Abortion-rights advocates, by their own admission, are panicked about the cultural trend away from the acceptance of a hard-line abortion policy. “We’ve been saying the barn’s on fire for a long time…Well, now the barn really is on fire,” said Planned Parenthood president Texan Cecile Richards (the daughter of the late former Texas Governor Ann Richards) in an adoring feature in July’s Vogue magazine. She’s right — it’s a roaring fire, begun and fueled at the grassroots level.
The abortion movement’s response so far has been to deflect the debate away from the central question. If there is opposition to the use of federal monies for Medicaid abortions, it is a lack of charity towards poor women. If there is opposition to abortions on military bases, it is discrimination against military personnel. If there is opposition to abortion counseling, it is an offense to the right to freedom of speech. Abortion-rights advocates are willing to argue about anything, except the “A”-word itself. They reason that, so long as the debate is kept on the periphery, there will be no discussion of why abortion is allowed for all nine months of pregnancy, for any reason or none at all — a policy that is not very popular with the American people, and is becoming less so. Yet this dissimulation has not prevented the pro-life trend in public opinion. Instead, there has been a fundamental shift in attitudes towards the practice that has revealed itself in polls, courts, and legislatures.
The issue of abortion is still out there, however neutralized it became this past election cycle. By running self-described pro-life Democrats against pro-life Republicans, the Democratic party provided itself a margin of victory in several key House and Senate races. For example: Democrat Bob Casey against Rick Santorum in the Pennsylvania Senate race and Democrat Heath Schuller against uncumbent Republican Charles Taylor of North Carolinia. Now Democratic leaders, along with first woman Speaker Pelosi and presidential candidate Senator Clinton — both of whom have 100 percent ratings from EMILY’s List and NARAL — must deal with the political dilemma they have made for themselves. How to soft pedal the abortion agenda now that they have control of both houses of Congress — even as they ramp up to a presidential election year? Are feminist, abortion-rights activists going to give Speaker Pelosi and Senator Clinton a pass in the Congress and, for Clinton, in the primaries? Or will this House-Senate female axis of female power put its full weight behind passing the Freedom of Choice Act (enshring Roe v. Wade into law), and threatening to further alienate its winning, more moderate Democratic base? When the triumphalism over gender abates, issues — and certainly this most divisive one — will matter. All signs indicate that the vast majority of Americans and women in partiuclar are trending away from the old hardline abortion position.
Perhaps even more telling is the change in the public’s perception of the right to abortion. Recently, Paul Begala suggested that Americans may not see abortion rights as something akin to the civil rights fought for in the 1960s. This is a significant shift. Most Americans do not see unrestricted abortion as a fundamental right. A January 2006 CBS News poll showed that at least 55 percent of Americans would ban all abortions except to save the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest (which compose 1.5 percent of all abortions). The humanity of the unborn child, made clearer by the prevalence of 4D sonograms and the debate over partial birth abortions, is forcing the question: is abortion an inalienable right? The public is in doubt.
The winds of change are blowing, and clever manipulations of the debate will not turn them back. But that isn’t going to stop abortion advocates from trying — indeed, it’s seen as a political necessity. Senator Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), the clear favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination, is in a tough spot: She must court hard-line abortion advocates, while at the same time appearing to agree with the consistent majority of mainstream folks who oppose most abortions. So she, along with abortion-rights groups, has apparently crafted a new take on the old strategy — talk about reducing the need for abortion while suggesting that today’s opponents of abortion are really out to ban contraception too.
Nevertheless, shifting the topic of debate will not work so long as it means preserving the status quo. Any serious pro-abortion presidential candidate will have to address the fact that America is coalescing in support of a more moderate abortion policy, including restrictions on abortion after viability and requiring parental consent or notice for minor abortions, as well as more health and safety information to women considering abortion.
If the past is prologue, NOW and EMILY’s List will not moderate their position or their political strategy. They will continue to press for the right to an abortion at anytime for any reason — they’ll just stop saying it out loud.
– Marjorie Dannenfelser is the president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a nationwide network of Americans (over 140,000 residing in all 50 states) dedicated to mobilizing and advancing pro-life women in politics.