During the most recent round of Democratic party debates, abortion was noticeably the dog that didn’t bark in the night.
On Tuesday, the subject, which a third of voters rate as either “the most important” or a “very important” issue in the 2020 election, did not feature at all. Even Planned Parenthood, the nation’s preeminent abortion provider, denounced the silence.
“As the American people decide their vote, they deserve to hear about the candidates’ visions for how they will protect and expand access to abortion,” Planned Parenthood tweeted. But with more than a third of Democrats identifying as pro-life, and 47 percent of voters under forty-five doing the same, the reticence is understandable.
Wednesday’s debate did not quite feature the a-word, but Sen. Kamala Harris did take aim at Joe Biden for his recent reversals on the subject. It is, Harris noted, “only since… running for president this time” that Biden has reversed his decades-long support for the Hyde Amendment and indicated he would support federal legislation to entrench Roe v. Wade, a decision he had previously said “went too far.” “Do you now say that you have evolved and you regret that?” Harris demanded.
For years, Biden held the line that while he did believe abortion should be legal, he did not think those opposed to it should pay for it. Now, as Harris observed, he has bowed to the political reality that you cannot be a viable candidate for the Democratic nomination unless you are all-in for abortion; no exceptions, no reservations. But even that is not enough.
In calling out Biden’s reversal as pragmatic opportunism, Harris illustrated that acceptable support for abortion cannot be merely practical. If, as the abortion sloganeers have it, the goal is to keep our rosaries off their ovaries, Biden’s past position should have been fine—and it was for a long while. His recent concession that abortion should be funded by the taxpayer and carved into federal law—whatever his or anyone else’s personal reservations on unrestricted abortion may be—ought to have been hailed as a great victory for the abortionists’ cause, and Biden’s example held up to pro-lifers as the model to follow. “See?” they ought to have said, “Believe whatever you like, just give us what we want.”
But what Harris wants to know is not whether Biden has changed his policy position. She wants to know: Does he “regret” his past opposition, has his thinking sufficiently “evolved”? Does he repent of his errors? Is he now a true believer?
There is progressive political capital to be made from teasing out that Biden might not have his whole heart in abortion as a positive good in itself—because supporting abortion isn’t about legal freedom, it is about professing the faith. It is not enough that he toe the policy line, he must renounce his past heresy, show repentance, and cleave to the liberal magisterium.
The irony is, of course, that before being allowed to ask for the votes of the country at large, Biden has been made to embrace a thoroughly minority position, even in the most pro-choice states. Earlier this year, New York passed one of the most extreme abortion bills ever to make it onto the statute books, allowing abortion on demand at any point of pregnancy—despite 70 percent of New York Democrats opposing abortion after 20 weeks.
Many contend that culture sits upstream of politics, that in a democracy the views of the people will eventually filter through to those in office and be reflected in the national political settlement. But, as poll after poll shows the country becoming more pro-life (in April, Rasmussen put support for heartbeat bills at 56 percent), at least half of the nation’s politicians are headed in the other direction.
The hardening of the progressive line, and the shift from political manifesto to dogmatic creed, are not unrelated to this trend. On abortion, same-sex marriage, and transgender issues, the progressives have steadily evolved—first demanding acceptance, then accommodation, then positive affirmation. What people can be left to accept today, despite their personal reservations, they might reject tomorrow; what they can be made to profess as good in itself they cannot so easily reverse.
As the cultural sands shift, the liberal political elite are attempting to pour a new cultural foundation while they still have time, using the machinery of politics to compel belief, conversion, and repentance for past errors. As Biden found out Wednesday night, in the current culture war, the battle is not just for our laws but for our souls. The culture of death will accept no truce; only unconditional surrender will do.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and DC bureau chief for Catholic News Agency.