The Corner

The President and Pro-Lifers

Augustine over at RedState disagrees with my article yesterday. He thinks, first, that the administration should have been quicker to enforce the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, and second, that the president ought to spend more time and effort making the case against abortion. I don’t have strong objections to either point. But I do think my point that pro-lifers need to make a sober assessment of the political constraints on pro-life politicians is stronger than Augustine allows.

Augustine writes, “The reality is that, as countless polls have indicated, the country is more and more open to the arguments of the pro-life cause.

There’s a reason why Hillary Clinton is testing out pro-life rhetoric. And there is simply no evidence that a frank discussion of pro-life issues — in reasoned, careful, and compassionate terms — does anything but help conservatives and their candidates.

“I would argue, in fact, that this has been the President’s greatest failing. Forget the more public matters, such as the dominance of pro-choicers in his Cabinet and as speakers at the RNC convention. It is indisputable that the President has personally on several occasions used the excuse that the cultural climate in America has not moved to a point where they will accept a ban on abortion–an excuse which is at best cowardly, at worst a crass political maneuver–yet the simple fact, based again on numerous polls, is that the current law is far less restrictive than what most Americans would tolerate.”

I don’t agree with Augustine’s reading of the polls. It is true (and has long been true) that a small majority of the public will answer yes when asked if abortion should be banned with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. It is also true (and has long been true) that large majorities favor prohibitions on second- and third-trimester abortions. Majorities or near-majorities say abortion is murder.

But if you ask the question differently–if you ask, for example, if abortion should be “between a woman and her doctor”–you get pro-choice results. And you also get majority support for Roe (especially when Roe is misdescribed in the polling question, but that’s another story). The percentage of people who consider themselves pro-life is lower than the percentage who support a general ban on abortion.

There are a variety of ways to make sense of this data, but I think it is reasonable to make two assumptions. The first is that some people who hold pro-life views hesitate to call themselves pro-lifers because they associate the movement with zealotry and extremism. The second is that people don’t like to think or hear about abortion. (That’s one reason pro-choicers rarely use the word.) Only a small number of voters consider abortion one of their top issues (most of them are pro-life). The general public is simply not looking for officeholders who present abortion–stopping it or keeping it–as one of their top priorities. Take the special election in the 22nd district of California in 1998. It’s hard to believe that a majority of voters there favor partial-birth abortion. But when the Republican candidate was seen as making the race turn on the issue, the public reaction was highly negative.

Hillary Clinton’s remarks reflect a real pro-life advantage in public opinion, and especially in voting intensity. But they also reflect the imperative that she not be seen as a pro-choice crusader. The lesson of her remarks is not that pro-lifers can be seen as crusaders themselves.

More Augustine: “And even if you doubt all of those polls, the question becomes: what is the permanent standard for the President on abortion? Is it expecting him and his Administration to work in a dedicated, sustained manner to stop abortion? Or is it an expectation that they will only undertake what they think ‘our culture’ and ‘political realities’ will tolerate?”

I think the standard should be somewhere between doing the bare minimum to keep pro-lifers in the Republican camp and doing so much that you make it impossible to create and sustain a pro-life political majority. If the House voted on a Human Life Amendment today, it would get less than 100 votes–and there would be fewer pro-lifers in the next Congress. I think Augustine understands that I don’t like a lot of the phenomena I’m describing–but again, they can’t be wished away.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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