Coined by Bill Clinton, the phrase was an inspired way to bring together a range of abortion supporters under a now-abandoned umbrella.
Did it come to him all at once, in a flash of inspiration? Or was it the final, elegant iteration of ideas he’d been trying to compress into a single phrase for months? He surely never imagined that it would become the credo of millions. When Bill Clinton gave the country “safe, legal, and rare” in 1992, it was meant only to be a bit of political business, a workaround. But those five syllables didn’t just get him out of a problem. They translated into language the inchoate sentiments of millions of Americans so exactly that they had to hear it only once for it to become their firmly held position on abortion.
Now, after a quarter century of mighty service, of what President Barack Obama would have called “coalition building,” the phrase is being vigorously expunged from the pro-abortion-rights conversation, including from the plank of the Democratic Party (in 2012) and the official position of Planned Parenthood. Representative Tulsi Gabbard discovered this change of heart in the October debate, when she evoked Clinton’s famous phrase and was pilloried for it. Young feminists living in the age of dwindling access to abortion aren’t interested in a mantra that implies there is something shameful about the procedure, even if it has kept many people in the pro-choice tent. In the present state of American politics, compromise—even the rhetoric of compromise—is understood as appeasement, and we seem to have decided that it is better to risk losing everything that to give an inch.