In the wake of the Dobbs decision overturning the Constitutional right to abortion, the future of politics looks more and more like a nonstop referendum on the topic at every single level of government, with enormous stakes each election.
But what if it didn't have to be like that? That's the case Michael Wear — faith outreach director under President Obama — has been making to Democrats and Republicans alike in recent weeks.
Wear is an unusual figure in that he's a Democrat with extensive experience trying to bridge the gap between social conservatives and progressives on abortion. In his newsletter Reclaiming Hope, he tried to imagine what a national compromise might look like post-Dobbs:
A sustainable compromise would include the following elements: a federal ban on abortion post-viability with exceptions for the life of the mother, rape and incest (the ceiling); the legalization of abortion up to a certain early-stage in a pregnancy (somewhere, perhaps, between eight-fifteen weeks, depending on the makeup of the coalition to support such a bill; the floor); the codification of the Hyde Amendment; the codification of robust conscience clause protections; a prohibition of federal laws overriding state restrictions on abortion as proposed by the WHPA; and a mandate that states ensure reasonable access to a safe abortion provider.Michael Wear
We talked to Wear about what he thinks Democrats and Republicans have to gain by potentially making some difficult concessions on abortion. Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
Q: You're coming into this abortion debate as someone who has ties to religious conservatives and Democratic politics, tell us about your own personal stance on abortion?
Wear: My role for President Obama both in the White House, and on the campaign, was religious outreach. I’m a Christian myself and I have firm views about the dignity of life as a principle.
I’ve seen the ways in which I think it’s possible to build bridges on these issues. I think I’ve been a part of the way in which Democrats can address these issues successfully, politically.
In May of 2009, President Obama gave a speech at Notre Dame, where he called for reducing the number of women seeking abortions in this country. That set off a multi-year policy process that I was a part of to try and seek common ground.
The President was always very clear he supported Roe. But he thought that there were a number of ways that we could come together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions such as supporting maternal health, strengthening adoption, and providing workplace protections and flexibility for women and families.
Q: Obama said in that 2009 speech that, "at some level, the views of the two camps are irreconcilable." Why do you think there's a chance for a durable compromise?
Wear: What the American electorate seems to want, a significant majority, is access to abortion, particularly during the first trimester, and increasing restrictions beyond that.
Additionally, the average American tends to think that abortion is a morally meaningful choice. That it is not something that should be sort of celebrated or incentivized, but, in the words of Jimmy Carter, in the words of Barack Obama, in the words of Joe Biden, it’s "tragic." Carter, when he was running in '76, said it was "wrong."
The Democratic Party since 2014 or so has not been in that place of openness to restrictions and has not been in that place of expressing serious moral reservations about abortion. Instead, it's one that's driven by the pro-choice groups where it’s very important to say that what’s needed if we’re to protect abortion rights is to make no apologies, is to provide no sort of place of nuance or reservation about the good of not just abortion rights, but abortion itself.
Q: A lot of Democratic politics on this issue seem to operate from the assumption that voters have fully sorted themselves on abortion. You see the record numbers Trump got with evangelicals while promising “pro-life” judges, even with a famously un-Christian personal life.
Wear: This is not just white conservative evangelicals. I mean, you’ve got to look at the Democratic base. And the polling is clear, there continues to be a significant minority of Democratic base voters who have, at the very least, reservations about abortion.
Part of this is about whether Democrats will rely on the fact that, particularly Black and Hispanic Protestants, have “no other place to go,” which I think we’ve seen is not true. The operating assumption seems to be these constituencies have ”no other place to go,” so they don’t need to be represented in the Democratic platform and in how Democrats approach this issue, because they’re driven to the Democratic Party by other issues. I think that’s not been the case.
Q: What do you think would be the motive for Republicans to cut some kind of national deal?
Wear: In my essay, I talked about a conversation I had in the last few weeks with a longtime senior Democratic policymaker, who pointed out to me after the Dobbs hearing, that in the 90s, the Democrats had an opportunity to codify Roe. They had the White House, they had control of Congress, and and the reason why talks fell apart among Democrats was that they couldn't agree on whether or not to include restrictions like parental notifications to alleviate concerns that moderates had.
I doubt that there will be a pro-choice activist in the country who would look back, even if they were actively shooting down such an agreement then, and not wish that they had taken that agreement.
So the argument for Republicans is that the opportunity to secure pro-life protections is at the highest point that it's been in almost 50 years. Republicans potentially would have the ability to lock in national pro-life laws that would have been unthinkable a year ago. The argument would be that if they don't make a deal now, they may look look back in three years, five years, and see that they have lost everything.
Q: Do you think it might take several election cycles of candidates on one or both sides suffering significant losses in races that are focused on this issue before either side thinks there's a reason to come to the table?
Wear: I think that is the most likely outcome. I think we have a fluid sort of policy regime around abortion that is overturned by elections. And I think we have a significant portion of the electorate that is locked in to vote for one party or the other because of this issue.
My piece says, yes, that may be what it ends up having to look like. Might we have a conversation about avoiding that?