Published March 3, 2022
At the 1992 Democratic National Convention that nominated Bill Clinton, Democratic Party leadership made the fateful decision to deny Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey Sr. a speaking slot. Casey was a highly successful, two-term governor of one of the nation’s largest states, but Democrats refused to let him address the crowd for one highly specific reason: He was pro-life.
From the moment that the Supreme Court invented a constitutional right to abortion in the 1973 case Roe v. Wade, the Democratic Party began a steady march toward embracing legal abortion on demand. Along the way, it rejected pro-life Democrats such as Casey, with devastating consequences for our nation and our politics.
With Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey on the chopping block in this term’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case at the Supreme Court, Democratic extremism promises to turn the abortion debate into a winning issue for the pro-life movement. Some observers argue that a decision overturning Roe and Casey will redound to the benefit of Democrats, but the opposite scenario seems more likely. When states are permitted to craft their own abortion laws, and when Democrats respond by intensifying their push to entrench legal abortion at the federal level, the public is far more likely to notice and reject the Democratic Party’s radical commitment to unlimited abortion, a stance that has been a long time in the making.
Running for president in 1992, Clinton coined the nonsensical phrase “safe, legal, and rare,” a slogan that came to embody the party’s stance on abortion for nearly three decades. It was meant somehow to evoke both strong support for abortion access but not necessarily the abortions themselves — though it is hardly coherent to suggest that a supposedly unobjectionable procedure ought also to be rare. In a room where support for unlimited abortion was swiftly becoming mainstream, there was little space left for a principled pro-lifer such as Casey.
Journalist Bill McGurn noted how central abortion was to the 1992 decision to sideline Casey: “Clinton officials refused a place at the podium for the Democratic governor of America’s fifth-largest state while also providing speaking slots for six pro-choice Republican women. To make sure the point was delivered, one of these was a pro-choice woman who had campaigned for Casey’s Republican opponent.”
His exclusion was a death knell for pro-life Democratic politicians across the country, who all but dwindled out of existence over the next few decades. “By embracing abortion,” Casey warned at the time, “the Democratic Party is abandoning the principle that made it great: its basic commitment to protecting the weakest and most vulnerable members of the human family.” What a different nation we might live in today if Casey’s vision of human dignity and solidarity had won out within his party.
Mere weeks after this symbolic ouster, the Supreme Court issued its convoluted ruling in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the heart of Roe: its declaration of a supposed right to abortion. Gov. Casey had gone all the way to the highest court to defend several Pennsylvania abortion regulations, and though the court upheld most of the pro-life policies at stake, it also affirmed Roe and constructed a new set of equally flawed rationales to bolster the abortion regime it had created in 1973.
July 1992, in other words, was a significant turning point in the U.S. abortion debate. The Democratic Party decided to commit itself wholesale to abortion on demand, and a plurality on the court decided that abortion was so central to the lives of American women, and that Roe was so central to the court’s institutional standing, that it couldn’t possibly be undone.
Those decisions hastened a process that had been in motion for two decades. In the 1980s, Catholic Democratic politicians who had once opposed abortion began to change their tune, invoking the rhetoric of a woman’s “right to choose” and calling themselves “personally pro-life,” even as they embraced legal abortion. Over the subsequent two decades, the Democratic platform gradually became more permissive toward abortion. First, it hinted at the need for federally funded abortion. By 2012, it was explicitly attacking the Hyde amendment, a previously bipartisan compromise added to spending measures to ensure that Medicaid funds don’t reimburse providers for abortion procedures.
Today, the Democratic Party is such a tireless abortion advocate that even Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” formulation has fallen out of fashion, excised from the party platform altogether. When congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard uttered this slogan during a 2019 Democratic debate, abortion-rights activists attacked her as out of touch: It is now anathema to say that abortion should be rare, because it suggests that abortion is a bad thing. Abortion, according to today’s activists, is a social good worthy of celebrating, not a necessary evil that we might lament even as we allow it.
It is under this extremist framework that today’s Democratic Party operates. For three years running, Senate Democrats have blocked the eminently reasonable Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, which requires doctors to care for newborns who survive an attempted abortion procedure. Last fall, House Democrats (with one exception) voted in lockstep for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which would nullify nearly every pro-life state law. The Senate voted on the same bill in late February, and, of the senators who voted, only one Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, bucked his party and voted against the bill. Democrats in Congress now regularly push bills lacking Hyde amendment protections.
These policy shifts should come as little surprise to anyone who followed the 2020 presidential primary. With the exception of Gabbard and Amy Klobuchar, both of whom support some limits on abortion in the last three months of pregnancy, Democrats were hard-pressed to name a single abortion regulation they’d support. Quite the opposite: Most pledged to “codify Roe v. Wade” and nuke the Hyde amendment. Our current vice president, Kamala Harris, was especially creative, declaring that her Department of Justice would institute a “preclearance” regime, requiring states to receive approval from the executive branch before enforcing new pro-life laws. Even Joe Biden, who had supported Hyde for decades in Congress, rejected the amendment in his quest to win the nomination, under pressure from abortion-rights activists. Though he had attempted to portray himself as a centrist on nearly every policy question throughout the campaign, Biden evidently realized the centrality of taxpayer-funded abortion to a powerful wing of his party, and he capitulated on that last vestige of his commitment to being “personally pro-life.”
What does all of this mean for our politics? At the most fundamental level, it is deeply damaging to our country that one of our major parties is so in thrall to the grave evil of abortion, which ends the lives of hundreds of thousands of unborn human beings each year. Far better for all of us if our whole society, politicians included, understood and respected the humanity and dignity of all human beings, including the unborn, and realized that even the most limited of governments exist to protect the right to life.
Not only is the Democratic position on abortion morally abhorrent, but it’s also deeply unpopular with the public and even with most Democrats. Public opinion, of course, doesn’t dictate morality; abortion is wrong no matter what Gallup might find. Nevertheless, it’s significant that Democratic politicians have settled themselves so far outside the mainstream. They haven’t yet paid a clear and significant political price for their abortion extremism, but that could swiftly change in a post-Roe country where Democrats immediately begin pushing for federally protected and funded abortion on demand — a position supported by few Democrats, let alone most people.
A 2022 Marist poll found that more than three-quarters of people favor laws far more protective of unborn children than are permitted under Roe. About a third of Democrats describe themselves as pro-life, and according to Gallup, only 18% of Democrats support abortion for any reason in the last three months of pregnancy, the official position of the party. Marist has found that a majority even of “pro-choice” respondents would limit abortion to the first three months of pregnancy, the so-called hard cases of rape and incest, or when a mother’s life is at risk.
But left-wing politicians appear unwilling to admit that their extremism might have political consequences. During the 2020 primary, pro-life Democrats repeatedly asked candidates whether they were welcome in the party despite their opposition to abortion. The response they received was, essentially, “Take a hike.”
“I think being pro-choice is an absolutely essential part of being a Democrat,” socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders offered. “By this time in history … when we talk about what a Democrat is, I think being pro-choice is an essential part of that.”
The repudiation of pro-life Democrats by their own candidates was so vigorous that Democrats for Life leaders penned an op-ed identifying themselves as “the Democrats Biden doesn’t want.” They noted that their party no longer supports even helping pregnant women, because such policies, “previously central to Democratic values, violate the core tenet that ‘abortion is normal.’”
If the Supreme Court does as is expected this term and overturns Roe and Casey, the deep divide between Democrats and the rest of the public on abortion will intensify. To be sure, while the average person is likely to disagree with Democratic extremism, he also is likely to oppose the pro-life goal of prohibiting all abortions. But when it comes to political battles over abortion, pro-lifers have a distinct advantage: We are willing to accept incremental victories on the way to our goal.
For decades, pro-lifers have backed a wide assortment of abortion restrictions and regulations, recognizing that saving unborn children and protecting their mothers is valuable even if the laws in question aren’t yet perfect. When Roe is gone, far more people will be paying attention to those efforts, because states will finally be permitted to create their own abortion laws. In abortion-friendly states, perhaps the best we can achieve at first is a 24-hour waiting period or safety regulations on abortion clinics. In moderate states, it might be possible to achieve a ban on abortion after 20 weeks or 15 weeks or 12 weeks. In the most pro-life states, citizens might well be prepared to embrace heartbeat bills, or even total restrictions on abortion. Nearly all pro-lifers are willing to accept all of these victories, large and small, even as we continue working toward the goal of protecting all unborn children from abortion.
But Democratic politicians don’t have a comparable willingness to compromise. Far from it. Take one recent example: A Democratic legislator in Oklahoma sponsored a bill requiring fathers to support their unborn children from the moment of conception, aimed at supporting pregnant mothers if abortion becomes illegal. Abortion supporters, angry that he had affirmed the pro-life argument that human life begins at conception, bullied him into a swift apology. At the national level, Democrats already have promised not only to “codify Roe” in the event that it’s overturned, but they aim to prevent states from enacting any pro-life laws. This is evidenced by the near-unanimous support among congressional Democrats for the Women’s Health Protection Act, which they pitch as a response to the possible downfall of Roe.
When it comes to abortion, from 1992 until today, the Democratic Party has gone all or nothing. Nothing less than abortion on demand, through all nine months of pregnancy, underwritten by the taxpayer will suffice. That hard-line stance is deeply unpopular, and the eventual end of Roe will do a great deal to expose this extremism to the public. When it does, Democrats should expect to pay a political price.
Alexandra DeSanctis is a staff writer at National Review and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is co-author, with Ryan T. Anderson, of the forthcoming book Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, from which parts of this article are adapted.