Hillary must go bold on abortion: Why cautious language won't cut it in 2016

Clinton, like all politicians, has changed her approach to abortion over the years. Here's what she needs to do now

Published April 20, 2015 2:21PM (EDT)

  (Reuters/Yuri Gripas)
(Reuters/Yuri Gripas)

Hillary Clinton has always been politically adaptive, but her 2016 rebrand as a van-riding populist has a lot of progressives wondering what else they might expect in the coming months. A lot of attention is rightfully being paid to whether Clinton will match her Elizabeth Warren-style rhetoric with a substantive economic reform agenda, but I’m just as interested in what version of Clinton we will see when it comes to reproductive freedom.

The history of Clinton’s complex and sometimes contradictory views on abortion includes but is not limited to the following narratives:

1. It is an important part of women’s healthcare
2. That it's sometimes a “sad, even tragic choice
3. That it's also a constitutional right
4. But maybe it never needs to be exercised
5. Though it should never be regulated by the government
6. Except for those times when it should be

This kind of thing isn’t unique to Clinton, but as the right to abortion becomes increasingly theoretical for millions of women, her centrist impulses will leave access vulnerable while clinics close in record numbers, states criminalize safe abortion methods and an onslaught of anti-choice policies leave women in increasingly desperate circumstances.

There’s no denying Clinton’s pro-choice voting record during her Senate tenure, but how she positions that record -- and how hard she's willing to go to bat for abortion rights -- has largely depended on the time and place. In her 2000 Senate campaign, Clinton presented the dual image of a fierce champion of reproductive freedom and a moderate politician who would support a late-term abortion ban if there were the right kind of exceptions included in the bill. (Faced with an actual ban on late-term abortion in 2003, however, she voted against it.)

In 2005, after many Democrats felt that their party lost the presidency because it had grown out of touch with so-called "values voters," Clinton calibrated her defense of abortion again, this time saying that she believed there is "no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice [of abortion] guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances."

Like many other Democrats, Clinton is generally hesitant to deliver a full-throated endorsement of abortion rights without tempering it with language about tragedy or how the choice should be "rare." But she can also speak incredibly persuasively when defending abortion as a public health and social good.

In 2009, Rep. Chris Smith, a staunchly anti-choice Republican from New Jersey, asked then-Secretary of State Clinton if she believed that the "United States’ definition of the term reproductive health, or reproductive services, or reproductive rights [should] include abortion.”

Clinton’s response couldn’t have been clearer:

When I think of the suffering that I have seen of women around the world… I’ve been in hospitals in Brazil where half the women were enthusiastically and joyfully greeting new babies and the other half were fighting for their lives against botched abortions. I have been in African countries where 12 and 13 year old girls are bearing children. I have been in Asian countries where the denial of family planning consigns women to lives of oppression and hardship.

So we have a very fundamental disagreement. And it is my strongly held view that you are entitled to advocate… and so are we. We happen to think that family planning is an important part of women’s health, and reproductive health includes access to abortion that I believe should be safe, legal and rare.

Perhaps out of reflexive political habit or because it reflects her genuine feelings, Clinton slipped in the mantra of “safe, legal and rare," but her response carries a subtle force by contextualizing abortion as a clear public health and social good that should be left to women and their doctors.

And it's this version of Clinton -- the one who doesn’t flinch while talking about abortion as an essential human right -- that can most speak to the realities women are facing right now. As the number of restrictions continues to multiply across the country and access is virtually cut off in states like Texas and Kansas, Clinton need not look as far as Brazil to speak directly about the consequences of denying women medical care.

A bolder approach from Clinton also makes given the current climate in her party. Democratic women like California Rep. Jackie Speier and Arizona state Rep. Victoria Steele have publicly shared their abortion stories to protect access, and both at a national and state level, Democrats have become increasingly pro-active about safeguarding choice. Clinton would be well-served to step it up and match the courage of her colleagues.

This doesn’t have to be a frightening prospect. Clinton’s primary position on abortion -- that it's personal, that it's complicated, that the right to choose is necessary -- largely squares with how many Americans say they feel about access to the procedure. A recent poll Sarah Kliff conducted for Vox found that 18 percent of Americans identified as both pro-life and pro-choice, and that 21 percent eschewed labels altogether. That means 40 percent of the population lands somewhere in the middle when it comes to abortion, though our laws -- lurching ever-rightward -- do not reflect that. And this is not the middle of "safe, legal and rare" -- it's a middle that understands nuance and the necessity of quality medical care.

Clinton can speak accurately and honestly -- while also connecting with almost half of the population -- by sticking with the language she’s already used about abortion as essential reproductive health care while also emphasizing, as she’s done before, “the importance of the freedom of women to make the choices that are consistent with their faith and their sense of responsibility to their family and themselves."

Connecting with the public on abortion does not require regular caveats about tragedy. It takes plain language that ensures women have access to the procedure when they need it. This is the "middle" Clinton should be speaking to, because this is the middle where many Americans already find themselves. The version of Clinton who can do that certainly exists. The question now is whether or not she will show up.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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