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June 13, 2005

How important is abortion, really?

Stormcoming has a brilliant defense of abortion as a core plank of the Democratic platform. Dr. B saw it first and set it up beautifully:

[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.


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I'm not ready to contribute a full post to this issue, but I do want to relate the story of the one time I voted for a Republican. [Read More]


Just a warning: the fact that most people agree with the Democrats on abortion does not, by itself, mean that abortion is a vote-winner for Democrats. Frequently, people who agree with Democrats on issue after issue will turn around and vote Republican.

I'm not exactly sure what's going on, but I think it is sometimes the case that a voter will interpret a candidate's position as indicating something about his character. Even when the voter disagrees with the position a candidate takes, he may still respect someone who holds that position. That might be what's going on with pro-life politicians.

What that means (to me) is that the Democrats need to have a more sophisticated response to polling. You can't ignore public opinion, but you also can't base your positions on what's popular. (Paradoxically, doing that is not very popular with voters.)

Many a fine sword has been broken trying to bed right wing christians. When will they learn and why do they so want to do it? Why not cut the sane from the crowd and let the repubs have the rest?

I've already responded at Bitch's place, but I'll repeat.

I'm not completely sure this is mostly about abortion per se. I think that in part it's about NARAL's decision to endorse Sen. Chafee while the Democrats are deciding between two pro-choice Democrats to oppose him.

The message from NARAL is that abortion is the ONLY litmus test. Chafee isn't the worst Republican, but he's a Republican, and as long as the Republicans are in the majority, the majority leader and all the committee chairmen will be right-wing, anti-choice Republicans. Jeffords switched, but Chafee and Snowe and Collins won't. They all have to be beaten.

Even if abortion and related social issues are your only litmus, as it is for NARAL, I think that supporting moderate Republicans is a long-term losing strategy. But in any case, a NARAL voter is telling me that none of the other issues I care about are important to her (or him), While at the same time telling me that I absolutely support her/him on her issues, or else I'm a bad guy.

I've been dealing with NARAL for 20+ years. They were in Sen. Packwood's pocket here in Oregon, and they supported him almost to the bitter end. Packwood was a crappy Senator, and Chafee isn't really a very good one -- unless you're NARAL.

For 20+ years I've been watching DLC-type Democrats throw my favorite issues overboard. NARAL watched, beaming happily, since abortion was not on the list. Suddenly, a Democrat peeps a peep about NARAL's issue, and suddenly they're being all righteous and demanding that I get all mad.

I've always been pro-choice, and it's OK with me if abortion remains a litmus tests. But if I want to have my own litmus tests, I'll basically have to leave the Democratic Party and become irrelevant -- I've done that in the past, but I regret it. My litmus tests are dog meat, unlike NARAL's.

It really bugs me to be given pious lectures by slimy folk like NARAL.

Prehaps the reason why people who agree with Democrats on issue after issue still vote republican is because Democrats are too chickenshit to stand up and take responsibility for their policy stances, instead of pussyfooting around in the hope of rooking a few swing voters into our fold. By doing that, we're never capitalizing on our strengths (because we don't publicize them), yet we can't exactly defend ourselves when the Republicans attack us for being amoral, because we already decided that we have to play *Shhh!*

I agree with you 100% that NARAL made a bad play by backing Lincoln Chafee and other Republicans. It's a bad play in terms of progressive politics in general, it's also a bad play in terms of advancing abortion rights. But I don't see how it gave Kos carte blanche to be dismissive of abortion as merely a 'woman's issue', and, I don't remember the exact words, but seemingly somehow beneath his notice. Coming hot on the heel of the whole pie incident thingie (I wasn't paying too much attention), people who care about women's issues are not going to cut him much slack.

If he's truly going to be dismissive about abortion simply because he disapprove of NARAL's tactics, now that's really cutting your nose off to spite your face.

For me the problem with NARAL goes back 25 years. Not a one-time thing at all. They've always done that kind of thing. And the controlling faction of the Democratic Party has often been on that wavelength.

If Drum and Kos come back and say, "I was wrong, abortion issues are important, women's issues are important", that will be a good thing, but it would be just a return to the 20-year norm.

I don't expect NARAL to come along and say that "Supporting moderate Republicans is suicidal", because it would amount to renouncing the organization's whole past. They've succeeded on their single issue by supporting moderate Republicans and conservative Democrats.

I also don't expect to see Lieberman and the other DLC-ers admit that they were wrong to try to destroy the liberal wing of the Democrats. (Lieberman has always been pro-choice, BTW; most DLC'ers are, I think.)

This could be a learning experience, but not if it just means that Kos and Drum hang their heads and admit they were bad boys. NARAL Democrats have a few things to learn too.

Ultimately, a person must vote their conscience, John. My allegience isn't to the Democratic party per se, nor should yours be. My allegience is to the issues I care about that the Democratic Party represents better than any other party. I'm ambivalent about NARAL's play here, but I can understand it, even if it was bad strategy. I don't think NARAL's endorsement of Chaffee will affect that election much, anyway. It's frankly just another in a chain of stupid moves by NARAL going back to the late 80's. But I suppose I just don't cotton so much to the notion that someone else is supposed to be as flexible on their issues as you have been on yours. I wouldn't ask for that flexibility from you.

NARAL fucked up. I won't waste one pixel apologizing for the Chaffee debacle.

Kos's abortion post was partly about NARAL, but he was also drawing a much broader object lesson about the overall importance of the abortion issue.

The NARAL endorsement might affect the election in various ways. A strong Democrat might be scared off, or a key donor might sit out, or a group of campaign workers might sit out, or some centrist independents might vote for Chafee -- and so on.

The NARAL endorsement was crap, and in the long term it might conceivably contribute to maintaining Republican control of the Senate. Let's not obscure what they did with little quibbles. NARAL endorsement of Chafee wasn't just bad stratagy. They were stabbing people in the back because they care only about abortion and closely-related issues. It was creepy, and NARAL has always been creepy.

"Voting your conscience" is for the religiously-insane. Ultimately you want you political activity to have some effect. You can sit out an election in hope things improve, or try to build a third party, or cast a protest vote, or give up on politics entirely, but "conscience voting" is silly.

Am I correct in my understanding, Jedmunds, that "my issues" are not "your issues", and that for you, abortion is the only litmus test? Because if so, you're exactly the person I'm talking about.

I have always opposed the Democrats' move to the right. For me, this is approximately Chapter 25. During the first 24 chapters, the pro-choice people were sitting there smiling. But now when it's their ox being gored, and they're getting all huffy. Boo fuckin hoo.

This might be a learning experience, but not if the story line is just "Kos and Drum were bad". The people for whom social issues are the only litmus test have done a lot of harm, and they need to learn something too.

it's not abortion that's scaring people. it's elective (emphasis) partial birth abortion (d&e, whatever). which may be a chimera that never happens except on rare occasions when it's medically necessary. but the republicans forced democrats to vote for this nasty procedure right before the election, in a horrible genius move. this vote is frequently cited by republicans as a reason they can't vote democrat. it hurts us, our all-nine-months-for-any-reason kowtowing to NARAL. for what it's worth.

Just a warning: the fact that most people agree with the Democrats on abortion does not, by itself, mean that abortion is a vote-winner for Democrats. Frequently, people who agree with Democrats on issue after issue will turn around and vote Republican.

Agreed, Daryl. However, abortion is a good mobilizer for our side. It's also a key point of differentiation between liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats. Without the pro-choice plank, Democrats would have to fight a lot harder to win in the Northeast.

Am I correct in my understanding, Jedmunds, that "my issues" are not "your issues", and that for you, abortion is the only litmus test? Because if so, you're exactly the person I'm talking about.

No that assumption would not be correct, though neither one of us really knows the specific positions of the other. I could not vote anything other than Democrat with a clean conscience, unless I truly believed that it didn't matter if the R won, and that goes beyond the abortion issue.

But that's my conscience, and I'm not one to impose it on others, who I'll leave free to vote their own. And I won't get upset at anyone for doing it.

But that's my conscience, and I'm not one to impose it on others, who I'll leave free to vote their own. And I won't get upset at anyone for doing it.

We don't live in bubbles, and have to talk to other people about what they're doing, even if hard feelings might result. Politics isn't like choosing shoes.

No it's not, but no one told you to go along for the ride when the Democratic Party compromised on your issues. The fact that you did, does not give you standing to cry when someone else does not go along for the ride when they compromise on their issues.

No, I didn't go along for the ride. I voted for Nader, and I regret that now. Gore would have been much better.

I'm not religiously-insane, am not going to refrain form criticizing someone because they cry "conscience".

By all means, do as you will, but you're deluded if you think either you or the Democratic Party owns anyone's vote.

Never said that. You seem to be in a personal bubble. Everything that you or I do politically affects other people, and the other people can say what they want.

I'm actually not a strong Democrat any more, because I think that the situation is almost hopeless. I'm here because I'm extremely annoyed by people for whom abortion is a litmus test, but who are otherwise centrist. Above all, NARAL.

I'm willing for abortion to be a litmus test, but I dislike anyone who strong-arms me (or kos) on that issue while being willing to cozy up to Chafee on many other issues. Chafee is not a good guy. This is not an imaginary problem.

I think it's worth viewing "abortion rights generally" and "constitutional protection for abortion" as related but non-identical issues.

John: Why is Chafee not a good guy? I certainly disagree with him some, but I've never seen anything that would make me want to subject him to any kind of serious moral condemnation... It's likely I missed something,, just wondering...

First, because he voted for Frist for majority leader. Second, because he often or usually votes with the Republican leadership -- he voted for the two recent hard-right court nominees, for example. Third, because country-club Republicans are not good guys, even though they're nicer than New Right Republicans.

Someone who's strong about abortion rights, but unaware of why moderate country-club Republicans are not good guys, probably fits in my category of people who didn't notice the first 24 times the Democrats slid to the right.

The problem for the democrats is not abortion per se...
But rather that Roe NATIONALIZED the abortion question...
Now come presidential (or Senate season) all those red state voters want to know were the politician stands..

You split your base and allowed serious religious people to flee the party.
People who support the right to abortion mostly do so causually...
People who oppose it do so religiosly.

First, because he voted for Frist for majority leader. Second, because he often or usually votes with the Republican leadership -- he voted for the two recent hard-right court nominees, for example. Third, because country-club Republicans are not good guys, even though they're nicer than New Right Republicans.

'Course, if you want to go down to that, in 10/2001 all Senators but Feingold voted for the Patriot Act, so none of them is really a good guy. Unfortunately life isn't black and white, and for an organization whose goal is to preserve abortion rights, a politician who's light gray on this issue like Chafee is better than one who's dark gray on it. Plus by endorsing Chafee they make it good for both parties to appeal to them, that is run pro-choice candidates. When a political party takes a group's support for granted, it only pays lip service to what the group wants.

Alon Levy
What is a "NEW" right republican?

Is that the opposite of th new left?

Yes, Alon, I agree that it might be the best thing for NARAL on this one issue if they shit on all the Democrats and play a cynical game. This is an especially good strategy if you expect the Republicans to stay in power forever, as I fear they might. I'm not criticizing NARAL for bad strategy. I just think that they're creeps, and resent it intensely when they get all pious and accusatory.

When a political party takes a group's support for granted, it only pays lip service to what the group wants. There's no evidence that that's true about the Democrats in this case. They've been pretty solid, and have paid a price for it is many parts of the country, and NARAL shits on them.

Sicking up to the Republicans is classic codependent behavior, BTW. Andrew Sullivan does it too, big time.

Fitz, Alon was quoting me. The New Right is the Religious Right.

Here's a Right wing Chaffee thread. They'll support him because they know he's the best they'll get from RI. He's better than any other Republican from my point of view, but he's still worse than all but a very few Democrats, and definitely worse than whichever Democrat who would replace him.

I'm not sure that you aren't setting up a false dichotomy. Most people who talk of a compromise on abortion are talking about something like what
France and Belgium have (1st trimester abortions are easily available, later-term abortions must meet some standards of medical need); it seems to me that such a position doesn't compromise women's options too severely, and would help the Democrats. Maybe 10% of voters have a real problem with the morning-after pill; they aren't your target audience. But probably 90% of voters have a problem with an abortion at 7 months; making such abortions meet a high threshold of need would keep the argument on ground that I see as much more favorable to the Democrats.

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