Politics & Policy

Running Scared on Abortion

March for Life rally in Washington, D.C. (Image via Twitter)
Republicans exhibit pusillanimity on one of their most popular issues.

There seem to be two views of the pro-life movement these days. The first, which can be found percolating in the media and in the popular culture at large, holds that those who oppose abortion are in some way outré, that at its root “pro-life” is a more linguistically agreeable way of saying “old,” or “white,” or “conservative,” or “religious,” and that language that ostensibly describes a preference for not killing the unborn is more typically used as cover for those who wish to control the bodies of women that they’ll never meet. The second, which has its feet planted much more firmly in the ground, is more realistic, acknowledging as it does that American attitudes toward abortion are far, far more complicated than that, and that the injunction “thou shalt not kill” is by no means reserved to a single demographic or ideological group. And never the twain shall meet.

All told, these two conceptions play different roles in American life. From the first conceit flows the tone of our public debates, the rhetoric that one hears from Hollywood, and the presumptions of the media at large. From the second conceit, meanwhile, we draw our electoral outcomes and the latent presumptions of our civil society. Yesterday afternoon, the Republican party confused the two, and in consequence it caved to a myth.

On the question of “late-term” abortions at least, the public is far more closely aligned with the Republican party’s platform than it is with the Democrats’. While a majority of Americans support legal abortion in the first trimester (around 61 percent are in favor), anything after that stage invites sharp disapproval. Per Gallup, a remarkable 73 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be illegal in the second trimester (that is, a good month and a half before the 20-week threshold that the House was addressing), while 86 percent contend that it should be illegal in the third. In fact, third-term abortions are so remarkably unpopular that 79 percent of those who consider themselves to be “pro-choice” are of the opinion that they should be prohibited. This, I’d venture, should not be surprising. As it stands, more Americans currently identify as “pro-life” than “pro-choice” — and, crucially, the younger generation is not bucking that trend. As of 2010, people aged 18 to 29 were more opposed to abortion than almost every other age group. Unlike same-sex marriage and the legalization of marijuana, this debate is not going away.

And yet, as Gallup notes in parallel, almost nobody knows that. Rather, the American public seems to have bought into the false notion that pro-lifers are on society’s fringe, and that the legislation that those pro-lifers are proposing is at odds with mainstream sentiment. This, evidently, is not the case. Consider the bill that the House jettisoned yesterday, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks. That bill not only enjoyed 60 percent support from the public in general, but it had secured the endorsement of women and millennials — two groups that we are told will be put off from voting Republican by the party’s stance toward life. Indeed, as Katrina Trinko has noted over at the Daily Signal, the measure’s provisions were endorsed both by a solid majority of young people — “57 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds backed the 20-week ban on abortion,” Quinnipiac records — and by a majority of women. Even when female respondents knew “exactly what the exceptions were,” 59 percent gave it the thumbs up. Who exactly, one has to ask, are the “extremists” here?

With this level of support, it should have been reasonably easy for the GOP to plan its attack. Indeed, had they played their cards right, they could have secured a solid political win. Instead, by bringing up the idea and then so publicly punting on it, they have played right into their opponents’ hands. Across the media today we are seeing headlines reporting that “women revolted” against Republican men; that the GOP is scared of a “backlash” from the young and the trendy; and that the collapse of their motion has given Democrats “hope” that they can win back a millennial generation that is supposed to be pro-choice. None of this is accurate, of course. But who cares? Politics is often perception, and, that being so, this is a public-relations disaster. More than on any other issue, it is imperative that the Republican party deal carefully with pro-life legislation and that its leading lights ensure that potentially explosive disagreements occur behind closed doors and not on cable television. Yesterday, they failed. #page#

Worst of all, perhaps, is that the debacle was wholly avoidable. One of the congresswomen who have made the headlines — Renee Ellmers, from North Carolina — announced yesterday that she opposed the legislation because it went further than the previous measures for which she had happily voted. In response to her objections — or at least, immediately afterwards — the House pulled the bill completely. And yet, as John McCormack notes in the Weekly Standard, Ellmers was flatly wrong. In fact, the bill is almost identical to those that have previously passed the House, and that Ellmers herself has supported:

The text of the bill that she voted for on June 18, 2013 (you can read it here) included the reporting requirement that she now opposes. Democrats did not make an issue of the reporting requirement in 2013 or during the 2014 elections. In 2014, the issue of late-term abortion actually hurt Democratic Senate candidates.

To add insult to injury, it is now not entirely clear that Ellmers has pulled her support as she has implied. “I will vote for this,” she told the Standard this morning. “I will vote for this if it doesn’t change.”

It is only fair to note that the legal consequences of this failure are negligible. Had both chambers of Congress passed the measure, it would have died a quick death at the hands of President Obama’s veto pen. Moreover, the suggestion that this failure will be remembered by neutral voters in a few months’ time — let alone come 2016 — is preposterous. A quick look at the record shows us that Republicans vote on similar initiatives all the time without consequence, and that, within reason, events that occur two years before elections tend to have little effect. Indeed, if anything, the abortion debate seems to hurt the Democratic party a little more than it hurts its foes.

Nevertheless, the way the House has gone about this attempt suggests both extraordinary incompetence and an alarming lack of mettle. It is one thing for Republicans to wait to pass genuinely controversial legislation until they enjoy unified government, but it is quite another for the party to pass on a popular, moderate, and straightforward bill that has both bipartisan and transgenerational appeal — especially when one considers that the “blowback” that the deserters supposedly fear is coming anyway. As we have learned over the last goodness knows how many years, the GOP’s leading lights could execute a truckload of newborn babies on the Senate floor, and the Democratic party would still claim that they wanted women to die in back-alley clinics. Nowadays, that’s just what they say. Indeed, given the unpopularity of their positions, cooler heads in the GOP would simply let them wail.

My personal views on this matter are complicated. Prima facie, I fail to see whence the federal government derives the constitutional authority for this bill and others like it, and I remain unconvinced by the few cogent arguments that I have heard in favor. Nevertheless, I will grant that I am an oddity and a throwback — a 21st-century type who would like to return the Commerce Clause to its given meaning and to overturn much of the precedent that has been established since the New Deal.

Considering where we now are, though, there is no excuse whatsoever for conservatives to refrain from doing what they can to prevent the wholesale slaughter of the unborn, and, particularly when addressing questions of life and death, no reason to avoid using the Leviathan that their opponents have so painstakingly constructed. Today, the Republican party enjoys solid control of the House and the Senate, and it has a popular wind at its back. On this particular matter it has goodness and care and love on its side, as well as a broad level of support. What it does not have, apparently, is any courage.

— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.

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