Safe, Legal, and Rare: The Democrats’ Evolving Stance on Abortion

In 1996, Bill Clinton coined the term “safe, legal, and rare” to describe the Democrats’ policy outlook on abortion. The phrase was meant to appease those with moral uncertainty regarding abortions and to communicate that Democrats were not necessarily proponents of the procedure. Rather, the party believed that abortion should be a lawful and safe procedure in the cases in which it was required. Today, the political pendulum has swung in the opposite direction, as Democrats brand themselves as the party of choice, and make abortion support an entrenched party position. While this position goes a long way toward embracing the experiences of many women, it alienates many voters and carries no clear electoral advantage.

“Safe, legal, and rare” was an effective tagline, in part because it is hard to argue with. Most Americans believe that abortion should be available and legal, but many Americans also feel that it is immoral. Seventy percent of Americans support the legality of abortion, despite 44 percent of Americans saying that abortion is “morally wrong.” Clinton’s pithy saying allowed the Democrats’ to coalesce these two popularly held opinions: that abortion isn’t ideal, but that it should be legal.

The Democrats’ perspective on abortion differs significantly now. With Planned Parenthood and other pro-choice advocacy groups intensifying efforts to present abortion as a common phenomenon that women shouldn’t have to hide, the “safe, legal, and rare” narrative has given way to a staunch outlook on abortion. Cecile Richards, the President of Planned Parenthood and a popular female political icon, is a well-known name in Democratic circles. Richards has brought the issue of abortion closer to the party’s core value system, criticizing Democrats who oppose abortion rights. During the 2016 election, Planned Parenthood transformed into an appendage of the Democratic Party, and used its political arm to further the Party’s campaigning and advocacy efforts. Planned Parenthood spent more than $38 million dollars on campaigning for Democrats from 2008 to 2016. This figure may anger some taxpayers- Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million from the federal government per annum.

In politics, the Democrats have passed the point of downplaying the issue of abortion.  While the Clintons share a last name, they differ sharply on abortion policy. The Democratic Party of Hillary Clinton is eager to embrace the pro-choice movement as a rallying point, while Bill Clinton’s Democrats merely downplayed the issue of abortion. Today, the Democrats’ supportive position on abortion extended to the 2016 party platform, which for the first time called for repeal of the Hyde Amendment. Since 1976, the amendment has prohibited the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients.

The cultural perspective regarding abortion has shifted in recent years as well. No longer is abortion a taboo topic in the political conversation. As a result, many women have begun to share their abortion stories, publishing them in news outlets and women’s magazines, including the Huffington Post, Elle, and Newsweek. These accounts emphasize the importance of discussing and destigmatizing the issue of abortion.

In response to this political and cultural shift in attitudes regarding abortion, Democratic political strategists have faced a growing divide regarding what action the party should take. Some Democrats have pushed to eliminate the pro-life arm of the party, arguing that voters who are against abortion have no place with Democrats. Others have advocated for opening up the party to a more socially conservative, pro-life demographic. Still others have decided to avoid the issue entirely.

Strategically, the Democrats face tough odds if they intend to exclude pro-life individuals from the party. By making decisions to systematically exclude pro-life women and men from the realm of Democratic politics, as the organizers of the Women’s March did, the party narrows its scope and access. The Democrats could face the reality that there are simply not enough staunch abortion-rights supporters to have electoral success. Almost 75 percent of Americans believe in restricting abortion to the first trimester, a policy proposition that Planned Parenthood actively fights.

In contrast, the electoral disadvantage of being the “safe, legal, and rare” party is almost nonexistent. Pro-choice voters will still support Democratic candidates, and on the opposite side of the issue, the Democrats could attract some moderate, socially conservative swing voters.

Many abortion-rights activists have argued for increased publicity surrounding the abortion issue because of its prevalence in women’s lives. This is a merited argument; almost 20 percent of pregnancies end in abortion, meaning that about 1 in every 4 women will receive an abortion by the time she’s 45. These experiences should not be ignored, and women are right to call attention to them in hopes of helping other women. On the other hand, the political exclusion of pro-life voters only damages the electoral success of Democrats, and limits their ability to pass policies that support and provide reproductive care to women.

The issue of abortion is a lot less black and white than the media may portray it to be. Many Americans support the legality of abortion and believe in women’s ability to make decisions regarding their health care, despite having moral qualms about the procedure. Abortion is a critical and relevant policy issue, and it’s essential that the Democrats continue to fight for women’s reproductive rights. However, it’s also important that the party doesn’t shun and shame those who have a more moderate perspective on abortion. Retaking the “safe, legal, and rare” narrative, while still fighting for and protecting reproductive rights through policy, would allow Democrats to still be the pro-choice party but access a larger portion of the electorate.

Image Credit: Charlotte Cooper/Flickr