Will the Real 'Party of Life' Please Stand Up?

In the wake of the disastrous 2004 election, many pro-choice candidates were dragged down with the sinking of HMS Kerry. As a result, there have been whispers among Democratic politicians that they were going to have to change their position on abortion, in order to reach out to pro-life voters.

However, the April 21-22 Washington, D.C. gathering of EMILY's List, the political action committee dedicated to electing pro-choice Democratic women to all levels of government, produced no fundamental shift of position. Indeed, an EMILY-funded post-election poll indicated that 55 percent of voters continued to support a women's right to choose whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term, and that abortion had not been a major issue in the presidential election.

What does appear to be changing is the approach that Democrats take when they talk about choice -- the values they emphasize and the words they select. It's useful to envision this "reframing" of choice as consisting of three concentric circles.

In the innermost circle lies the issue of who ultimately controls a woman's body. In the starkest terms, progressives see choice as an inalienable woman's right; conservatives view choice as a privilege dispensed by the patriarchy -- the dominance of men over a woman's health, expressed through the power of the state.

In contemporary terms, Democrats tie the issue of choice to the right of privacy -- a right most Americans believe in -- by asserting that women must be able to choose medical treatment without the interference of the state. (This is a repositioning of the language of Justice Blackmun, in Roe v. Wade, in which he defended choice not as a woman's prerogative but, "The right of the physician to administer medical treatment according to his [sic] professional judgement.") Bush Republicans argue they are anti-choice because they are defending the "rights of the fetus," relying upon the biologically, and theologically, dubious argument that an embryo is a human being from the moment of conception.

The middle circle places choice in a larger social context. On Jan. 24, New York Sen. Hillary Clinton gave an important speech on abortion rights where she implored all sides of the issue to seek "common ground." Clinton opined that no one in American politics is "for" abortion. She observed that under most circumstances where there is access to contraception there is no necessity for an abortion -- the 7 percent of women who do not use contraception account for 53 percent of unwanted pregnancies. Since Clinton's speech, Democrats have renewed their push for federal support for sex-education programs for teenagers, emergency contraception and family planning.

The outermost framing circle focuses on the use of the word "life." UC Berkeley linguistics professor George Lakoff noted that it makes no sense for Republicans to act as if they have exclusive use of life as their "brand." Historically, Democrats are the party of life, in the sense that they have taken seriously the task of guaranteeing the right of every American to live a life of dignity. From this moral high ground, Democrats are concerned with the quality of life at each point along the continuum of existence -- health care, education, jobs and the environment -- rather than to fixate, as the Republicans do, exclusively on the endpoints: life of the embryo/fetus and death.

Lakoff observed that rather than Republicans being the "Party of Life," it would be more accurate to describe them as the Party of Death, since they are indifferent to the life and death struggles of the average American working family. In the tragic case of Terri Schiavo, President Bush remarked, "It should be our goal as a nation to build a culture of life." Nevertheless, Bush is opposed to federal funding for pre- and post-natal care and ignores the reality that one in three Americans has no health care.

Further, as governor of Texas, Bush oversaw a record 152 executions, and as president he launched a preemptive attack on Iraq, which has resulted in the deaths of 20,000 civilians and 1,700 military personnel. Lakoff argued that Democrats should go on the offensive by constantly reminding voters that the Republican record does not show them to be "pro-life."

A graphic example of the incongruity between Republican words and actions can be found in their tepid response to the steadily increasing violence against American women. More than 4 million women are physically assaulted each year; roughly 600,000 are raped; and 28,000 experience the horror of a criminally induced pregnancy. Republicans avoid directly addressing these issues. Their anti-choice position means that most Republican lawmakers insist that a pregnant victim of rape carry her fetus to term. (A position shared by only 16 percent of voters.)

It's clear that Republicans, by taking an extraordinarily conservative position on choice, one supported by considerably less than half of all voters, have backed themselves into an ideological corner. What remains to be seen is whether Democrats can take full advantage of this; and whether they can use the issue of choice to breathe new life into the party.

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