By Jonathon Van Maren
In the wake of a fascinating essay in the New York Times titled “How a divided Left is losing the war on abortion” (Alexandra DeSanctis summarized the key takeaways in her National Review piece “A Movement Built on Sand”), The Atlantic invited us to take hop in the time machine and journey back to an era where Democrats were still willing to admit that abortion is a tragedy, even if they believed that it was often a necessary one. Specifically, Caitlin Flanagan bemoaned the fact that today’s pro-abortion Democrats seem willing to drive away huge numbers of voters by refusing to infuse even the slightest bit of moral nuance into their position on abortion, which now boils down to free feticide for everyone, and it’s a good thing, too.
Many commentators have noted the disappearance of Bill Clinton’s famous “safe, legal, and rare” position on abortion, and Flanagan takes a look at why this phrase was so brilliant in the first place. In 1992, after eight years of Reagan and four years of Bush, progressives were beleaguered and ready for a liberal who would stop apologizing for holding liberal positions—and that included the issue of abortion. Clinton was eager to come out as a pro-choice champion, but the difficulty was that, as was so often the case with Bill, he’d previously taken an entirely different position. From Flanagan:
As his longtime aid Betsey Wright said in 1992, Clinton’s attitude toward abortion had undergone an “evolution”; as the chairman of the National Right to Life Committee said, Clinton was “pretty slippery” on the subject. He’d expressed a variety of opinions while governor of Arkansas, and in 1986, he’d written a letter to the Arkansas Right to Life Committee, saying, “I am opposed to abortion …We should not spend money on abortion because so many people think abortion is wrong.” Who knew those old bats would hang on to the thing like it was the Shroud of Turin? According to a NARAL report in 1989, Clinton “refused to state a position on abortion.” (“I don’t know why they said that,” Wright told The New York Times vaguely, adding that she had sent the organization many newspaper clippings.)
In fact, it wasn’t particularly rare for Democrats to express strongly pro-life sentiments before hastily repudiating them with the requisite conversion story (carefully crafted to satisfy the activists and lobbyists) when it came time to run for president. Clinton’s running mate Al Gore had voted pro-life 13 out of 17 times as a Congressman, and Joe Biden was once seen as a very unreliable supporter of Roe v. Wade, as well. But Clinton needed a handy phrase that would express his firm support for legal abortion—and his support never wavered for a moment throughout his presidency—while also nodding towards people’s concerns about abortion, but without expressing a moral opinion. Clinton was a genius at doing this sort of thing, and his “safe, legal, and rare” rendering worked perfectly:
Bill Clinton located language that made it possible to be completely for legal abortion and against legal abortion. The most Clintonian aspect of rare is that it is meaningless. Clinton never—“not once, not a single time,” to invoke another of his famous pronouncements—told us how rare he thought abortions should be. Or suggested a mechanism by which he would make them rare, or announced the ideal number of abortions a year. He knew us better than we knew ourselves. We wanted something, but we didn’t want to face a full accounting of it—and when that is your moral crisis, your superhero is Bill Clinton.
But now, just as the Clintons’ day in the sun is finally over (unless Hillary’s ominous appearance on the Howard Stern Show is more than a book tour stop), Democrats are done pretending that they have any doubts or concerns about abortion. As far as they are concerned, they’ve never seen an abortion they didn’t like, and feticide is something to be cheered (which literally happened at the last Democratic Convention.) And so the only good Democrat now is a Democrat who affirms his or her belief in the right to abortion, up until the moment of birth, paid for by the taxpayer. If you’re Governor Ralph “Blackface” Northam, you might be flexible on the birth requirement. Democrats don’t want abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” They want it to be common, readily available, and free. Flanagan has her concerns about this:
Now, after a quarter century of mighty service, of what President Barack Obama would have called “coalition building,” the phrase is being vigorously expunged from the pro-abortion-rights conversation, including from the plank of the Democratic Party (in 2012) and the official position of Planned Parenthood. Representative Tulsi Gabbard discovered this change of heart in the October debate, when she evoked Clinton’s famous phrase and was pilloried for it. Young feminists living in the age of dwindling access to abortion aren’t interested in a mantra that implies there is something shameful about the procedure, even if it has kept many people in the pro-choice tent. In the present state of American politics, compromise—even the rhetoric of compromise—is understood as appeasement, and we seem to have decided that it is better to risk losing everything than to give an inch…Today’s young feminists—as Hillary Clinton evidently understands—are determined to rid abortion of any lingering stigma, including the stigmatizing notion that it should be rare. They share their stories publicly and take part in a culture in which abortion is recognized and celebrated in stand-up comedy, television shows, movies. To someone outside their culture, all of this might seem, at best, unseemly, and at worst unfeeling. But they have not developed these sentiments in a vacuum. These women are fighting an equally intense anti-abortion culture, one that wants to instill shame in women as a means of reducing the number of abortions. The message of “rare” is not so different to them from the gruesome anti-abortion billboard or bumper sticker.
In 2019, the battle lines over abortion have been drawn more starkly than ever before. On one side, the pro-life movement has successfully kept the issue front and centre, with the abortion rate dropping year over year and hundreds of anti-abortion laws passing on the state level. (If the Democrats had realized, back in 1973, that the abortion issue would be shaping nearly every presidential election for decades to come, I genuinely wonder if they might have opted for a state-by-state strategy instead.) On the other side, against a backdrop of news stories announcing new miracle surgeries on babies in the womb at younger and younger ages, Democrats embrace abortion from conception until birth, and even refuse to vote for bills that would protect the battered survivors of this gruesome procedure.
The ambiguity is gone, the nuance is gone, and, and the choice is clear: Protections for every member of the human family, or the unfettered destruction of children in the womb.