How important is abortion, really?
[SC's essay is] in response to a stupid post by Markos basically saying (like Drum before him, and like a lot of other people) "stop making so much noise about abortion, ladies, you're scaring the voters and it's only a fringe issue anyway."
This post is an an attack on the bad arguments that make pro-choice Democrats sell their own ideals short.
(1) The abortion issue is costing us elections. If we take a hard line on abortion, we'll never get power and we'll never get to implement any of our agenda.
First off, it is a myth that abortion is a net vote-loser for the Democrats. Scott Lemieux explains:
It's common to hear people--often for ideological reasons--claim that the Democrats have been hurt badly by their abortion stance, often using the stratgey of collapsing abortion into a general category of "cultural" issues. This disregards the fact that the Democratic position on abortion is highly popular. The public supports Roe v. Wade by a 2-to-1 margin, and has consistently favored legal first trimester abortions since 1967. In addition, it's worth noting that Dems who make this argument generally focus on votes lost without considering votes gained. It is extremely unlikely that New York and California--which keep Presidential campaigns competitive for Democrats--would be solid blue states if the Democrats weren't pro-choice, as the ability of pro-choice Republicans to win state-wide office in these states makes clear.
Factual misconceptions aside, there's a lot of conceptual confusion about what it means to say that choice is "a core Democratic value."
Often Democrats who say abortion isn't important are really just saying that it's not worth cutting off our noses to spite our face. As they see it, we can be pragmatic and viable, or purist and sidelined.
Their position is only tenable given the false empirical premise that choice is costing the Democrats. Notice, however, that this arguments says little, if anything, about whether choice is a core Democratic value.
You could run the same argument on any issue. Arguably, it's not worth shutting ourselves out of power over Iraq, civil rights, the social safety net, or any other core Democratic objective. But nobody uses that form of argument to show those other issues aren't core Democratic values.
The fact is that pro-choice principles don't hurt our electability. We simply don't have to compromise on abortion in order to implement the rest of our agenda. If nominally pro-choice Democrats want to downplay the abortion issue, they'll have to provide more substantive reasons.
2. Abortion isn't as important as [Social Security/defense/labour/trade/the environment/...]
Democrats also downplay choice for non-strategic reasons. When they do, they often succumb to the zero-sum fallacy and/or to defective cost/benefit analyses.
Once you get beyond electoral strategy, it's silly to argue about the relative importance of choice vs. Social Security (or any other core Democratic objective). It's just not a zero-sum game. At the policy level, abortion rights don't take anything away from any of our other core policy objectives. It makes sense to argue about the relative importance of two very expensive programs when you can only afford to fund one, but abortion rights aren't expensive or difficult to maintain. Democrats would just have to keep up the popular status quo. So, being resolute on choice is a minimal investment with a large and certain payoff. Democrats shouldn't worry about whether abortion is "more important" than Social Security. We can have both.
The second confusion arises from misapplication of cost/benefit analysis. When people argue that abortion isn't really important, they're often implicitly making utilitarian arguments about the number of people who stand to benefit from program X vs. the number of women who need abortions.
You can't measure the full value of abortion rights by estimating the number of forced pregnancies prevented per year. By that limited measure, abortion rights seem to benefit relatively few people per annum. Only a small minority of women get pregnant in any given year, and only a fraction of these pregnancies are unwanted. So, some Democrats conclude that it's frivolous to fight for abortion when other issues like Social Security affect so many more people.
If you want to understand the full utilitarian benefits of abortion rights, you have to consider the benefits of having the option. Not taking the value of choice itself into account is like saying fire insurance is worthless because you'll probably never collect any money from your policy. Such an analysis ignores the huge utilitarian benefit of peace of mind. Fire insurance doesn't just benefit the people who lose their homes, it also improves the lives of the vast majority of policy holders whose homes don't doesn't burn down.
If there were no abortion, unwanted pregnancy would hang over the head of every sexually active couple, not to mention every parent of a teenage child. The fear of having your life derailed by a slipped condom or a missed pill is not trivial. Moreover, bodily integrity is essential to human dignity and hence to quality of life. When abortion rights are abrogated, every woman is demoted and demeaned, not just the women who happen to need abortions.
Ironically, if abortion weren't a core Democratic value, we wouldn't have so many of these "strategic" arguments.
If abortion weren't a core Democratic value, we'd be debating whether abortion is right, not agonizing about whether pro-choice politics are expedient.