Ideally, political debates, like people, should mature over time. There’s little indication this happening in the abortion debate; in elite discussions of the topic, honesty can be a lonely virtue.
Recently, on ABC’s morning talk show The View, Elisabeth Hasselbeck — the program’s Republican — got a little impassioned. Barbara Walters had brought up the topic of Plan B, “the morning-after pill,” which is expected to be approved soon by the federal Food & Drug Administration for over-the-counter sales. Elisabeth’s lonely objection on the panel to its ready availability is one worth raising: While sometimes the pill works as a contraceptive, preventing fertilization, it can also work to prevent implantation of an already-fertilized embryo on the uterine wall — thus acting as an abortifacient.
Before folks rush to pop this pill (and to encourage its use as a “fire extinguisher”), that fact ought to be known and considered. Hasselbeck said that she believes “that life begins at the moment of conception and fertilization” and that life, even in its earliest stages, “has value.” After her stern rebuke of young Elisabeth, Barbara announced that, as the portrait of journalistic objectivity, she was not giving her own view on the matter — which was as laughable a contention as if Hasselbeck had pretended she didn’t really care about the issue either way. You would think that on a show called The View, an actual “view” might be tolerated.
In any case, the confrontation was instructive. In one quick daytime-TV moment, we can see a crystallization of the dishonesty of today’s abortion debate. Earlier that week, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a moderately pro-life Democrat, gave a speech touting his “Prevention First Agenda,” on which he has collaborated with Hillary Clinton. This was yet another installment of the pro-choice movement’s insistence that they are all about common-sense compromise — something in which abortion opponents supposedly have no interest. But Reid’s contention that he’s the reasonable one was just a little too much — like Walters’s faux objectivity.
“As a pro-life senator in the Democratic Party,” said Reid, “I know this common ground exists, and it’s called prevention. If we’re serious about breaking the stalemate in the abortion debate, both sides must stop posturing and start seeking the positive results we share.”
But when compared with his actions, his words ring hollow. At the very moment he was giving this speech, Reid was holding up passage of a supremely commonsensical bill that would forbid adults to transport children from one state to another to circumvent their state’s parental-notification or parental-consent laws on abortion. Although Reid eventually voted for the legislation, he delayed it and played politics with it, while accusing the other side of the debate of refusing to meet on common ground.
The bill solves a very real problem. Most states have parental-notification and parental-consent mandates on the books, because these measures are sensible and highly popular with voters. But the handful of jurisdictions that don’t — including New York, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Delaware, and West Virginia — are full of doctors who can and will perform abortions on minors from out-of-state. As a result, state laws — and parents’ rights — are being flouted.
Say a Pennsylvania teacher gets involved with a student and wants to have the evidence destroyed: All he has to do is take her across the state line to New Jersey. Or let’s say your daughter’s boyfriend’s family doesn’t like your family’s supportive have-the-baby plan: They take her to another state for an abortion without your consent.
On issues like this, is it too much to ask that people like Reid leave the petty politics aside, and just say what they think? Agree or disagree with Hasselbeck on Plan B (even some pro-lifers do) or even on abortion itself, there’s something refreshing about her. She’s a public voice who is honest. She gets grief for it (scan the web and you’ll see her critics call her a ditz who parrots right-wing talking points) but she’s a breath of fresh air — and she’s dishing out the truth in a forum where anti-abortion and other conservative views tend to be presented only in a caricatured form.
At a time when medical “progress” and additional “choices” make the life issues ever more complicated, dishonesty only makes conversation more difficult. As Barbara Walters lectured Hasselbeck, “We have to learn how to discuss these things in some kind of rational way.”
The Reid/Walters way — patronizing hypocrisy — is not the way.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is the editor of National Review Online.
Copyright 2006, Newspaper Enterprise Assn.