Democrats Must Take Charge of the Debate About Abortion

Democrats Must Take Charge of the Debate About Abortion

Democrats Must Take Charge of the Debate About Abortion

The danger of allowing right-wing extremists to silence the pro-choice majority is becoming clearer than ever.

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On April 7, former Vice President Mike Pence launched his new organization, deceptively named “Advancing American Freedom.” The organization claims to “expand freedom for all Americans” and “defends the successful policies” of the Trump administration. Still, a quick look at its advisory board reveals an alliance with known hate groups, anti-choice extremists, and organizations who have pumped millions of dollars into suppressing the vote.

Chief among these bad actors is Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the anti-choice organization Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List. In a new partnership with American Principles Project, SBA List is waging a $5 million campaign to attack voting rights in the states. Part of SBA List’s strategy to end legal abortion is to limit access to the polls by peddling dangerous and racist disinformation about the 2020 election—the same disturbing tactic that led to the January 6 insurrection.

How did we get to this point, where one of our political parties is deploying a long-term strategy to use disinformation and inflammatory rhetoric to hold onto power in the face of popular disapproval of its policy positions?

In our book The Lie That Binds, we offer an analysis of the wide-reaching political machinery that conservative leaders activated to push us to this point. The genesis of this decades-long saga can be traced back to the original right-wing movement architects betting that they could rely on a silent majority of Americans who were unsettled by the cultural and social changes around them. In the 1970s, as the nascent Religious Right was going to war against a modern and diverse society, its political operatives needed an issue to put forward as the public face for their cause. Abortion became that face.

Antiquated social mores about sex, sex outside of marriage, and women who have sex when they don’t want a family combined to create a stigma around the entire issue of abortion and reproductive healthcare. That stigma resulted in silence, even among supporters of reproductive freedom, that the right has exploited successfully for many years. Whether because politicians believe the issues are risky to engage on or that they can find common ground on other priorities if they give on this one, attempts among Democrats to change the subject or de-prioritize reproductive rights have only emboldened the Right and allowed the GOP to move a raft of repressive and oppressive policies—often by attaching or threatening to attach abortion provisions to completely unrelated issues, to gain the upper hand in negotiations.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment to the Affordable Care Act was, at least in large part, designed to scuttle President Obama’s signature piece of legislation and divide the progressive coalition through infighting. The strategy failed and the ACA became law, albeit with language to prohibit the use of federal funds “to pay for any abortion or to cover any part of the costs of any health plan that includes coverage of abortion” except in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the life of the pregnant person.

In the Congressional negotiations over the CARES Act, the COVID relief bill passed at the height of the pandemic, the GOP attached an abortion coverage ban (often referred to as the Hyde Amendment) to state coronavirus relief funds. It was a typical anti-choice ploy: Republican lawmakers dared Democrats to vote against the modicum of relief they were offering a panicked and hard-hit public while holding people of color and those with lower incomes who might need access to abortion care hostage in the process. The final legislation ultimately included these restrictions on state relief funds. Anti-choice lawmakers in at least 13 states also attempted to restrict access to abortion care during the pandemic, demonstrating that their efforts are not tied to concern about coronavirus but rather a longstanding political agenda to control women and their families.

When Republicans use abortion as a political football, some on our side are tempted to concede, reasoning that it’s better not to take the bait—and not to fight back on abortion. Others have an internal aversion to discussing these issues for personal reasons. Whatever the reason, the reticence to attack the GOP head-on has allowed the right to own the narrative and keep Democrats rocked back on their heels.  

But, in its own way, the current GOP strategy is also a recognition of defeat. They know that in order to maintain the upper hand, they have to keep escalating. As they got more extreme, pushing laws that chipped away at abortion access and directly challenged Roe v. Wade, a growing reproductive freedom and justice movement started to erase cultural shame around abortion and work with Democrats to capitalize on the broad public support on these issues. Increasingly, elected Democrats, reproductive justice activists, and ordinary people were speaking up and out against the GOP machinations.

So Republicans again ratcheted up the rhetoric. In the 2016 and 2020 elections, Donald Trump accused Democrats of sanctioning “infanticide,” and the party spent hundreds of thousands of dollars spreading the false and incendiary claim. Many Democratic officials understandably held back in their response, believing the notion was so absurd that it was not worth responding to it. Meanwhile, others directly challenged their claims, and NARAL supported some of these candidates through ads, such as Virginia State Delegates Hala Ayala and Elizabeth Guzman.

Those Democrats who held back were misunderstanding how people are processing incendiary information in today’s environment. Our ability to rationally judge the accuracy of an idea we are presented with most often has to get past our visceral emotional reaction first. The right was smartly placing their bets on the fact that a majority of the public would be so reviled by the charges that they would turn off from the conversation entirely.  

SBA List, which has stated outright that “Every abortion is infanticide,” told the New York Times that it had poll-tested the talking point for mass distribution in 2020: “The group says surveys it has conducted in swing states like Arizona and North Carolina show that portraying Democrats as supporters of infanticide—an allegation the left says is patently false—can win neutral voters to their side.”  While SBA List’s claims of persuading voters to their side are almost certainly overblown (Biden ultimately won Arizona), they successfully sowed confusion and forced Democrats to expend resources, time and energy to combat their claims. The right couldn’t win the argument on facts, but they could capitalize on uncertainty and emotional fear-mongering to shore up their base and pick off some conflicted voters. 

It’s time to take charge of the conversation. Since we began writing The Lie That Binds in 2019, the implications of allowing right-wing extremists to silence the majority have become even clearer and more dangerous. We can win on the merits of the argument, as Virginia State Delegates Ayala and Guzman did, and expose the right’s toxic lies about reproductive freedom that bind this movement together in the first place.

This is a moment in our country where so much hangs in the balance: reproductive rights, civil rights, human rights, and indeed even our belief in the promise that democracy holds. It’s time to speak up, call the radical right’s bluff, know our history, and use it to hold accountable those who have used racism and misogyny to wield privilege as a weapon rather than a responsibility. That is our charge, and the truth is our tool.

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