The false binaries of abortion are particularly pronounced in realm of politics, where politicians are expected to clearly identify either as “pro-life” or “pro-choice.” With relatively few exceptions, the Democrats regard themselves as “pro-choice” while the Republicans consider themselves to be “pro-life.” As we’ve already seen, most Americans don’t actually fit neatly in either one of those two categories. Logically, this would mean most politicians don’t actually fit neatly these categories either, but there is tremendous pressure to on both sides to toe the party line for fear of backlash from the vocal extremists in both camps. As Perry Bacon Jr. of FiveThirtyEight explains, the dissenting voices in each party have “been disempowered” because

Each party has a bloc that dominates how its party handles the issue (conservative Christians in the GOP, women’s rights activists among Democrats). Because of the power those blocs have, being anti-abortion rights has become a part of the identity of the Republican Party, even if its voters don’t all share that stance; similarly, the Democratic Party is the pro-abortion-rights party.[1]

The matter is further complicated when each party’s actual policies are taken into consideration. In short, while the Democrats label themselves “pro-choice,” the kinds of policies they champion have proven, both in America and elsewhere, to significantly reduce abortion rates. Conversely, while the Republicans label themselves “pro-life,” on a platform level that generally means nothing more than supporting the criminalization of abortion, which, as we’ve seen, is ineffective in terms of actually reducing abortion. What’s more, again on a policy level, the Republicans often oppose the very kinds of policies and programs that have been proven to reduce abortion rates.

To give just a few brief illustrations, we know there is a direct connection between the unintended pregnancy rates and abortion rates. To state it another way, reducing unintended pregnancy reduces abortion. Fortunately, we know exactly what kinds of things reduce unintended pregnancy: access to effective contraception, comprehensive sex education for minors and strong social safety nets. There is, in fact, good reason to believe that the overall decline in worldwide abortions is directly connected to better access to contraception. Additionally, we have good evidence supporting the claim that comprehensive sex education leads to significant decreases in unintended pregnancies whereas abstinence-only sex education does not. To put it bluntly, if we want to actuallyreduce unintended pregnancy and abortion, we should be teaching people about sex and giving them free birth control. On a political level, “pro-choice” Democrats often support these measures while “pro-life” Republicans often oppose them.

Similarly, evidence suggests that there is a connection between poverty, access to quality healthcare, and abortion rates. Women in poverty seek abortion at far greater rates than women with means. Additionally, the evidence suggests that welfare programs help reduce abortion rates. In other words, there is good reason to believe that progressive social policy and strong social safety nets empower more women to choose life. Once again, “pro-choice” Democrats tend to support the kinds of social safety nets that reduce abortions while “pro-life” Republicans tend to oppose them.

This is further complicated by the fact there is good reason to believe that the Republicans have a vested interest in not overturning Roe v. Wade and criminalizing abortion. This may sound cynical, but the Republicans know that their opposition to abortion is one of the only moral planks in their platform and they use it as a hook to keep well-intentioned Christians voting Republican. As one person who works with political campaigns observed, “How are Republicans going to run on ending legal abortion if they end legal abortion?”[2]

This is more than just cynical speculation. Since the passing of Roe v. Wade, Republicans at the national level have had more than ample opportunity to criminalize abortion. At several points since 1973, Republicans have had control of some combination of the House, the Senate, the Presidency, and Supreme Court. From 2001 to 2007 (with only a brief exception), and again from 2017-2019, Republicans had control of all three branches of government. These would have been perfect times for Republicans to follow through on their promise to overturn Roe v. Wade and criminalize abortion, and yet, no such thing happened. During those times Republicans were able to add some minor restrictions to abortion, but over and over again even Republican-majority Supreme Courts have upheld Roe. The most recent example of this was in 2019, when conservative Chief Justice John Roberts provided the swing vote temporarily blocking abortion restrictions in Louisiana.

In summary, the politics of abortion is complicated. While Democrats generally self-identify as “pro-choice,” they also are more likely to advocate for and enact policies that actually reduce abortions. On the other hand, while Republicans generally self-identify as “pro-life,” they generally oppose policies that actually reduce abortions and instead advocate only for the criminalization of abortion. Furthermore, there is good reason to believe that Republican establishment has a vested interest in not criminalizing abortion since it’s such an effective hook to keep well-meaning Christians voting Republican.


[1] Perry Bacon Jr., “The Abortion Debate Isn’t As Partisan As Politicians Make It Seem,” FiveThirtyEight, June 10, 2018, https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-abortion-debate-isnt-as-partisan-as-politicians-make-it-seem/

[2] Twitter user @acmills237, August 23, 2018, https://twitter.com/acmills237/status/1032829247818289153