Human Rights

Running From Roe

South Dakota's extreme new law is making even Republicans squirm; now is the time for Democrats to reclaim the abortion debate.
Pro-choice Americans everywhere are becoming unsettled about the future of reproductive rights. The Supreme Court is one vacancy away from overturning Roe v. Wade and at least one state, South Dakota, has already outlawed abortion in the hope of bringing the Court a case to challenge Roe. But the ones who are really nervous? The Republicans.  

That's because the South Dakota law -- which criminalizes abortion except to save a woman's life -- has pulled the abortion issue back to a fundamental question: whether Roe should be overturned and abortion made illegal in large parts of the country. This is just the debate Republicans don't want to have. For years, they've used a strategy of chipping away at reproductive rights by finding side issues like parental consent, "partial-birth" and the newest, "fetal pain," on which they can obtain broad public support.  
These interim steps were never supposed to be ends in themselves. Nor were they designed merely to keep the pro-choice side on the defensive. Their real purpose was to make the ground of public opinion more fertile for the ultimate goal of overturning Roe.  

But for all the apparent success the pro-life side had with parental consent and "partial birth" laws, they never got any closer to their ultimate goal. Opinions on abortion vary dramatically depending on how you ask the question, but when we look over time, we see that opinions on a given question have remained essentially locked in place since the 1970s.

For instance, since 1975, Gallup has asked whether abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal in only certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. In April of that year, 21 percent said it should always be legal, 54 percent said it should be legal in only certain circumstances, and 22 percent said it should always be illegal. The numbers 30 years later, in 2005, after elections, Supreme Court cases, and endless political wrangling: a near-identical 26 percent, 56 percent, and 16 percent, respectively. Opinions on abortion have hardly budged in decades.  

The pro-life strategy failed, and the American people remain committed to abortion rights. But by turning attention away from Roe, their strategy enabled Republicans to avoid answering fundamental questions on the issue. In what has to be one of the most remarkable achievements of weaselly evasion in American political history, George W. Bush ran for president twice, and has served five years in office, without ever stating precisely where he stands on the most contentious legal and social issue of our time. Although we know he's "pro-life" and favors a "culture of life" (i.e., abortion -- bad, stem cell research -- bad, death penalty and wars with tens of thousands of civilian casualties -- hunky dory), he has never said whether or not he wants Roe v. Wade to be overturned.  

Characteristically, the White House has refused to say whether the president supports or opposes the South Dakota law, protesting that it's a state matter, and therefore Bush won't take a position. "Look at the president's record when it comes to defending the sanctity of life," Scott McLellan said, bobbing and weaving desperately. "That is a very strong record. His views when it comes to pro-life issues are very clearly spelled out. We also have stated repeatedly that state legislatures, when they pass laws, those are state matters." As is so often the case with McClellan, you could smell the fear.

And it isn't just Bush. The rhetoric of Republicans thinking about running for president in 2008 -- with the notable exception of Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback (whose slogan may end up being "Building a Bridge to the 14th Century") -- reveals how terrified they are of the role abortion could play in that campaign.  

Consider John McCain, he of the straight talk, firm principle and vaunted authenticity. McCain had a spokesman issue a statement saying he "would have signed the [South Dakota] legislation, but would also take the appropriate steps under state law -- in whatever state -- to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included." Of course, there were no exceptions for rape and incest in the South Dakota law, making McCain's position essentially that he would favor banning nearly all abortions as long as it didn't involve banning nearly all abortions. That's the waffling of a man caught between fervently anti-choice Republican primary voters and a pro-choice general election majority.  

Or take Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who, when asked on ABC's "This Week" if he would sign the South Dakota law, hemmed and hawed about exceptions for rape and incest, then said, "I'm opposed to abortion. I'm not the governor myself -- didn't have to vote on it but if I ever did have to vote on a situation like that, it would be around that feeling, opposition to abortion with those exceptions." Yes indeed, it would be "around that feeling."

When pressed by George Stephanopoulos to explain whether he would or wouldn't sign the South Dakota law, Frist dodged again, saying, "Well, again, I'm not going to put myself in that situation. I can tell you what my feelings are, my beliefs are and my philosophy is about it, and that's how I would vote and vote accordingly." Not exactly a model of moral clarity.  

But the most revealing statements may have been those of Virginia Sen. George Allen, the Washington insiders' choice for the 2008 Republican nomination. When asked by Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" whether he wanted to see Roe overturned, Allen retreated to the safe ground of parental notification laws, which he supports, in case you were wondering. By the time Russert asked him for the third time whether he supports overturning Roe, a visibly uncomfortable Allen, unable to say the words directly, finally sidled up to his long-held position with:
The point is, rather than arguing on a legal term, the point of the matter is the people in the states ought to be making these decisions. And if that's contrary to the dictates of Roe v. Wade, so be it. Because the way that Roe v. Wade has been interpreted is taking away the rights of the people in the states to make these decisions.
This bit of courageous straight talk comes from a senator with a perfect 100 percent rating from the National Right-to-Life Committee.  

The Republicans are embarrassed because they know their position on whether Roe should be overturned is a minority one -- embraced by only around one-third of the American people, according to recent polls.

Yet the Democrats are, if anything, even less courageous when talking about the issue. It's one thing for Democrats to be timid when it comes to issues on which their position is in the minority (like, say, flag burning) -- not politically wise, but somewhat understandable. But this is an issue on which two-thirds of the public agrees with them, and they still act as though their position is something they need to be embarrassed about.  

Instead, they should go on the offensive. Make every Republican answer this one, simple question: Yes or no, do you support overturning Roe v. Wade? "I believe in a culture of life" is not an answer. "I'm pro-life" is not an answer. "We need parental consent laws" is not an answer. Yes or no, do you support overturning Roe v. Wade? With each evasion -- as long as Democrats respond with, you're evading, now answer the damn question -- Republicans look more scared, more equivocal, more waffly, less willing to stand up for their beliefs, and less principled. Democrats could even make signs reading simply, "YES OR NO?" and hold them up at Republican rallies.  

Besides making Republican politicians nervous, focusing on this debate has the side benefit of driving wedges into the conservative coalition. One of the remarkable achievements of that coalition has been the willingness of its various parts to adopt each other's goals. So the religious conservatives became anti-tax zealots, the business groups paid lip service to the NRA's agenda, and everyone on the right proclaimed themselves pro-life.

This was easy to do when the questions involved parental consent or "partial birth." But, because of the focus on Roe, the business interests and the libertarians that are essential elements of that coalition find themselves having to go all the way on abortion, something they don't want to do.  

And when the abortion debate turns away from the ancillary issues and back to women's fundamental right to control their own reproductive lives, the right's uglier side emerges. Republicans have no interest in being associated with campaigns against contraception or the likes of South Dakota state Senator Bill Napoli.

Napoli, the enlightened soul who told PBS that the only abortion that should be legal "would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated."

In other words, virgin Christian rape victims can have abortions, but if you don't fall in that category, you must be a dirty slut, so you're out of luck. The blogger Digby aptly termed this the Sodomized Virgin Exception.  

If that kind of rhetoric becomes associated with the Republican Party, voters will turn away in disgust. But it won't happen unless Democrats make Republicans take responsibility for their own agenda.
Paul Waldman is the editor-in-chief of The Gadflyer and author of 'Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why The Media Didn't Tell You.'
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