the body politic

Democratic Leaders Are Getting the Abortion Story Wrong — Again

With Roe at death’s door, will the party finally change its tune?

Protesters in New York City’s Foley Square demonstrate against a Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade. Photo: Sabrina Santiago
Protesters in New York City’s Foley Square demonstrate against a Supreme Court draft opinion striking down Roe v. Wade. Photo: Sabrina Santiago

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The news of Samuel Alito’s draft majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade on Monday didn’t just break — it shattered. It was the unexpected timing, yes. And the unprecedented nature of the leak. And the retro-pig stylings of the draft’s author, who made ample use of the term “abortionist” and unctuously averred that “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the Nation’s history and traditions,” as if any of the hard-won protections of oppressed classes were deeply rooted in this nation’s history and traditions. But it was also, simply, the reverberations of the hammer dropping, sending the chill of undeniable reality down every spine — of family and friends and, one would think, the highest-ranking Democrats in Congress.

But as millions reeled on Monday night, the top leadership of the Democratic Party could only generate words that ultimately felt bloodless. In a joint message, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer called the draft “an abomination, one of the worst and most damaging decisions in modern history,” yet still could not bring themselves to use the word abortion. They said that the “party of Lincoln and Eisenhower has now completely devolved into the party of Trump,” and seemed to revel in the fact that every Republican senator who voted for Trump’s justices “will now have to explain themselves to the American people,” as if this would provide any comfort to those who are apparently on the brink of losing a right that has been protected for 50 years.

Joe Biden waited until 9:30 Tuesday morning to publicly weigh in with a statement that was also allergic to the word abortion, mentioning it only once, four paragraphs down. Biden made pleas to “basic fairness” and “the stability of our law,” concluding with a message that it was “on voters to elect pro-choice officials this November.” Sir, we elected you, and you didn’t get out of bed to speak to the American people the night this devastating document leaked.

It was not just that the party leadership gave us anemic utterances when they should have treated the leak as the emergency that it is, with siren emoji. It was that they got the story wrong, just as they have gotten the story wrong for decades.

Schumer and Pelosi’s bizarre assertion that this looming rollback of rights was emblematic of “the party of Trump” is profoundly ahistorical. The overturn of Roe, whatever form it takes, will not be the product of the “party of Trump.” It is the party of Ronald Reagan, who came to power in 1980 on a platform that included a “human life amendment.” It is the party of George H.W. Bush, who flipped on his previous support for abortion rights to become Reagan’s vice-president and, eventually, his successor to the White House. It’s the party that put Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito on the bench. It is the party that stole a Supreme Court seat from a president who was elected by a majority of voters, and that used the Electoral College and the Supreme Court itself to ensure the White House was occupied by Republican presidents who had lost the popular vote, but could nevertheless appoint justices who had been grown in a Federalist Society lab to strike down freedoms supported by a majority of Americans.

So no, where America finds itself is not in a world transformed by Donald Trump. Rather it’s one in which generations of Republicans have been open about their brutal aim, while Democratic leaders have repeatedly asked voters to trust them in a fight that, up to the very night Roe was struck down in draft form, they refused to accurately describe or perhaps even discern.

That communicative failure points to one of the ways that Democratic leadership has been repeatedly outstripped by their opposition. Yes, the right has strategized on a local level, manipulated systems more cannily, and invested patiently, building their power over years while Democrats have gone for short-term plays.

But what the right has also been far better at is telling stories. So much of their power has been built on compelling narrative, racist parables, xenophobic tall tales, sexist fables, pulled-from-the-ether fictions that they have committed to with every fiber of their regressive and punitive hearts and sold with gusto to an American public. Think about the characters invented out of whole cloth: Fraudulent voters! Welfare queens! Comet Ping Pong sex traffickers! Donald Trump, successful businessman! Brett Kavanaugh, who believes in stare decisis!

Among their most successful characters has been the fetus: a figure with pudgy cheeks and a fully formed heart, bearing little relationship to any developmental or biological reality. The lies built around the fetus are easily disproved; no party that actually valued this guy — and the culture of life, family, and innocence they claimed he embodied — would also starve real live children of food, housing, health care, and education.

But rhetorically, Democrats have had their lunch money stolen repeatedly by these fantasists. In part because, while Republicans could commit to their bit with theatrical force, the left has been unwilling to embrace the real, nonfiction, moral urgency of their cause. The narrative material, the compelling claim on the hearts and minds of voters who want more justice and more equality, has been sitting right there for Democrats this whole time. And unlike the right-wing stories, this narrative has the benefit of being true: how a right to abortion is fundamental to human and familial flourishing, to dignity and economic security, to health and love and happiness and thriving.

There have been Democratic politicians who have tried. I will never forget listening to Wisconsin representative Gwen Moore, who had been on her way to Radcliffe College when she found herself unintentionally pregnant at 18. She spoke movingly on the House floor in 2011 of how, in 1970, she didn’t even have the dime to use a pay phone to call an ambulance when she went into labor, how as a single mother on meager welfare benefits she often had to stretch formula with water and feed her three children ramen “at the end of the month to fill up their little bellies so they won’t cry.” She connected the lack of reproductive health care to lack of affordable housing and other government-supported injustices, pointing out that opponents on the right don’t even want the children whom they’d force into the world to have health insurance: “Public policy has treated poor children and women … with utter contempt.” Moore knew who she was fighting and what she was fighting for.

So did her colleague Jackie Speier, a California congresswoman who in that same session was moved to unexpectedly speak of the abortion she’d had, when a wanted pregnancy had gone wrong at 17 weeks gestation. Later, Speier would describe how her offices had been flooded with calls from “people crying on the phone,” relaying their own experiences of having needed abortion care.

These stories — stories that clearly resonated, that went viral even — were not taken up as gospel, were not repeated by their party’s leadership all over cable television and on the radio, were not made the center of a Democratic fight. Instead, leadership submitted to the fiction that abortion is an issue that is too electrically charged and too dangerous to take up full-throatedly, even though 70 percent of Americans do not want Roe overturned.

Democrats have truth and majorities and moral righteousness on their side, but they seem more interested in leveraging their role as purported stewards of reproductive rights to win the next race. There is already an abundance of Beltway chatter about how the backlash to Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization could mean a reversal in Democrats’ dismal midterm fortunes. It’s the kind of horse-race speculation that is stomach-turning for anyone who has actually stopped to consider how many people will face criminalization, forced births, and an inability to get care they want or need, so that Democrats can scoop up a couple of swing seats. And for what? If they avoid a drubbing thanks to Dobbs — which is a dubious bet — what will they do with their winnings?

None of what is unfolding now is about short-term strategy or single-cycle results. Nor is it about a single presidential administration. When Roe is gutted or gone, we are looking at decades, lifetimes of harm, and a whole new terrain, in which the perils will not look like those of the past.

The Democratic Party shouldn’t look like the past either. The fight into the future must be different — really different — than it has been over the past five decades, since the old way of business has seemingly resulted in a colossal failure that the party has yet to reckon with, let alone take any responsibility for. That fight must be led by new voices, many of whom have been characterized by their more timid colleagues as disruptive and difficult, as radical and controversial, even when the cases they are making are in fact very popular with American voters, when the persuasive and powerful stories they tell are real.

In the hours after the decision draft was leaked, California representative Katie Porter pointed out that “not a single justice knows what it’s like to be one of the 10-plus million single parents in America. I do, and I support a woman’s right to choose.” Washington representative Pramila Jayapal tweeted, “As one of the 1 in 4 women in this country who have chosen to have an abortion, I am outraged & disgusted.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called on Congress to codify Roe, noting sharply and righteously that “people elected Democrats precisely so we could lead in perilous moments like these … It’s high time we do it.” Elizabeth Warren, livid on the streets of Washington, offered a corrective to the lame, pointless “party of Trump” narrative laid out by her bosses, correctly stating, “The Republicans have been preparing for this day for decades.”

The tragedy is that the Democratic Party now faces its own decades-long battle. Decades of cruelty and injustice. Decades in which there will be ample, grievous time to get the stories right.

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Democrats Are Getting the Abortion Story Wrong — Again