Tell us what you think of this op-ed from The New York Times.
June 22, 2007
Why Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats
By MELINDA HENNEBERGER
I KEEP reading about a universe in which social conservatives are warming to Rudy Giuliani. But this would have to be a place where his estranged children and three wives and multiple appearances in fishnets were irrelevant to the Republican base. Where the nice gay couple he moved in with between marriages would be asked to appear in the film montage at the nominating convention in St. Paul.
Even in the real world, a pro-choice Republican nominee would be a gift to the Democrats, because the Republican Party wins over so many swing voters on abortion alone. Which is why Fred Thompson, who is against abortion rights, is getting so much grateful attention from his party now. And why, despite wide opposition to the war in Iraq, Democrats must still win back such voters to take the White House next year.
Over 18 months, I traveled to 20 states listening to women of all ages, races, tax brackets and points of view speak at length on the issues they care about heading into ’08. They convinced me that the conventional wisdom was wrong about the last presidential contest, that Democrats did not lose support among women because “security moms” saw President Bush as the better protector against terrorism. What first-time defectors mentioned most often was abortion.
Why would that be, given that Roe v. Wade was decided almost 35 years ago? Opponents of abortion rights saw 2004 as the chance of a lifetime to overturn Roe, with a movement favorite already in the Oval Office and several spots on the Supreme Court likely to open up. A handful of Catholic bishops spoke out more plainly than in any previous election season and moved the Catholic swing vote that Al Gore had won in 2000 to Mr. Bush.
The standard response from Democratic leaders has been that anyone lost to them over this issue is not coming back — and that regrettable as that might be, there is nothing to be done. But that is not what I heard from these voters.
Many of them, Catholic women in particular, are liberal, deep-in-their-heart Democrats who support social spending, who opposed the war from the start and who cross their arms over their chests reflexively when they say the word “Republican.” Some could fairly be described as desperate to find a way home. And if the party they’d prefer doesn’t send a car for them, with a really polite driver, it will have only itself to blame.
What would it take to win them back? Respect, for starters — and not only on the night of the candidate forum on faith. As it turns out, you cannot call people extremists and expect them to vote for you. But real respect would require an understanding that what supporters of abortion rights genuinely see as a hard-earned freedom, opponents genuinely see as a self-inflicted wound and — though I can feel some of you tensing as you read this — a human rights issue comparable to slavery.
Again and again, these voters said Democrats are too unwilling to tolerate dissent on abortion. It is a point of orthodoxy no more open to debate within the party than the ordination of women is in Rome.
Democratic Party leaders should also stop pushing the perception that Republicans are natural defenders of the faithful. For years, they have done just that by tirelessly portraying our current president as this committed — indeed, obsessed — pro-lifer who would stop at nothing to see Roe overturned. Karl Rove couldn’t have said it better himself; this was better advertising than hard money could buy.
Today, in a similarly oblivious way, the leading Democratic presidential contenders are condemning the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold a ban on the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. An overwhelming majority of Americans, polls show, support a ban. Legal scholars have underscored the narrowness of the ruling in the partial-birth case, Gonzales v. Carhart, which does not even outlaw all late-term abortions. Yet the leading Democratic candidates, all of whom are lawyers, choose to overstate its impact.
Hillary Clinton called the decision “a dramatic departure from four decades of Supreme Court rulings that ... recognized the importance of women’s health.” Barack Obama echoed that it “dramatically departs from previous precedents safeguarding the health of pregnant women.” Though John Edwards was one of only two United States senators who did not cast a vote on the bill in 2003, he, too, found the decision to uphold that law “ill-considered and sweeping,” and “a stark reminder of why Democrats cannot afford to lose the 2008 election.”
Actually, it is a stark reminder of how fully capable they all are of losing it. A Democratic senator I spoke with recently did not see the disconnect between public opinion and the party’s position on Carhart as any reason to worry: “Make no mistake; this is a pro-choice country, period.”
But in a recent New York Times/CBS News poll, 41 percent of respondents favored stricter limits on abortion, with an additional 23 percent saying it should not be permitted at all.
What are we to make of all this? Surely at a minimum that our enduring reluctance to acknowledge the complexity of the abortion issue has only prolonged and hardened the debate.
Most Americans fall somewhere between the extremes of “never” and “no problem” when it comes to abortion.
What polling can’t capture and politicians won’t hear is the voice of the nun I interviewed who considers herself pro-choice — and has been disciplined by her diocese as a result — because she does not think abortion is wrong for rape victims. Or the voices of the many women I spoke to who hold far more expansive views yet call themselves pro-life. Most people differentiate between a fetus in the early weeks of development and at nearly full term, and draw the line at a procedure that Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan regarded as infanticide.
Would Democrats who hate Carhart really switch parties or stay home on Election Day if their leaders began to acknowledge such distinctions? After the last seven years, I don’t think so. Yes, the abortion-rights lobby has raised a lot of money since the ban, but the statements of the
Democratic candidates will cost them, too. This issue has been very, very good to the Republican Party — and there is plenty more where that came from.
Melinda Henneberger is the author of “If They Only Listened to Us: What Women Voters Want Politicians to Hear.”