I’m a liberal Democrat, and I’m a strong supporter of abortion rights. But I also support restrictions on the procedure.
You know, like the ones allowed by Roe v. Wade.
If you listened to our Republican opponents during the past few weeks, when Alabama all but prohibited abortion and several other states banned it after a heartbeat is detected, you might think that we Democrats want it to be entirely unregulated. We’re allegedly “the party of death,” ready and eager to protect “infanticide” at all costs.
That’s a lie, of course, but we’ve done a very poor job of correcting it. It won’t do to reply that late-term abortions are exceedingly rare, and that no mother in her right mind wants to execute her baby, which have been the most common Democratic refrains.
Nor will it suffice to say we stand in defense of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court's landmark 1973 decision on abortion. Just saying “I support Roe” reinforces another false narrative of our foes: that Roe, like its decadent Democratic advocates, protects abortion in each and every case.
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But it doesn’t. It does safeguard the right to abortion during the first trimester of pregnancy, which is precisely what the new state measures in Alabama and elsewhere are trying to undo. During the second trimester, Roe says, states can regulate abortion — but not ban it — to protect the mother’s health. And in the third trimester, states can prohibit abortion to protect a fetus that could survive on its own outside the womb, unless the mother's health or life is at stake.
So while Roe does establish the right to abortion in certain circumstances, it also allows for the restriction of it in others. But you’d never know that by listening to the ever growing corps of Democratic presidential candidates, who speak only about the first part and nothing about the second.
Democrats are not the 'party of death'
This plays right into the hands of our GOP foes, who would like nothing better than to depict us as the champions of “abortion on demand.” In the same breath as they support abortion rights, every Democratic presidential hopeful should also say how they would restrict it.
And remember, almost all of our states do that already. Seventeen states ban abortion when a fetus is viable outside the womb, although six make exceptions for cases of rape and incest, threats to the mother's health or fetal abnormality. Six more states prohibit abortion after 24 weeks of gestation, and 19 bar it after 20 weeks.
Reasonable people can and do disagree about these limits. But no right is absolute. You have the right to free speech, but you can't shout fire in a crowded theater. And you have the right to abortion, but you generally can't have one in your last trimester.
We weaken our case when we ignore or downplay that fact. And we also risk alienating big swaths of the electorate, who support abortion rights but also favor restrictions on them.
If you think otherwise, have a look at the 2018 Gallup poll on the subject. Six of 10 Americans say abortion should be legal in the first three months of pregnancy. But support for abortion rights drops to 28% for abortions conducted in the second trimester, and all the way down to 13% for abortions in the third one.
Restrictions on abortion are popular
In other words, Americans strongly endorse the general framework laid down by Roe v. Wade 46 years ago. Democrats often note the popularity of Roe, but only with respect to the rights it guarantees. They usually omit the part about the restrictions it permits, which are also very popular.
That’s a huge mistake, especially now. With the right to abortion under existential peril in many parts of the country, it’s tempting to rally around "choice" — our other favorite mantra — and to leave it at that. Any mention of restriction seems to echo the people who want to ban abortion altogether.
But keeping quiet on this front actually reinforces the threat to Roe, because it lets our opponents misconstrue what we — and most Americans — believe.
So I’ve got a modest suggestion for every Democratic presidential candidate: Release a statement about the conditions under which you think abortion should be permitted and prohibited, and explain both.
And for the rest of us, here’s a new slogan to display on our T-shirts, car bumpers and everywhere else: "I support the right to abortion. I support restrictions on abortion. I support Roe v. Wade."
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.”
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: How Democrats can win the abortion war: Talk about Roe's restrictions as well as rights