On Thursday, The New York Times ran a “memo” from conservative opinion columnist David Brooks that amounts to a condescending history lesson imploring Democrats to adopt a major anti-choice policy priority: 20-week abortion bans.
Brooks writes as if he were an “Imaginary Democratic Consultant.” Taking a cue from an insidious and highly effective talking point in the anti-abortion community, he argues that 20-weeks bans are a moderate policy — and suggests Democrats are taking an extreme stance by opposing them.
“Last week I watched as our senators voted down the Republican bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks,” the Imaginary Democratic Consultant writes. “Our people hung together. Only three Democrats voted with the other side. Yet as I was watching I kept wondering: How much is our position on late-term abortions hurting us? How many progressive priorities are we giving up just so we can have our way on this one?”
But Brooks’ column, like many traditional anti-choice arguments, is detached from the realities of people’s lives — there’s no consideration of who might seek an abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy, or why — and misconstrues the truth about later abortions, cloaking restrictive policies in a sheen of respectability and moderation.
Brooks argues, wrongly, that Democratic lawmakers who oppose 20-week bans in fact support abortion up until the moment before birth, writing, “I understand that our donors (though not necessarily our voters) want to preserve a woman’s right to choose through all nine months of her pregnancy.”
This characterization is not unlike the time President Trump accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of supporting abortion “up to the moment of birth” during a debate. But abortion rights proponents don’t suggest that abortion should be legal “up to the moment of birth.” Rather, they suggest abortion should not be restricted until the point of viability, a medical standard rather than a fixed number of weeks, because it’s different for every person and every pregnancy.
Suggesting Democrats and abortion rights proponents support abortions for the full nine months of a pregnancy is a way of suggesting they support very late procedures that amount to ripping babies apart moments before they otherwise would have been born — an argument that anti-choice proponents have made for decades.
The anti-choice community has a long history of playing on American’s emotions to build support for restricting abortion, characterizing abortion providers as butchers ripping babies limb from limb out of the womb. Anti-choice advocates often refer to later-term abortions as “partial birth abortions” and “dismemberment abortions,” which aren’t medical terms at all. They’re misleading emotional ploys.
We have evidence this strategy works. 20-week abortion bans have spread across the country, and very recently almost passed both chambers of Congress.
Still, it’s curious that Brooks paints abortion as one of the driving issues of the Democratic Party. In fact, both the Democratic establishment and high profile progressives — including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) — have often bought into arguments that Democrats need to narrow their abortion policy stances.
Last spring, Sanders came under fire for supporting an anti-abortion mayoral candidate in North Dakota, arguing that he supported enough of the rest of Sanders’ vision and it was the sort of endorsement necessary if Democrats were going to become a “50-state party.” And just a few months later, the DCCC doubled down on its position not to withhold funding from Democratic candidates who oppose abortion rights.
“One of our talking points is that late-term abortions are extremely rare,” Brooks-as-the-Imaginary-Consultant writes. “If they are extremely rare, why are we giving them priority over all of our other issues combined?”
In reality, as ThinkProgress reported in August, reproductive rights activists would be overjoyed if the Democratic Party gave abortion rights protections priority over all other issues combined, but many said they felt the party was instead throwing them under the bus.
Brooks is right about at least one thing: Abortions after 20 weeks are very rare, making up only about 1.5 percent of abortions performed in the United States, according to the Guttmacher Institute. What Brooks does not consider — not even once in his column — the cases in which someone might seek an abortion past this point in their pregnancy.
Brooks expresses no empathy for a low-income person who becomes pregnant and is forced to delay an abortion while saving up enough money to afford it. He does not consider for a moment the plight of discovering serious fetal abnormalities more than 20 weeks into a pregnancy, perhaps after trying for years to have a child, and being forced to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy they desperately wanted. He does not consider what someone who finds out they are pregnant more after more than 20 weeks –especially if they who cannot afford or don’t want to keep the baby for a litany of reasons — would do.
He does not consider the life-threatening methods many of those people would resort to if they were unable to access safe later-term abortions. He does not consider how desperate a person must be to opt for a painful, multi-day surgery that costs tens of thousands of dollars. He does not consider that abortion policy does not exist in a vacuum.
American voters are capable of this nuance. A poll commissioned in 2013 on behalf of Planned Parenthood found that, when given more context about the reasons why someone may need a later abortion, most people agree they should be able to legally access the procedure. A majority of the poll respondents said they supported access to legal abortion after 20 weeks for those who would suffer health consequences if they continued the pregnancy, for those who are carrying a non-viable fetus, for those who became pregnant from rape or incest, and for those who have discovered their fetuses have severe fatal abnormalities.
A poll released just last month found that, despite arguments Democrats need to narrow their support for abortion rights in order to increase their influence nationally, 31 percent of Republicans are actually more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights, while 71 percent of Democrats said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports abortion rights. 46 percent of independents said the same.
By turning their back on abortion rights, Democrats risk losing nearly three-quarters of their voting base.
Given that evidence, perhaps the best political advice Brooks could offer to Democrats would be to double down: Prove the party values abortion rights and will always fight for them.
But, of course, Brooks didn’t actually want to offer advice to Democrats. He wanted to write a factually incorrect, misleading, dangerous anti-choice memo, and that’s what he did. And then The New York Times ran it unchecked.