, all across the country saying that women can’t be trusted to make your own decisions,” he said at a Women’s Leadership Conference. “They’re pushing and passing bills forcing women to get ultrasounds, even if they don’t want one. If you don’t like it, the governor of Pennsylvania said you can ‘close your eyes.’ It’s a quote. It’s appalling. It’s offensive. It’s out of touch. And when it comes to what’s going on out there, you’re not going to close your eyes. Women across America aren’t closing their eyes."

True, he didn't say the word "abortion," but anyone who cares knows what he meant. And the seizing of the moral high ground, of connecting abortion rights to a broader issue of women's freedom and not just of women's privacy -- it was unmistakable, and it was unflinching.

This is a strategy that can backfire, of course. Before I watched the Planned Parenthood rally at the DNC yesterday, before I saw Nancy Keenan onstage in prime time and heard Michelle Obama say that Obama “believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and our health care” -- I spent the morning with Democrats for Life, with a panel that included Bart Stupak (the bête noire of pro-choicers, after the showdown over healthcare reform) and Kathy Dahlkemper. Both are pro-life Democrats in socially conservative districts who were progressive on other issues -- including voting for the Affordable Care Act -- but lost their seats to Republicans in 2010. Here's the essence of their pitch: "Since 1978 the number of pro-choice members has hovered around 167 -- far less than the 218 needed for a Democratic majority." This leads the Democratic Party to be far more tolerant of antiabortion Democrats than increasingly purity-obsessed Republicans are with pro-choice dissidents in their ranks, platform and convention talk notwithstanding.

Stupak is the ultimate symbol to progressive women bitter that the Democratic Party is too ready to "throw women under the bus," and for the faithful, that remains a concern after the election is over. But, needless to say, winning will trump ideological purity. That's all the more reason for voters who are already committed to these issues to make it worth the Democrats' while -- and then hold them accountable. The question is, will reshaping the debate work?

By Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at

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Abortion Democratic National Convention Reproductive Rights Rush Limbaugh Sandra Fluke Todd Akin