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Why both Democrats and Republicans made big changes to their abortion platforms this year

Hillary Clinton Addresses Planned Parenthood Action Fund Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have now officially ratified their 2016 platforms. It’s not surprising that they would endorse very different priorities on reproductive rights — but this year, both parties included an abortion plank in their platforms that was unprecedented.

For the first time, the Democratic platform specifically calls to allow federal tax dollars to cover abortion after a 40-year ban, by repealing the Hyde amendment. It also calls for the repeal of the Helms amendment, which bans foreign aid from funding abortion.

The Democratic platform also mentioned protecting Planned Parenthood from GOP defunding efforts, which isn’t new. But what is new is that the GOP platform mentions Planned Parenthood by name — and specifically references the discredited allegations against the organization that were made in a series of anti-abortion videos last year.

The Democratic pledge to repeal Hyde and Helms is a big deal

The Democratic party platform has long supported women’s right to choose abortion, in accordance with Roe v. Wade and "regardless of ability to pay." But the Hyde amendment, which passed in 1976 and banned federal funds from covering abortion, has long been considered a sort of third rail in politics — a reasonable compromise between abortion foes and abortion rights supporters that couldn’t realistically be undone.

The idea of "no taxpayer funding for abortion" has become not just a pro-life rallying cry, but also a standard pro-choice concession. When Republicans attack federal funding for Planned Parenthood, for instance, many Democrats are still quick to point out that none of those funds actually cover abortion because of the Hyde amendment.

Reproductive rights advocates tell a different story, pointing out that Hyde harms poor women in particular because poor women are more likely to rely on public funding for their health care.

But it wasn’t until recently that many Democrats started integrating that story into their own rhetoric and policy proposals. Over the last few years in particular, grassroots advocates and coalitions like All Above All have been pushing pro-choice Democrats to change their tune on the Hyde amendment.

Advocates have also been pushing recently to repeal or at least "fix" the Helms amendment, which covers foreign aid and which has no exceptions for rape, incest, or life endangerment as it’s currently interpreted. (The Hyde amendment does allow these three exceptions, although they don’t work very well in practice.) President Barack Obama could have changed the interpretation of Helms himself, but he hasn’t done so during eight years in office — much to the frustration of advocates.

So it was a big deal when Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both came out in support of repealing both Hyde and Helms during the 2016 Democratic primary, and when the Democratic Party did the same in its platform.

The 2016 platform also features a robust case for reproductive justice, including the right to access abortion:

We believe unequivocally, like the majority of Americans, that every woman should have access to quality reproductive health care services, including safe and legal abortion — regardless of where she lives, how much money she makes, or how she is insured. We believe that reproductive health is core to women’s, men’s, and young people’s health and wellbeing. … We condemn and will combat any acts of violence, harassment, and intimidation of reproductive health providers, patients, and staff. …

We will address the discrimination and barriers that inhibit meaningful access to reproductive health care services, including those based on gender, sexuality, race, income, disability, and other factors. … And we strongly and unequivocally support a woman’s decision to have a child, including by ensuring a safe and healthy pregnancy and childbirth, and by providing services during pregnancy and after the birth of a child, including adoption and social support services, as well as protections for women against pregnancy discrimination.

"For the first time ever, the Democratic party has recognized that comprehensive reproductive health care — including safe, legal abortion — is central to its platform," said Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, in a statement.

Planned Parenthood has become a singular focus of the GOP’s anti-abortion efforts

"We oppose the use of public funds to perform or promote abortion or to fund organizations, like Planned Parenthood, so long as they provide or refer for elective abortions or sell fetal body parts rather than provide health care," the 2016 GOP platform says. "We urge all states and Congress to make it a crime to acquire, transfer, or sell fetal tissues from elective abortions for research, and we call on Congress to enact a ban on any sale of fetal body parts."

No state or federal investigations thus far, even those led by anti-abortion officials like Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, have found evidence that Planned Parenthood did anything illegal or that it "[sold] fetal body parts."

But that hasn’t stopped House Republicans from holding endless investigations into the matter, which critics have called a "witch hunt." It also hasn’t stopped numerous states from passing laws aimed at restricting fetal tissue donation — which is legal, and which is part of important research that could cure diseases from Alzheimer’s to Zika.

The Republican platform has long called for a constitutional amendment that would give full "personhood" rights to fetuses at any stage of development, and this year was no different. But because this amendment would effectively outlaw abortion and many forms of contraception, it’s extreme enough that even conservative states like Mississippi have repeatedly rejected similar measures at the ballot box.

Many social conservatives understand how difficult it would be in practice to totally ban abortion in America. That’s one reason that they’ve focused on funding bans — like Hyde and Helms, as well as trying to defund Planned Parenthood — that have already proven effective at restricting legal abortion access.

Pro-life advocates have made Planned Parenthood a symbol for what they call the "abortion industry" — the heartless corporate interests that don’t care about women and are just in it for the profit. Mainstream anti-abortion advocates tend to avoid demonizing the women who have abortions, but they do tend to demonize abortion providers and push abortion restrictions that threaten doctors with criminal penalties.

Planned Parenthood is the nation’s largest and most visible abortion provider, so it also makes an enticing target for propaganda operations like last summer’s sting videos.

Most Americans are less polarized in their attitudes toward abortion than the two major parties

As Vox polls have found, when you give Americans the chance to identify as pro-choice, pro-life, both, or neither, more people will choose both or neither than will choose either pro-choice or pro-life. People are also more supportive of abortion rights when the questions are framed in a way that focuses on the woman’s experience.

This helps to explain why, as Vox’s and other polling shows, most Americans don’t want to make abortion illegal by overturning Roe v. Wade — even though major pollsters like Gallup have shown a pretty consistent and even split between Americans who identity as pro-choice or pro-life.

Many Americans, including Hillary Clinton’s vice presidential nominee, Tim Kaine, have moral issues with abortion on a personal level — but still believe it should be legal and accessible for the women who need it.

So it seems pretty clear that most of the American public wouldn’t support the kind of personhood amendment proposed in the GOP platform.

Attitudes toward public funding of abortion, which the Democratic platform addressed, seem more conflicted. A 2009 CNN poll found that 61 percent of Americans opposed public funding for abortions for women who can’t afford them. Yet a majority of Americans (55 percent) who responded to this year’s Vox abortion poll said they thought Medicaid restrictions presented an "undue burden" on women. A majority (56 percent) also said they’d support Medicaid coverage of all reproductive health care, including abortion, in a 2015 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates.

So while it might depend on how the issue is framed, it’s possible that the American public would support the Democratic Party’s proposal to restore public funding for abortion for low-income women.