Second Thoughts on Abortion and Birth Control Messaging

It’s become an instant bit of conventional wisdom that Democratic “war on women” messaging failed in 2014. That seems to be mainly because Mark “Uterus” Udall, the most prominent deployer of reproductive rights as a campaign argument, lost to Cory “I Love Me Some Birth Control” Gardner. Now it’s also true that if you compare the 2010 and 2014 exit polls, the one significant difference that stands out is that Democrats won women 51-47 this time after losing them 49-48 four years ago. But it is indeed difficult to identify a specific contest where reproductive rights issues was a winner for Democrats.

At WaPo today, Towson University’s John McTague and Washington College’s Deckman argue that the “war on women” campaign failed because “Democratic campaigns mistakenly conflated abortion and government-mandated insurance coverage for birth control, even though voters view these two issues through different lenses.” Women, they say, think of birth control coverage as an “economic opportunity” issue, and react to it via their attitudes about the size and role of government, while viewing abortion as a matter of “personal morality.” They urge Democrats more or less to ignore abortion policy and reframe the contraceptives issue as an economic argument.

Sorry, I just don’t agree.

If like me you view the “access to birth control” issue as one but only one way to illustrate the extremism of conservatives on abortion policy–they not only want to ban virtually every single abortion but even some forms of birth control that they regard as equivalent to abortions–then it’s obvious why a more straightforward claim that this or that Republican just wants to ban birth control is less effective: it’s more easily contradicted, as Cory Gardner and Thom Tillis both demonstrated with their “I’m for selling oral contraceptives [note they were careful not to specify which ones] over the counter” line. The high public opinion ground on abortion policy, whatever contradictions it involves, favors legalized early-term abortions (which is when the vast majority of abortions actually occur) and highly restricted late-term abortions. Changing the subject entirely to birth control not only lets conservative antichoicers off the hook, but provides too many avenues for credible counter-arguments. But just giving up on the whole set of issues or treating a woman’s ability to control her body as a minor complement to a minimum wage increase is a terrible idea both politically and morally.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.