04 December 2005

Abortive Politicking

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

Following the Democrats’ second-wave loss in 2004 – losing the race for the presidency and gaining no ground in Congressional seats – many articles and authors began to suggest that for the Democrats to regain momentum in the future, they would need (among other things) to “get religion,” and begin to acknowledge that there are socially and politically acceptable “liberal” perspectives on abortion other than simply being firmly for its unfettered access.1 It was an intelligent suggestion, a nuanced acknowledgment of both the divisions within the Democratic party and the varied perspectives of many Americans (regardless of party). However, as we have seen from the confirmation hearings for Chief Justice John Roberts, and in the building discussions around Harriet Miers and Samuel Alito, the Democrats seem to have rejected the idea; instead, Democrats are doing everything they can to make blind abortion politics central to the party’s approach once again.

This is a mistake. One obvious reason why this is wrong-headed are the very real divisions on the issue. Reasonable people should be able to agree that abortion is bad – which is to say, that no one should wish the need for or act of an abortion on any woman. Regardless of whether one believes in life-at-conception, or takes a more distanced view of the fetus as subservient to the woman bearing it, an abortion is a serious and invasive medical procedure and not one to be pursued lightly. Moreover, more effective sex education – pairing the idealistic goal of abstinence with a realistic acceptance that people do have sex and should “protect” themselves – might help reduce the need for abortions by reducing unwanted pregnancies in the first place. Were Democrats to admit more openly that all this is true – in effect, to take the battle for abortion beyond the currently-limited view, and to accept that people who find the idea of abortion troubling may not be inherently bad people – they might be more successful politically, and attract conservative values voters who are put off by the party’s un-nuanced insistence on unfettered access to abortion services. Senator Hillary Clinton has been among the most vocal proponents of this approach, one that should be picked up and more widely emulated by other Democrats.

Stuck In A Moment

Instead, the traditional Democratic approach remains the current one, and it can be seen most clearly in Congress, in the discussions around Supreme Court appointments and the question of whether any new Justice will form a majority that rejects Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that established (weakly) a Constitutional right to abortion. To be sure, the Democrats are not alone; the Republicans have made abortion as much of an issue as anyone. The lefty perspective seems to be that fire must be met with fire: for each realization that a nominee personally favors restrictions on abortion, there must be an admission that, according to the principle of respect for legal precedent, the law behind Roe v. Wade is well-established and therefore not to be questioned. From Roberts to Miers to Alito, unless readers go beyond the headlines to seek out information about these nominees’ other perspectives on the law, one might assume that this is the single most important issue Constitutional issue around.

There are a number of reasons for this blindness. One mis-perception played on most heavily by the left is that a reversal of the Roe v. Wade decision means the end of abortion access in the United States. This simply is not true. The famous Supreme Court decision established that abortion is considered a right at a Federal level, reducing the ability of the states to legislate how and under what circumstances it is performed in their own realm. But over-turning this (poorly-grounded) Supreme Court decision only means that the states would once again have the ability to make more of their own decisions about abortion writ-large. The likely result is that some states certainly would pass laws blocking most or all abortion services – and many others would not; conservative states might adopt restrictive legislation, liberal ones may not. While this is unquestionably not beneficial to women in conservative states who need an abortion, and will have broad social consequences for many Americans, it simply does not represent the whole-sale banning of abortion access that Democrats lead people to believe will occur of the Roe v. Wade precedent is overturned.

But What About...

More to the point, the Democratic obsession with abortion undermines the party’s success on other issues – and in particular seems to cloud the judgment of how to handle Supreme Court nominees on these points. Of the many issues that may be before the Court in the coming years, questions about the erosion of basic freedoms and liberties (as represented by the USA Patriot Act, or recent efforts to overturn habeas corpus requirements), the movement towards greater government secrecy (e.g., the Bush-Cheney victory on concealing the workings of the administration’s energy task force), the role of religion in public life, and even the relative weight of the rights of individuals versus businesses, are all subjects of a pressing nature. Yet these other issues appear to go largely unexplored in public hearings, and in news coverage of those hearings, with abortion taking center stage as the key battle over whether or not to vote against – or filibuster – a nominee. This despite the fact that Roberts, Miers, and Alito have all been involved in controversial decisions on many of these issues, with broad ramifications for Americans.

So, one must ask: How valuable is abortion access relative to the many other freedoms Americans enjoy – and which are under threat? It isn’t that abortion should be restricted; abortion should not be broadly restricted. But it should also be kept in perspective as one right among many – even (if not especially) for women; there are other areas of daily life where women also need to continue to secure their rights, from treatment in the workplace to the handling and adjudication of sex crimes. At the same time, abortion must also be recognized as an issue where there can be legitimate emotional and religious differences of opinion, among individuals and within and among communities. Americans must find a way to strike a balance that does not allow one individual’s choices to be constrained, but is respectful of opposing points of view.

Y Chromosomes

As a man, my perspective may be anathema to women. But, again, I am not suggesting that abortion be restricted. Rather it is that in a large – and growing – series of political battles taking place in America, the Democrats’ energies are misplaced when Roe v. Wade is publicly positioned and defended as the only sacred object of American jurisprudence. As it stands, Democrats are positioning themselves to lose the near-term battle – after all, they were unable to stop Roberts, and Alito looks relatively secure – as well as the broader war.

1See for example “If I Had Hillary Clinton’s Ear,” by Michael Slackman, The New York Times, 5 December 2004 and “Some Democrats Believe the Party Should Get Religion,” by David D. Kirkpatrick, The New York Times, 17 November 2004; and “Democrats Map Out a Different Strategy; The 2008 nominee must appeal to red states, analysts say. Hillary Clinton may not qualify.”, by Peter Wallsten and Nick Anderson, Los Angeles Times, 6 November 2004.


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