How Much More Nuanced Can Democrats Get on Abortion Rights?

As Patti Miller noted here on RD, Thomas Groome’s Times op-ed urging Democrats to soften their stance on abortion rights is, at best, questionable. It’s also important to point out that Groome paints a cartoonish picture of Hillary Clinton and distorts the impact of Roe v. Wade on the white Catholic vote.

While Groome calls for Democratic politicians to acknowledge publicly that abortion is an issue of profound moral and religious concern, he seems unaware that Clinton has done so several times as I noted in an article for The Atlantic last summer. She told a Newsweek interviewer in 1994 that abortion is morally wrong. She also told an audience of abortion-rights supporters in 2005 that for many women, abortion is an agonizing decision and “represents a sad, tragic choice.” Though Groome calls for Democratic politicians to support health and social-services initiatives that decrease abortions, Clinton has supported such initiatives for decades.

Groome makes another questionable claim—this one about “many traditional Catholic voters,” for whom, he says, “Mrs. Clinton’s unqualified support for abortion rights … were tipping points.” In a recent Sightings article, I analyzed some of the effects of religious affiliation on the 2016 presidential election. Based on surveys of white Catholic voters, I find that Groome’s “many traditional voters” were not so “many.” Nor is it clear that abortion rights were “tipping points” for white Catholics.

Here are polling results from the Pew Research Center:

2000 Gore       2004 Kerry      2008 Obama    2012 Obama    2016 Clinton


White Catholics           45%                 43%                 47%                 40%                 37%

Hispanic Catholics      65%                 65%                 72%                 75%                 67%

Catholics (combined)  50%                 47%                 54%                 50%                 45%


Why did 3% fewer white Catholics vote for Clinton than voted for Obama four years earlier? Pew’s survey results offer no explanation. However, they show a more significant slide in 2012 when white Catholic support for Obama dropped by 7% compared to 2008.

Like Clinton, Obama voiced his moral qualms about abortion (as quoted by Groome): “Those who diminish the moral elements of the decision aren’t expressing the full reality of it.” Like Clinton, Obama’s advocacy for safe and legal abortion was steadfast. Other factors, then, would seem to account for the loss of white Catholic support for Obama in 2012 and for Clinton in 2016.

Groome mentions that 23% more white Catholics voted for Trump than for Clinton. This difference is not as stark as Groome pretends—in 2012, 19% more white Catholics voted for Romney than for Obama. Also not mentioned by Groome: although support for Clinton by Hispanic Catholics was lower than Obama’s in 2012, greater numbers voted for her than for Gore or Kerry.

No doubt the issue of abortion will continue to influence American politics. But for those with ears to listen, prominent Democrats like Obama and Clinton do articulate a more nuanced message than “We support Roe v. Wade.” They treat abortion as a moral issue because, for them, it is one.