Meanwhile, Democrats have also become more uniform in their positions on the issue. In 2009, nearly a quarter of House Democrats joined with Republicans to pass an amendment that would have banned funding of abortion under the Affordable Care Act except in cases of rape, incest or where the pregnant woman’s life is endangered. While the amendment was later dropped, President Barack Obama subsequently signed a 2010 executive order stipulating that federal funds would not be used for abortion by the newly created health insurance exchanges.
Even as recently as 2017, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — then the minority leader — said support for abortion rights should not be a litmus test for candidates running under the Democratic banner. “I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland; in Little Italy; in a very devout Catholic family; fiercely patriotic; proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she said. “Most of those people — my family, extended family — are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”
Today, in 2022, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) is arguably the last antiabortion Democrat in the House. Last year, he was the only member of his party in the chamber to vote against codifying Roe v. Wade into law.
With the growing likelihood that the Supreme Court will overturn that landmark decision — heightened by the leak last week of a draft opinion doing so, which was authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. — Cuellar’s position has become a flash point in his tight May 24 runoff against his more liberal challenger, Jessica Cisneros. Citing Cuellar’s stance on abortion, Cisneros has called upon the House Democratic leadership to drop its support for Cuellar — support that is practically automatic when any incumbent faces an opponent within the party.
In the March primary, Cuellar finished fewer than 1,000 votes ahead of Cisneros, with neither of them reaching the required 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Texas insiders I have talked to believe that Cuellar is slightly favored in the contest. Runoff elections typically draw scant turnout, and voters who show up tend to be older and more conservative. However, Cuellar’s prospects might be complicated by a January FBI raid on his Laredo home, reportedly in connection with an investigation relating to Azerbaijan. (His lawyer has said he is not a target of the probe.)
What gets obscured in races such as the Texas runoff, however, is that neither party’s ironclad absolutism reflects where most Americans are when it comes to abortion. For most people, it is not a binary question. Solid majorities consistently support having the procedure available in most circumstances, especially early in a pregnancy, which is when the majority of abortions occur. But they also support some restrictions, particularly as a fetus comes closer to viability. They further in other limits — such as requiring providers in most circumstances to get the consent of a parent or guardian before performing an abortion on a minor.
All of this speaks to why our polarized political system is certain to fail in a post-Roe world. Returning the abortion question to individual states to decide — as would happen if Roe is overturned — would not lead to more reasoned debate and consensus, as Alito predicted in his draft opinion. Instead, it is certain to further inflame the issue, and produce a country in which a woman’s right and access to abortion are determined primarily by where she lives and whether she has financial resources.
Long gone are the days when Bill Clinton could thread the political needle with his declaration that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” As taking a position on abortion has increasingly become a partisan signifier, rather than a moral or ethical or religious choice, it has grown all but impossible for politicians to have nuanced discussions around the subject, or for either side to have any incentive to seek common ground.
Nonetheless, most Americans know that ground is out there, somewhere in the middle. They have been there all along.