Assessing Abortion Anew

How the shifting political landscape is changing the argument on abortion.

Few other issues in American politics have been as divisive as abortion. In the more than three decades since the Supreme Court?s decision in Roe v. Wade legalized abortion, both the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice movements have been hunkered down in what seems like a form of trench warfare that has polarized our discourse on the topic into an all or nothing exercise in futility. In recent months, however, there is evidence that a re-assessment of this seemingly intractable problem is occuring on both sides of the debate. In this first installment in a three part series, explores the political shifts taking place surrounding this troublesome and complex topic.

People like Kristen Day were once considered the black sheep of the Democratic family. Day is both a commited Democrat and staunchly pro-life– a political and moral stance that many people both in and out of the party believed to be mutually exclusive.

“When we first started three years ago, we had a lot of doors slammed in our face. Now more and more people are reaching out to us,” said Day, the executive director of Democrats for Life of America (DFLA).

Day’s group barely managed to get a meeting with then party chair Terry McAuliffe, just before the 2004 presidential election. After the election, the tables seemed to turn and people began approaching and listening to them.

Day’s story is not unusual. In fact, across the country, policy-makers, politicians, and pundits are re-evaluating how they think about the abortion debate and what their ultimate goals should be. Should abortion be punished and in what way? How should we evaluate our progress on abortion? If abortion is a choice, is it a good choice? If it is wrong, how wrong is it? Based on recent political events, people on both sides of the debate are re-evaluating their assumptions and changing their goals. And, to a large extent, people-of-faith are the ones who are making it happen.

Shifting Political Rhetoric
Since John Kerry’s loss in the 2004 presidential election, several prominent Democrats have been making statements that seem to be reaching out to pro-life advocates while a growing number of pro-life Democrats are gaining prominence.

Hillary Clinton (pictured left), whom some believe will be the Democratic Presidential nominee in 2008, told an Albany audience of abortion-rights supporters in January that she respected “those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available.”

“We need to take real action to improve the quality of health care for women and families, to reduce the number of abortions and to build a healthier, brighter, more hopeful future for women and girls in our country and around the world,” Clinton also said.

Another seeming shift in tone can be found in Bob Casey Jr’s upcoming run for the Senate. His father, former governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, was barred from addressing the 1992 Democratic convention because of his pro-life stance. Now the Senate campaign committee seems to believe that the Catholic and fiercely pro-life Casey Jr. isa stronger challenger to Republican Sen. Rick Santorum than Barbara Hafer, a former state treasurer who supports abortion rights. After discussions with current Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell, a Democrat, Hafer stepped down in favor of Casey. Recent polls show Casey leading Santorum by 7 to 14 points.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice does not think that these recent events indicate a real change in party platforms but more of a refocusing to make them stronger politically. “They are shifting the discussion to ‘how do we prevent abortion?’ this is a huge challenge to the orthodox [pro-choice advocates] who so often don’t answer this question,” said Kissling.

Other members of the pro-life movement are more skeptical of the recent turn of political events.
Other members of the pro-life movement are more skeptical of the recent turn of political events: “I would like to think it’s an honest shift but it’s mostly rhetoric.”

“I would like to think it’s an honest shift but it’s mostly rhetoric,” said John Jansen, codirector of the Generations for Life, the youth outreach wing of the Pro-Life Action League. “Hillary is just gearing up for a presidential campaign and trying to make herself look more moderate.”

Jansen’s critique is not exclusive to Democrats, he is also concerned that many of the Republican Party’s recent decisions betray their pro-life constituents. Ken Mehlman, the new Republican chairman, chose an abortion-rights supporter, Jo Ann Davidson, as his co-chairman. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York governor George Pataki, and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, all of whom are pro-choice, received primetime spots at the Republican convention in 2004.

Lana Jacobs, the executive director of Consistent Life, a coalition supporting a “consistent ethic of life” from conception to natural death, echoes Jansen’s concerns. She points to Republican support for stem-cell research and the war in Iraq, claiming that both parties “push a Pro-Death platform.”

Importance of the Catholic Vote
The changing landscape of the abortion debate has also affected how political pundits evaluate the Catholic vote. Democracy Corps, a political consulting group founded by James Carville, Stanley Greenberg, and Bob Shrum released a March 2005 memo entitled, “Reclaiming the White Catholic Vote.” The widely circulated document presented research into the voting habits of Catholics and a series of political strategies to win their vote back to the Democratic Party.

One section addressed the respect for life issue extensively. “Catholics have emerged more pro-life, which is a factor in the recent losses and one of the blockages for Democrats,” the report read.

A large section of the document focused on “defectors” – Catholics who voted for Bill Clinton but not for Al Gore or Kerry. It claimed that 26% of defectors cited abortion as one of their top two moral concerns. However, these same defectors were very responsive to the idea of a pro-choice Democrat who wants to unite both sides of the issue and whose main goal is ultimately reducing the numbers of abortions.

“Catholics are clearly open to a different approach from the one that has polarized them over the last few years.”

This new approach is evident in Democratic Congressman Tim Ryan’s plan to present the 95-10 Initiative to Congress – a comprehensive package of federal legislation and policy initiatives written by the Democrats for Life of America that hopes to reduce the number of abortions by 95% in the next 10 years.

“Our party is really leading the effort to decrease the factors that lead to abortion. We can help you keep your baby and we can help you in the adoption process and we will be there to support you,” says DFLA’s Kristen Day. “Abortion is not the litmus test for the party anymore,” she says. She may be right.