Don't Capitulate on Abortion
January 3, 2005
Happy New Year! And welcome to the hangover from 2004. Just when you thought they couldn't slide any further . . . the Democrats ended their year of defeat by talking about whether they ought to loosen up their position on abortion rights.
Wasn't abortion pretty much the last major issue separating the Democrats from the Republicans? As I recall, the threat to Roe v. Wade from a Republican administration was the cudgel the Democrats used to beat us progressives into line with, whenever we thought about defecting to a third party over passé issues like providing a safety net for the poor and the corporate takeover of our democracy.
Sure, the Dems are for welfare reform, partial privatization of Social Security, NAFTA, GATT and the WTO . . . but don't forget choice. Or maybe do forget it, after all.
If the Dems give up on abortion, how are we to tell them apart from the Republicans? Because they're nice?
The New York Times ran an article on December 24 quoting Democrats from across the liberal-to-moderate spectrum agreeing that John Kerry's loss shows that the party needs to appeal more to social conservatives. Dianne Feinstein said the Republicans have "been successful at painting the view of the pro-choice movement as abortion on demand--and nothing can be farther from the truth." So now formerly pro-choice legislators are urging their party to support camel's-nose measures that erode abortion rights like parental notification (a disaster in cases of incest, as John Kerry pointed out during the campaign) and anti-partial-birth laws (which means the criminalizing not of late-term abortion but of safe technique in certain miserable circumstances).
Even Nancy Pelosi has endorsed Timothy Roemer, the former congressman from Indiana and a vocal proponent of outlawing late-term abortion, to be the Democrats' new leader. With Harry Reid, another abortion opponent, as the minority leader in the Senate, it seems pretty clear which way the party is heading.
The Democrats are making a fundamental mistake. First of all, polls show that a majority of Americans still favor abortion rights. The public is susceptible to the idea of nibbling away at those rights through reasonable-sounding measures that place limits on late term abortions, for example--but that only shows support for existing law.
Roe v. Wade ALREADY includes restrictions on abortion in the second and third trimesters.
But the biggest mistake the Democrats are making is giving ground when they get a push from the right. This will only embolden their opponents, and make them stronger.
Probably the single most galvanizing moment for the anti-abortion movement came in Wichita in the summer of 1991, when the local abortion clinics closed up for a week while Operation Rescue came to town. The clinics were worried about safety, and thought they'd lie low and weather the storm. Instead, they touched off a wildfire of activism.
The prolifers declared victory. They had "shut down the abortion mill." It gave their organizing efforts a tremendous shot in the arm.
At the Republican convention in 1996 I went on a yacht cruise with some socially moderate Republican women who were appalled at the takeover of their party by down-at-the-heel, prolife, evangelical types. Pat Buchanan, Alan Keyes, and Phyllis Schlafly were exiled to out-of-the-spotlight events. But they clearly had captured the imagination of their party's base as they talked about how the "real" Americans who didn't have fancy cars and houses were leading the Republican Party back to its values.
Well, now the Democrats are getting ready to be led in the same direction.
Before they give up on an issue that still has a majority of public support, the Dems need to stop and think. The lesson of the elections of 2004, or of the rise of rightwing populism in this country over the last decade, is not that "real" Americans want restrictions on abortion or the rest of the "values" crowd's agenda. The lesson, as one Republican woman put it to me on the yacht, is this: "Face it. We got our butts out-organized."
The Democrats have an opportunity to get back in the game by organizing around real economic issues that used to fire up blue-collar Democrats.
Continued capitulation doesn't fire up anyone.