The GOP's Gamble on Roe

"More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers," Truman Capote wrote, quoting St. Teresa. As Republicans push a Supreme Court nominee who plotted to overturn Roe v. Wade , the long quest to end the constitutional right to abortion could become a social reality.

But there's also a political reality, and it has made some far-seeing Republicans fearful: The striking down of Roe v. Wade would be one of the worst things that ever happened to the Republican Party.

Rep. Tom Davis, the Virginia Republican who in 2002 helped expand his party's majority in the House, spoke to this point. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, he said recently, "you're going to have a lot of very nervous suburban candidates.'' He was talking about Republican candidates.

I wouldn't want to be a Republican politician the day suburban mothers learn there's no legal way to end their 16-year-old daughter's unwanted pregnancy. Republicans err in assuming that, on this subject, mothers in the old suburbs differ greatly from mothers in the new exurbs.

Republicans have long talked up the exurbs as their ticket to permanent power. The outer suburbs, they hold, are where good middle-class families go to escape high taxes, urban immorality and Democrats. These areas have seen explosive growth in recent years.

Such complacency appears premature. In the recent governor's race in Virginia, Democrat Timothy Kaine defeated Republican Jerry Kilgore. Republicans had expected to lose the fairly liberal suburbs right outside Washington, D.C., but they thought they owned the exurbs. They did not. Both Prince William and Loudoun counties, thought to be in the Republican bag, went for the Democrat. One reason was Kilgore's anti-abortion stand, which Kaine attacked.  

The Republican party's increasing hostility toward abortion rights has already cost it the posh and formerly Republican suburbs near New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and other big cities. And these are people who did royally well with the Bush tax cuts. Even super-rich Greenwich, Conn. -- home of Prescott Bush, the president's grandfather and a U.S. senator -- gave Bush only 55 percent of its vote. The rest of wealthy Fairfield County supported Kerry by a wide margin. 

Ask people there why they deserted the Republican Party, and they will cite its abortion policy as one of the chief irritants. Bring up such specifics as Bush's executive order denying federal funds to international family-planning groups that offer abortion, and they turn purple with apoplexy. Small wonder that Christopher Shays, the moderate Republican representing Fairfield County, hails Roe as "an extraordinarily important document."

Once reliably Republican, New Hampshire has become a swing state because of such issues as abortion. Even the Republicans there tend to be fiscally conservative but socially moderate. Libertarianism runs strong, as does support for keeping abortion legal.

The Supreme Court is now hearing a challenge to a New Hampshire law requiring parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. The issue is the absence in the law of an exception to preserve the health of the woman, as required by Roe. In 2004, the voters retaliated, booting three of the law's four sponsors out of the state legislature.

Many Americans do say they want more restrictions on abortion. But the easier actions, such as laws calling for parental notification and 24-hour waiting periods, have already been taken. Congress voted in 2003 to ban nearly all late-term abortions. (Several courts have declared it unconstitutional mainly because it doesn't include a health exception.)

The next step would be overturning Roe itself, and here the support crumbles. During the Supreme Court nomination of John Roberts, a poll showed that 65 percent of Americans wanted the new chief justice to uphold Roe.

As for the issue in general, an ABC/Washington Post poll found that only 17 percent of respondents backed a total ban on abortion. Over half, 55 percent, wanted abortion kept legal in all or most cases, with most of the others calling for new restrictions. 

Even a majority of Republicans are pro-choice. The Republican organization supporting abortion rights calls itself The Republican Majority for Choice.

For most Americans, the restrictions on abortion have so far limited the freedom only of others. For example, a law forbids abortions in military hospitals. That creates a world of complications for female soldiers fighting in countries where local hospitals don't perform abortions. But women in Pittsburgh, Omaha or Dallas could always obtain safe abortions at local hospitals.

An overturn of Roe would send the matter of abortion down to the states. Probably 21 states would ban abortion, according to a study by the Center for Reproductive Rights. Of course, well-to-do women in these states could fly to California or New York for the procedure. My guess is that the imposition would make them hopping mad.   

The tea leaves don't tell us how Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito would vote on Roe v. Wade. Yes, he said in a 1985 application for a post in the Reagan Justice Department that "the Constitution does not guarantee a right to an abortion." And as a Justice Department lawyer, he offered advice on how to get rid of Roe.

But Alito now says that he holds great respect for precedent. Roe has been around for 30 years. And he recently assured Sen. Arlen Specter, the pro-choice Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, that his personal feelings about abortion would not interfere with his rulings. In sum, we have no way of knowing what Alito would do.

But the day can't be far off when a Supreme Court with whoever replaces Sandra Day O'Connor again passes judgment on Roe v. Wade. If it upholds the law, anti-abortion activists will feel vast frustration, while Republican strategists will take secret gasps of relief.

If the law goes down, then the multitudes who took the right to abortion for granted will seek revenge at the polls. And a lot of Republicans will be shedding tears because they got what they said they wanted.

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