Swimming Against the Tide on Abortion

By Jack Brownfield

America’s two main political parties seem locked in a race towards extremism on abortion. Examining their platforms from year to year, we see both Republicans and Democrats increasingly unwilling to allow for compromise on the issue. The problem is not that Republicans are generally pro-life and Democrats pro-choice, but that their platforms have become more dogmatic. While compromise may be impossible on the core issue of legal abortion, there are a number of other areas where a middle ground could be found. Unfortunately, the parties seem less and less open to looking for that middle ground. Instead, they make ever wilder claims for their own side, pushing out moderates and with them any chance for mutually acceptable solutions.

Before checking what the parties have to say on the issue, let’s look at public opinion. According to Gallup, about 49% of Americans describe themselves as pro-choice compared with 46% pro-life. But the country is not as neatly divided as these numbers suggest. When pollsters dig a little deeper and ask whether abortion should be legal in all, some, or no circumstances, the split becomes much less pronounced. A full 50% support legal abortion in some circumstances, with only 29% in favor of all circumstances and 18% for none. This more nuanced poll makes the problem obvious: a near-majority of Americans hold an opinion between “total ban” and “unlimited access.” So if each party advocates one extreme, half the population is left out.

But what do the Republican and Democratic platforms actually say about abortion, and how has this changed over time? To begin, look at the 2004 GOP platform. The document is strongly pro-life, declaring that “the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed” and calling for a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. The 2012 platform affirms these basic ideas and goes further, calling for a ban on sex-selective abortion and abortions of “pain-capable unborn children.” By 2016, the platform called for the illegalization of specific methods of abortion. It also claimed, contrary to accepted medical knowledge, that abortion “endangers the health and well-being of women.” In each of these cases, the platform’s position on abortion grew more expansive, taking away many potential areas of compromise. By going so far, the GOP has aligned itself with the 18% of Americans opposed to any legal abortion.

The Democratic Party is no better. In 2004 and before, the platform said that Democrats stood “proudly for a woman’s right to choose” and called for abortion to be “safe, legal, and rare.” By 2012, the platform merely advocated it be “safe and legal.” Democrats also stated their opposition to “any and all efforts to weaken or undermine” the right to choose, eliminating virtually all possibility of compromise. And in 2016, the party platform supported the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funds from paying directly for abortions in almost all circumstances. These increasingly extreme positions mirror those of the Republican Party, and, like the GOP, are only supported by a minority of Americans.

So the 50% are left with two unpleasant choices. One party opposes all abortions and supports many restrictions on how they can be performed, while the other refuses to allow for any restrictions and wants to pay for them with federal dollars. Luckily for the public, many elected officials of both parties take more moderate views than the official platforms. Republicans are often open to legality at least in cases of medical necessity, rape, or incest, and Democratic lawmakers often support the Hyde Amendment as a compromise. But, as the increasing radicalization of the platforms suggests, these moderates may be a dying out. How can we promote discussion on the issue and, perhaps, bring the parties back to more centrist positions? To answer the question, look beyond the moderates to those who actually disagree with their party’s position.

A number of Democrats and Republicans “swim against the tide” on abortion, although they often seem invisible. The Senate, for example, contains a few pro-life Democrats like Indiana’s Joe Donnelly and Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey. It also contains pro-choice Republicans, like Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski and Maine’s Susan Collins. These politicians are in a perfect position to lead the way on abortion. They can show their fellow party-members that it is possible to be both a Republican and pro-choice, for example, which might lead others to question their adherence to more radical positions. At the very least, they can become more visible and assert their views more strongly. Pro-life Democrats will likely never change their party’s core position, but by insisting their opinions be heard they could bring back the old “safe, legal, and rare” standard. Pro-choice Republicans could do something similar and advocate for a rollback of the extremism that has crept into their platform.

Abortion, more than any other issue, is portrayed as absolute. The major parties and activists on both sides often insist that the choice must be between unlimited access and a total ban. But Americans deserve choices that reflect their true preferences, and right now half the population supports access to legal abortion with some restrictions. The Democratic and Republican parties alike do these voters a disservice by insisting they choose between two extremes. Only action by moderate and contrarian voices within the parties can reverse the years of radicalization.


Jack is a sophomore in the College studying English and Government and writes about domestic social and cultural issues.

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