The Magazine

A Viable Political Strategy?

Democrats embrace late-term abortion at their peril.

Aug 5, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 44 • By JOHN MCCORMACK
Widget tooltip
Audio version Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The national limit on late-term abortion passed by the House of Representatives in June is a losing issue for Republicans, according to the conventional wisdom in the press and the Republican donor class. But there are two compelling reasons why the conventional wisdom is wrong.

Wait, 20 weeks is midterm, right?

Wait, 20 weeks is midterm, right?


First, nationwide polls indicate that Americans support a ban on late-term abortions. A Washington Post/ABC survey shows that by 64 percent to 28 percent, Americans favor limiting abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy or earlier. A Huffington Post/YouGov poll similarly found that by 2-to-1 (59 percent to 30 percent) Americans support banning almost all abortions after the twentieth week of gestation. “One of the clearest messages from Gallup trends is that Americans oppose late-term abortion,” according to a report by the polling firm in May. A National Journal survey found a smaller majority of women (50 percent to 44 percent) and independents (53 percent to 39 percent) support the late-term ban. But the measure still garnered “plurality support across all income levels and even fared well in the suburbs.”

Second, the 10 most competitive 2014 Senate races are almost all in red states that are more conservative than the country as a whole. Of these 10 seats, 2 are held by Republicans (Kentucky and Georgia), 4 are held by retiring Democrats (West Virginia, South Dakota, Iowa, and Montana), and 4 are held by Democrats seeking reelection (Louisiana, Arkansas, Alaska, and North Carolina). Backing late-term abortion could be toxic for candidates in some of these states.

While walking between meetings and votes on July 16 and July 18 in the Capitol, the four red-state Democratic senators seeking reelection in 2014 commented on the proposed national late-term abortion limit for the first time, to The Weekly Standard. Both Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Begich of Alaska said they would vote against the House bill if it comes up for a vote in the Senate.

“I always wait to see legislation, to see exactly what it says, but I would oppose that,” Hagan told me. “Yes,” Begich replied when asked if he’d vote against the bill banning late-term abortions except in the cases of rape, incest, or when a health problem endangers the mother’s life. “I’m pro-choice,” he said.

But Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, two Democrats who voted for the 2003 partial-birth abortion ban, said they didn’t know how they would vote. “I’ll have to look at it. I haven’t focused on it,” Pryor told me.

“I’m going to look at it. I’ve voted to end late-term abortions,” Landrieu said, referring to her vote for the partial-birth abortion ban.

“I do support, you know, the current constitutional outline which provides for decisions to be made which are very private in, you know, the early stages of pregnancy,” Landrieu continued. “So I’m going to have to look at that bill and make a decision. I’ve opposed late-term abortion, but 20 weeks is midterm.”

Self-identified pro-life Democratic senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Joe Donnelly of Indiana didn’t say how they’d vote. North Dakota senator Heidi Heitkamp said during the 2012 campaign that she believes “late-term abortions should be illegal except when necessary to save the life of the mother,” but she too declined to take a position on the House bill.

Senate Democratic leaders have sent conflicting messages about whether they will allow a vote on a late-term abortion bill, and a Senate version of the House bill hasn’t been introduced yet. But if it does come up for a vote, it will force senators like Pryor and Landrieu to make a tough choice: Vote “yes” and anger the most powerful Democratic interest group or vote “no” and put themselves at odds with a clear majority of voters.

“You can’t get much more radical than opposing legislation that would protect women and babies from brutal late-term abortion beyond the fifth month of pregnancy,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List. “Not only is opposing this common-ground measure a moral mistake, it is a political one as well, especially for vulnerable senators in solid pro-life states.”

“That senators like Mary Landrieu would even hesitate to affirm this modest legislation shows just how beholden to the abortion industry many in the Senate have become,” adds Dannenfelser, whose organization spent $11 million on the 2010 midterm elections. “As the 2014 elections approach, we will be working to ensure that constituents understand just how outside the mainstream these four senators have become.”

If Landrieu decides to vote against the bill, she will have a very hard time arguing that abortions performed later than 20 weeks after conception are not late-term. At that point in pregnancy, a baby is physically developed enough to feel pain, and some can survive outside the womb.

“I’m here because it’s easy for me to imagine these babies at 20 to 24 weeks post-fertilization age, because they are my patients in the [neonatal intensive care unit],” Dr. Colleen Malloy of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine testified before Congress in 2012. “You can see the detail in the face,” she said, showing a picture of an ultrasound. “You can see the movements—the 4D ultrasound images that we have now are real time images of babies kicking, moving, sucking their thumb—doing all the things babies do.”

Contrary to Landrieu’s assertion, the partial-birth abortion ban didn’t actually ban abortions based on the gestational age of the baby, but rather its location. It banned a particular procedure used in some second- and third-trimester abortions in which the baby is first delivered breech past the navel before its skull is crushed by the abortionist. The late New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it “too close to infanticide.” The bill passed in 2003 with the votes of 17 Democratic senators, including Joe Biden and Harry Reid, and was signed by President Bush. But the law did not prohibit other late-term abortion procedures, such as dismemberment and lethal injection.

In light of the trial of Philadelphia doctor Kermit Gosnell, pro-lifers and even some pro-choice writers like Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson and the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker have argued that there isn’t really a significant difference between killing a 23-week-old baby outside the womb, an act that constitutes murder under the law, and killing her inside the womb for any reason, which is perfectly legal in most states.

And some of the most prominent defenders of abortion rights, including Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, have been unable to explain why the acts committed by Dr. Gosnell constituted murder but killing the same babies moments before birth must remain legal. “This is sacred ground,” Pelosi said, dodging the question a third and final time at a press conference in June.

When asked about the difference between infanticide and late-term abortion, Richards pointed to cases in which the baby is suffering from severe disabilities, effectively making an argument for fetal euthanasia. But when asked about late-term abortions on healthy babies, she walked away without even trying to make an argument.

There are likely thousands, if not tens of thousands, of elective late-term abortions performed every year in the United States. “Diana Greene Foster, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology [at] the University of California, San Francisco, co-authored a forthcoming paper looking at more than 200 women who had abortions after 20 weeks for nonmedical reasons,” writes Michelle Goldberg in the Daily Beast. “According to Foster, two-thirds of them were delayed while they tried to raise money to pay for a termination. Twelve percent were teenagers, some of whom went months without realizing they were pregnant.”

Foster examined what happened to women who had wanted a late-term abortion but missed their clinic’s self-imposed deadline. “About 5 percent of the women, after they have had the baby, still wish they hadn’t. And the rest of them adjust,” Foster told the New York Times.

The abortion issue was not a winning issue for Republicans in 2012 because Democrats, the press, and Republican gaffes focused attention on abortion in the case of rape, which Americans overwhelmingly think should be legal. But when the debate was focused on taxpayer-funding of abortion under Obamacare, as it was in 2010, or partial-birth abortion, as it was in 2004, it was a winning issue for the pro-life side.

“Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies,” Democratic operative Donna Brazile told the New York Times after the 2004 election. Abortion was an issue that “put us into the extreme and not the mainstream.”

In every election from 1996 to 2012, Gallup found that the pro-life side has had a two-point advantage over the pro-choice side among voters who say “they would only vote for candidates who share their views on abortion.” The exception is 2004, the year after the partial-birth abortion ban became law, when the pro-life side had a seven-point advantage. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that 2004 was the only time in the past two decades when a Republican presidential candidate won the popular vote.

The extent to which the late-term abortion issue can reshape the abortion debate in favor of pro-lifers, as the partial-birth abortion debate did, depends in part on whether Republican candidates actually make an argument. In 1997, Gallup found that Americans backed a partial-birth abortion ban by a 15-point margin (55 percent to 40 percent). But in 2003, the margin of support had grown to 45 points (70 percent to 25 percent). Debate can and does change opinions.

In the wake of the damaging comments on abortion made by Missouri and Indiana Senate candidates in 2012, Republican consultants and aides privately say that many GOP politicians are still skittish and don’t want to talk about the issue at all. But silence is simply copying the Romney campaign’s unsuccessful playbook. 

In 2012, roughly 10 percent of the Obama campaign’s TV ads were on abortion. Many of the ads falsely claimed Romney favored banning abortion in the case of rape, and the Romney campaign’s only response was to run a few ads informing voters that Romney did support that exception—without ever attacking Obama’s extremism on the issue. The real lesson of the 2012 election and the Romney campaign is that it’s hard to win an argument if you aren’t willing to make an argument.

John McCormack is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers