Old White Dudes Tell the Democrats to Forget about Abortion

Writing in the New York Times, Thomas Groome, a professor of theology at Boston College, has a super original, never-before articulated idea about how the Democrats can “reclaim their Catholic base.” The Democrats need to “stop being the party of abortion” to win back the Catholic voters that abandoned the party and sealed Hillary Clinton’s fate, which by my count is approximately installment #1,000 in the apparently never-ending series “White Dudes Tell the Democrats to Forget about Abortion.”

Now, before we get to Groome’s extraordinary selective history of abortion politics, it’s worth pointing out the obvious flaws in his logic. One is with the role that abortion played in the 2016 election. Groome is correct that Donald Trump’s unvarnished promise to evangelicals that he would crack down on abortion was, as I have noted here on RD, essential to his victory. But that doesn’t mean that the counterfactual is also true: that Clinton could have attracted more Catholics if she hedged her support for abortion; especially, as Groome claims, by not stating, “I strongly support Roe v. Wade.

According to a recent Pew Research Center Poll, only 34% of Catholics favor overturning Roe (versus 47% of white evangelicals), and I’m guessing most of those Catholics are committed Republicans. The reason Clinton did so poorly with Rust Belt Catholics, as I’ve also noted, is that she took them for granted and didn’t mount any kind of Catholic outreach, which allowed Trump’s corrosive charges about her dishonesty and her own stumbles with her email to fester.

Groome is also correct that a “handful more of Catholic votes per parish in those states would have won her the election.” But since 54% of Catholics believe abortion should be legal in all or most cases, it’s more likely that Clinton would have repelled Catholics voters than attracted them with a watered-down stance on abortion rights.

The second problem with Groome’s argument is his assertion that it’s the Democratic Party’s embrace of abortion rights that has largely alienated Catholics from the party. Again, it’s true that the Democratic Party has seen a steady erosion in support from white Catholics, with a high of 60% of white Catholics voting for Trump. But that erosion has been underway since 2000 and ignores larger trends in religious affiliation.

It was during the 2000 election cycle that the Catholic bishops first began making explicit that good Catholics support the Republican Party because of its stance on abortion. This drove some white Catholics to the GOP, where opposition to abortion became fused with other bedrock Republican positions like opposition to taxes to support the public welfare and “big” government, and eventually “religious liberty” issues like opposition to the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

At the same time, the Democratic Party has increasingly become the party of the “nones,” and many of those nones are ex-Catholics. The increasing white Catholic affinity for the GOP is a combination of sorting, driven by the anti-abortion politicking of the Catholic bishops and the widespread abandonment of Catholicism by many Democrats. As such, the sort of half-assed backtracking on Democratic support of abortion rights suggested by Broome is unlikely to shift this dynamic.

As to the meat of Broome’s argument, he proposes a three-point plan for the Democratic Party to win back these supposedly abortion-disgruntled Catholics:

If Democrats want to regain the Catholic vote, they must treat abortion as a moral issue, work for its continued reduction and articulate a more nuanced message than, ‘We support Roe v. Wade.’

Contrary to Broome’s assertion that she lost because she was flippant about abortion, Clinton has never shied away from discussing abortion as a moral issue. However, acknowledging the moral complexity of abortion at various stages of pregnancy is not incompatible with strong support for Roe, which, in fact, does just that by allowing greater state regulation as a pregnancy progresses.

Secondly, and this is where his knowledge of abortion politics is lacking, the Democratic Party signed on wholeheartedly to so-called common ground efforts to find ways to decrease the need for abortion and promote adoption in the mid-2000s. The “Reducing the Need for Abortions and Supporting Parents Act” was introduced in 2006 and included increased funding for family planning programs, improved insurance coverage for pregnant women, and tax incentives for adoption. It was supported by NARAL, Catholics for Choice and the Christian Coalition. It was Republicans who walked away from these efforts when they realized they could make political hay by opposing Planned Parenthood and insurance coverage for contraception.

Thirdly, younger women, as well as Democratic women of all ages, are increasingly energized by an unapologetically pro-choice message—maybe because they realize that the more Democrats wring their hands over the “moral complexity” of abortion, the more the Republicans move the debate to the right and create ever-more draconian limitations on the procedure that have nothing to do with morality and everything to do with shaming women. Millennial women are posting their abortions on YouTube and tweeting their abortions as a way to fight the stigma that the Republican Party has so successfully attached to abortion.

And this gets to the heart of the problem with Broome’s argument, which is about as stale as a 40-year-old Twinkie (and it would have been helpful if the Times had noted he is an ex-priest). Political restrictions on women’s access to abortion aren’t about protecting life or realizing the “moral complexity” of abortion. Nowhere was this more obvious than the fight over the ill-fated AHCA, which would have banned coverage for abortion, and if the “Freedom Caucus” had their way or Republicans had a shot at a clean bill, also would have stripped maternity coverage and newborn care as essential health benefits. That’s right. The “pro-life” party would have made it impossible to terminate your pregnancy and impossible to get medical coverage for that pregnancy or your newborn. That sure is some moral complexity.

That’s because, as Margaret Atwood recently noted in an assessment of her dystopian feminist classic A Handmaiden’s Tale in light of the Trump presidency, the control of reproduction has been a feature of every authoritarian regime:

… make women have babies they can’t afford to raise, or babies you will then remove from them for your own purposes, steal babies — it’s been a widespread, age-old motif. The control of women and babies has been a feature of every repressive regime on the planet. Napoleon and his “cannon fodder,” slavery and its ever-renewed human merchandise — they both fit in here. Of those promoting enforced childbirth, it should be asked: Cui bono? Who profits by it? Sometimes this sector, sometimes that. Never no one.

The Republican Party promotes enforced childbirth, period. Anyone at this point who pens paeans to some imaginary middle ground is delusional. Support for abortion rights has become woven into the woof and warp of the Democratic Party and rightly so. Conservative Catholics who place banning abortion in their holy trinity of issues with tax cuts and getting rid of evil agencies like the EPA are never coming back to the Democratic Party. Independent-leaning Catholics in Rust Belt swing states need to be courted, like any important constituency, on the basis of real issues that are important to them. Efforts to soft-pedal the Democratic Party’s support for abortion rights won’t change anything. It will only piss off the party’s base, create political openings for the opponents of abortion, and gladden the heart of conservative opinion writers.