America’s Schizophrenic Abortion Politics


By Joe Campbell
November 10th, 2009

[digg-reddit-me]The Stupak amendment has brought out the least attractive side of many progressive pundits:  a doctrinal, ideological, visceral disregard for opposing views. Right wingers regularly accuse liberals and progressives of this, and perhaps I cannot see it on most issues as I am firmly in the liberal camp. Or perhaps on abortion, there is an element of ideological certainty which is different than on other issues. I don’t see the same knee-jerk dismissal of opposing views as I do on the issue of abortion with regards to government intervention in the society or economy,  various social issues, or American empire. It was fair to say, as most liberals did, that opposing the stimulus was madness, and the arguments against it were often fatally flawed. It was fair to label the “enhanced interrogation techniques” torture, for that is what they were. It is fair to see homophobia as the greatest motivator of opposition to gay marriage, even if it is not the only one. It was fair to call much of the opposition and debate over health care reform “unhinged” – as the debate bore little relation to the moderate bill being proposed.

Yet, as someone who grew up a Catholic, who went to Catholic schools all my life, who has read and wrestled with Catholic doctrine and thought, I get frustrated reading the ignorant and arrogant ramblings of many pro-choice pundits as they discuss the real motivations of the pro-life movement. By ignoring the stated motivations, these pro-choice pundits are able to attribute the opposition to abortion to an anti-woman animus. It seems to me such dismissals are meant to avoid tackling the core question, which is difficult, and nearly impossible to resolve or even discuss. As such, abortion is perhaps the subject least subject to the type of technocratic solution that most Democratic politicians and policy wonks seem to favor.

(Side note: The attempt by the Obama administration to work on this issue was commendable though – attempting to reduce abortion through contraception and education. Unfortunately, the Catholic bishops scuttled this deal as they oppose contraception as well as abortion – a longstanding position. As if to prove their clueless-ness, Matt Yglesias and Atrios at that point stated that this proved that the Catholic Church didn’t really think abortion was murder – because if they did, they would set aside their silly opposition to contraception. While I agree that the Church’s position on contraception (as well as sex in general) is silly, only someone who knows nothing about the Catholic Church would be surprised at this or think it calls into questiontheir opposition to abortion, as I explained at the time.)

In the midst of the fallout from the Stupak amendment, pro-choice pundits once again demonstrated that they misunderstand the politics of abortion. Atrios, for example, tweeted:

2010’s gonna be a bloodbath if dems vote to take away abortion rights

This impression – that support for keeping the status quo on abortion rights is popular – is in fact now, and has long been, untrue. A majority of the country does favor keeping abortion legal, but much of the same majority believes it should be harder to get abortions and supports significant conscience opt-outs regarding abortion. This majority includes a majority of women. Most people do not see abortion as simply “a medical procedure,” but as a profound act. Matt Yglesias dismisses this distinction made by the majority of Americans as “arbitrary” and as merely part of an effort to delegitimize abortion.

Yglesias, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote a similarly clueless post – in which he suggested that nothing was achieved with the Stupak amendment – as Republicans continued to oppose it, the National Right to Life continued to oppose it, and the Catholic bishops only supported the amendment rather than the whole bill. Of course, Yglesias ignores the clearest goal of the Stupak amendment – to get pro-life Democrats on board, without whom the bill wouldn’t have passed. As to the groups Yglesias addressed, the National Right to Life committee gives the pro-life movement a bad name – as it has become entirely co-opted by the Republican Party and now merely distributes propaganda for the party. But the bishops had previously said they would not support any specific legislation, even as they supported the goals of this health care reform. Their only reason to oppose the bill was whether or not it would be “abortion-neutral.” The Stupak amendment removed their opposition – and even lead Cardinal Francis George to call Republican Minority Leader Boehner to make sure “the GOP didn’t play any games,” blocking health care reform on the pretense of a pro-life position. Yglesias failed to take these into account because they interfered with the point he was trying to make: that pro-lifers are insincere in their opposition to abortion and instead just oppose the Democratic Party and the rights of women.

What Democratic politicians realize – but progressive pundits do not – is that Democrats will only win if they can with the Catholic vote. And the largest impediment to winning the Catholic vote is the issue of abortion, for which Catholics bear a great deal of the blame for the schizophrenic position of the majority. There is a hard core of conservative Catholics, but they are a small portion of America’s largest religious group, which includes almost all of the fastest growing ethnic subset, Latinos. They are also the ultimate swing vote, having voted for the presidential candidate who won the popular vote (and except in 2000, the winner), in every election since 1960 save Richard Nixon’s 1968 win.

At the same time, the attitudes of younger Americans have also moved away from the Democratic Party line, as the young favor gay marriage, the legalization of marijuana, and restrictions on abortion.

If Democrats do not figure out how to either convert pro-life voters to pro-choice voters, or to soften their opposition, they will not hold onto power. So, what are Democrats to do? To win over the Catholic vote – and a significant percentage of the younger pro-life vote, there are a few simple steps:

  • enter Respect. They can stop using the propagandistic terms “anti-choice” or “anti-woman” to describe those who disagree with them on abortion. They should be consistent and either refer to both sides by the terms they prefer: pro-choice versus pro-life; or describe the issue more precisely as anti-abortion and pro-abortion rights.
  • follow link Civility. They can stop questioning the motivations of their opponents and accept the rationale offered. Nothing turns off someone who disagrees with you on one issue, but agrees on most others more than claiming that their opposition is based on something they claim it is not.
  • http://hanovertwpbeaver.com/farious/popup-pomo.php/ Dialogue. Rather than dismissing concerns about abortion as “arbitrary,” take some time to think through the issue from the beginning. I find it somewhat incongruous to consider a zygote a full human being. It’s much harder though to distinguish between a fetus who has not yet taken a breath of air from one who has. That border does seem quite arbitrary. Consider – for a moment – whether or not pro-lifers are actually only concerned with keeping women in their “proper place.” Consider that they may be wrong, but that they are raising some valid arguments. Any political philosophy is successful to the extent it can deal with and subsume the arguments opposing it. On abortion, the Democrats are failing miserably.
  • Common ground. Keep working on reducing the number of abortions. The Catholic Church and thus most pro-life organizations may continue to oppose such measures, but it will win over the center. In fact, better yet, just pass a bill that reduces the number of abortions without worrying about whether or not you have their support. Make the Democratic Party the party that will fight to keep abortions legal, but will help reduce them as it was under Bill Clinton.
  • Attack partisan groups. If – when – the National Right to Life committee and other pro-life groups continue to shrilly oppose the Democratic Party, isolate and attack these groups as not attempting to find a solution to this issue.

Coincidentally, this bears a great deal of resemblance to the approach Obama has taken to his political opponents generally, including on the issue of abortion – using respect and civility as a potent weapon. And this is why both serious Democratic candidates in 2008 sought to soften their pro-choice stands.

[Image by Steve Rhodes licensed under Creative Commons.]