Comment: Supporters of abortion access must get on same page

Haggling over words and demanding policy purity will end up ceding the advantage of public support.

By Lis Smith / Special To The Washington Post

We need to talk about how we talk about Roe. By “we,” I mean the Democrats who represent the overwhelming majority of Americans who support Roe v. Wade, and who serve as the last bulwark against extreme politicians who want to criminalize abortion in all cases and take away a woman’s right to make private health-care decisions.

Poll after poll show that we have the upper hand — public opinion wise — on this literal life and death issue. But, in the weeks since a draft Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade leaked, instead of circling the wagons around a common-sense message and plan of action, we’ve engaged in purity politics that threaten to put us on the defensive on a majority issue.

First, there was the language policing that is increasingly in vogue on the left in recent years. Democrats criticized President Biden, who supports codifying Roe v. Wade into law and reversing the ban on federal funds for abortion, for not using the word “abortion” enough in his public statements.

Last week, the House Pro-Choice Caucus released a memo denouncing common-sense terminology such as “choice” and “safe, legal, and rare” as “harmful,” and urging members of Congress to instead swap in language such as “decision” and “safe, legal, and accessible.” At this moment, with fundamental rights under attack, changing commonly understood labels that tens of millions of Americans identify with, such as “pro-choice,” would be like trying to rename the Titanic; as it sinks.

Most Americans don’t walk around every day calling themselves “pro-decision,” nor do they lament that abortions are too rare. Anyone who supports a woman’s right to choose should be welcomed with open arms into the movement to protect it; regardless of what terminology they use. But when we engage in unintelligible activist-speak, we not only confuse people who share our views, we also have the potential to alienate them.

The search for language purity matches the quest for policy purity. Consider the recent vote on the Women’s Health Protection Act in the U.S. Senate, which was so broad in its provisions — superseding all state-level restrictions on abortion and all exemptions for religious institutions — that it couldn’t begin to win a majority vote. Even a filibuster-free Senate wouldn’t have been able to send that bill to the president’s desk because there was no effort made to earn the support of moderates who support permanent, but more limited, abortion rights.

The good news is this: There is a clear way for Democrats to win this debate. But it will require fierce message discipline and a focus on what a majority of voters support. The strategy should be inspired by how aides to Barack Obama described his approach to foreign policy: “Don’t do stupid s***.”

Voters’ views on abortion are complex. As a recent Pew Research Center study stated: “Relatively few Americans on either side of the debate take an absolutist view on the legality of abortion; either supporting or opposing it at all times, regardless of circumstances.” Put simply, most abortion rights advocates support some limits, and most antiabortion advocates support some exemptions for bans.

And that’s the difference between Democrats and Republicans today. There is not a single Democratic member of the House or Senate, nor a single Democratic governor in the country who supports the right to an abortion without limitations. Even the failed Senate measure upheld the basic framework of Roe, which prohibits late-term abortions except under the most limited of circumstances. There is, however, a growing caucus of Republicans who support bans on abortions with little to no exceptions.

Take the exchange that Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts — a chair of the Republican Governors Association — had with CNN’s Dana Bash during a recent interview:

Bash: “Do you think that the state of Nebraska should require a young girl who was raped to carry that pregnancy to term?”

Ricketts: “Those are babies, too.”

Bash: “Including in the case of rape or incest?”

Ricketts: “Yes, they’re still babies.”

Ricketts’ comments should be a wake-up call to every American in the pro-Roe majority. Not because they’re outside the mainstream of public opinion — even 56 percent of Republicans disagree with him — but because they are squarely in the mainstream of Republican officials’ thinking today.

We are facing a future where politicians will be able to make private health-care decisions for women in Republican-governed states; where politicians will force women to give birth even if they’ve been the victims of rape or incest and regardless of whether their lives are at stake; where politicians will put women in jail for seeking an abortion and imprison doctors who perform abortions; where politicians will literally reward neighbors to turn against neighbors for a quick buck.

Because all that is at stake in the upcoming election, we need to talk about how we talk about Roe; before it’s too late.

Democratic strategist Lis Smith was a senior adviser to Pete Buttigieg’s presidential campaign, and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Any Given Tuesday.”

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