How to turn abortion into a wedge issue

Posted on June 29, 2022

Pundits and optimists believe the abortion issue will energize Democrats in upcoming elections. Well, it should. But it’s not going to happen without a lot of legwork from progressives at the state and local levels.

The problem with the issue of abortion rights is that average Americans hardly understand how the legalities work. For decades, mainstream pollsters have done a terrible job measuring  the abortion issue because their questions have been based on the idea that voters know what’s going on. They don’t.

(For example, even you, something of a policy wonk, don’t know what will, in reality, happen as a result of the Supreme Court’s ruling. Just take a look at today’s edition of the PLI Repro Rights Report! Average persuadable voters do not understand any of it.)

We cannot win on the abortion issue without framing it to our advantage. We must proactively shape the debate so that conservatives are forced to defend extremely unpopular, easily understandable policies. And then, we have to compel individual lawmakers and candidates to publicly disclose their positions. Let’s discuss these in turn.

Creating a wedge issue

For years, conservatives used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like criminalizing flag burning, cutting “welfare,” and (until recent years) banning same-sex marriage.

On the issue of abortion, conservatives spent decades promoting a series of fairly popular half-measures, including waiting periods, clinic restrictions, and ratcheting down the number of weeks when abortion is permitted. Until recently, conservatives also avoided bans that apply to rape and incest, and they assured voters they’d never penalize a woman who gets an abortion, limiting penalties to providers. As a result, there’s been little opportunity to energize average Americans in opposition to them.

The Supreme Court decision changes all that. Instead of the right-wing selecting the issue, it is our turn. But understand, it won’t happen by itself. Our side has to attack specific selected abortion policies.

The most obvious way to frame this issue is to insist that conservatives have or will make abortion illegal in all or virtually all cases. Why say this, aside from the fact that it’s true? Because it’s a wildly unpopular position. Three recent polls all show that only about ten percent of Americans support making abortion illegal in all circumstances. Put another way, every voter who has even the slightest chance of being persuadable in 2022 is on our side.

One specific detail to press is whether abortion should be illegal in case of rape or incest. If conservatives support an exception allowing abortion, they are hypocrites (so, a fetus isn’t a person after all?), if they oppose all exceptions, they are monsters (so, you’re going to require women to carry a rapist’s fetus to childbirth?)

Getting individual conservatives on the record

If we attack conservatives or Republicans generally, it won’t necessarily affect individual elections. Voters tend to disbelieve. Our side has to push conservative candidates, one-by-one, to disclose specific positions on abortion policy.

(1) Does a candidate support banning abortion under all circumstances? How about rape and incest? How about life or health of the mother, and how is that proven?

(2) Does the candidate believe that life begins at conception? If so, how do they explain support for any exceptions that allow abortion? Further, if so, are they against any particular form of contraception?

(3) Does the candidate support criminal or civil penalties against a woman who gets an abortion? How about penalties against those who get an abortion out-of-state? If life begins at conception, do they consider abortion murder and, if so, would they support charging such women as murderers?

(4) Does the candidate support criminal or civil penalties against someone who helps another person get an abortion? How about someone who drives that person out-of-state or someone who provides money for a woman to travel out-of-state?

Right now, these are the real policy questions. Politically, there are very few conservative candidates who can or will moderate their positions on abortion. And at this time, those candidates are simply not prepared with smooth answers. So press them, and soon.

Ideally, some or all of these questions should be asked while the candidate is being videotaped. A cellphone recording will do—it’s both easy and discrete. The advantage of a video is that it speaks for itself and can be used in every type of political communications. Second best is to get a reporter to ask the questions and publish the answers.

In sum, abortion rights advocates and activists have an opportunity. Abortion can increase turnout and it can swing persuadable voters, but only if our side pursues right-wing candidates aggressively and publicizes their positions effectively.