Democrats Need a New Language to Talk About Abortion

Joe Biden has spent decades carefully cultivating a public image as a tough, hardscrabble guy from Scranton. It is what you’d expect from a politician who, judging by his actual conduct during his 36-year Senate career, has never seen a political fight he hasn’t run away from.

Case in point: Last week, Biden, 76, executed a perfect Barani flip at the expense of a principle. Citing his Catholic faith, the former vice president has long held that taxpayers should not have to pay for abortions. This is the conviction behind the Hyde Amendment, which prevents the funding of abortion through Medicaid. On June 5, his campaign said that he maintained this position. By June 6, after enduring criticism from activists and rival candidates, he fully reversed himself.

Biden’s total capitulation may have been cause for celebration among activists who want to expand abortion rights. But those same activists, and Democratic primary voters generally, should be wary of the candidate (if they weren’t already). If he so easily folded on a matter of personal conviction, what makes you so sure he won’t just as readily renege on this issue—or any other issue that isn’t nearly as fraught with moral concerns? What makes you trust this person with your political interests, especially when he insists that Republicans will have an “epiphany” as soon as Trump leaves office and suddenly become earnest partners in governance? I’m not a person of faith, but call me less than impressed with someone who both claims the mantle of religiosity and so casually dismisses its commandments for temporal gain—all while publicly declaring his faith in your enemies.

Repeated polling has shown that Americans have complex feelings and opinions about abortion, as they should. Dogmatists who oppose abortion in all instances, or tolerate it in any instance, make up small minorities of the citizenry. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen in states like Alabama, being a minority doesn’t preclude one from getting his or her preferred maximalist law passed.

As Biden has ceded any claim to moral authority—either for the faithful, or for most Americans who not exactly enthusiastic about abortion with no limits—the other Democratic candidates have an opportunity to push the abortion debate out of its current cul-de-sac. The central issue shouldn’t be whether a woman should have the choice and ability to have an abortion at a licensed medical facility. The central issue should be how to make abortion as rare as possible.

Is there a candidate who is brave enough to be reasonable? Is there a candidate clever enough to repurpose the label “pro-life”? It is pro-life to make contraception widely and affordably available. It is pro-life for sex education to be taught in schools early and often. These are the things that prevent unwanted pregnancies. It is on this front that many, if not most, anti-abortion absolutists are their own worst enemies. Abstinence-only education doesn’t prevent teen pregnancies; it may actually lead to more of them. And anyone who has been a teenager knows there’s no stopping some sort of sexual education during those years, self-administered or otherwise, whatever the content of one’s classroom.

Perhaps there’s a candidate pugnacious enough to put this proposition to anti-abortionists: wouldn’t we—and the unborn—be better off if we were debating the curriculum of sexual education rather than whether a 17-year-old who got accidentally pregnant should be able to end her pregnancy?

Obviously, there’s more to this issue. Abortion is a complicated and serious subject that triggers deeply emotional reactions from voters. But there’s an opportunity in this election cycle for a leader to reframe the discussion in a nuanced but muscular way that simultaneously has the interests of women and the unborn in mind.

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Joshua Alvarez

Joshua Alvarez is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal. He edits syndicated opinion columns at the Washington Post, and can be reached at joshuaalvarezmail@gmail.com.