It happens every four years—maybe every two years: Anytime there’s an election in this country, the pundits and political experts take to their soapboxes and proclaim the death of pro-life politics. The unwashed yokels in Utah, Alabama, South Dakota, Oklahoma: They’re an embarrassment, you see, and the sooner we stop paying attention to them, the sooner the nation’s politics will regain its equilibrium.
The fact that we heard exactly this after the elections in 1986 and 1990 and 1992 and 1996 and 2006 suggests it’s more a trope than an analysis, and the wish-fulfillment in much of the commentary is palpable. Republican supporters of abortion, in particular, always give the impression of people painting a façade in the hope that somebody will come along to build the house behind it.
After what was dubbed the values election of 2004, the Democrats did make some noises about the need to broaden the party’s appeal to pro-life voters, and their choice of Bob Casey Jr. to run against Rick Santorum for Pennsylvania’s Senate seat in 2006 may be a result. For that matter, the opponents of abortion have shown themselves willing to admit any number of compromises as small, incremental steps toward their goal—a curious fact, given the standard media coverage, which always paints the pro-life position as extremist. Still, the general pattern has been clear for more than twenty years: The Democratic party is the party of support for Roe v. Wade, and the Republican party is the party of at least official opposition.
Now the 2008 election has brought us the presidency of Barack Obama, the most consistent supporter of legalized abortion ever nominated by a major party. And that does seem to give more bite to the claim that the political battle over abortion is finished. If pro-life voters can’t defeat a candidate who rejected even the Illinois version of the Born-Alive Act—legislation designed precisely to force supporters of abortion into an untenable and unpopular position—then they can’t defeat anyone.
Despite some Catholics’ claims to the contrary, the new president’s approval of legalized abortion is unmistakable. Unlike Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and John Kerry, Barack Obama refused to make even verbal gestures toward compromise or nuance during the presidential campaign. The flatfooted line he delivered at the Saddleback Forum—that a decision about when life begins is “above my pay grade”—proved that he has internalized the peculiar logic of Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, which cast laws against abortion as government’s unconstitutional intrusion into private metaphysical decisions. But his earlier line that he didn’t want young women “punished with a baby” proved that he has also internalized what stands behind those decisions: a worldview in which life is not a gift but a burden to be shouldered only when we will.
On abortion, Obama is the complete man, his support so ingrained that even his carefully controlled public speaking can’t help revealing it. He’s not a fanatic about abortion; he’s what lies beyond fanaticism. He’s the end product of hard-line support for abortion: a man for whom the very question of abortion seems unreal. The opponents of abortion are, for Obama, not to be compromised with or even fought with, in a certain sense. They are, rather, to be explained away as a sociological phenomenon—their pro-life view something that will wither away as they gradually come to understand the true causes of the economic and social bitterness they have, in their undereducated and intolerant way, attached to abortion.
The result is already clear, with an announcement from Obama’s transition team, only days after the election, that the new president will remove all restrictions on federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research immediately on taking office. The Mexico City policy (which requires all groups that receive federal funds not to perform or promote abortion abroad) will disappear the first day, as well. Back in 1992, the Clinton administration gave social policy at the United Nations and other treaty organizations—all the minor jobs in international affairs—to the far left as part of its spoils in the Democratic victory, and the first signs suggest that the Obama administration will do the same.
The Freedom of Choice Act currently before Congress is as extreme a measure as the nation has ever seen, invalidating for the entire country all restrictions on abortion before viability, including parental notification, waiting periods, and partial-birth abortion bans. Obama was one of its sponsors in the Senate, and in July he announced at a Planned Parenthood event that “the first thing I’d do, as president, is sign the Freedom of Choice Act. That’s the first thing that I’d do.”
It’s possible to read the appointment of Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, the flirtation with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, and the announcement that Lawrence Summers will oversee the National Economic Council as signs that Obama is willing to resist on several fronts the leftist agenda of the more radical members of his party. On the life issues, however, he’s given no such signals. Certainly he will invest no energy in stopping Congress from overturning the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federal funding of abortion.
All this means that Obama is unlikely to resist when the abortion extremists in Congress hijack or extend the White House’s new economic and social legislation. Nancy Pelosi in the House and Dianne Feinstein in the Senate, for example, are certain to include, in health-care reform, provisions that mandate abortion training for doctors and abortion services for hospitals. And while Obama’s political advisors may regret the political objections that will result, the president himself will see it only in those terms: a problem of electoral politics, rather than a problem of constitutionality or ethics. Resist the far left on some things, but pacify them with complete support on the life issues—that seems, so far, the method of the Obama team, and it is a method wholly in keeping with what we know of the new president’s own predilections. He has already said that his Supreme Court nominations will begin with the litmus test of support for Roe v. Wade.
Confronting this situation, the Republican party needs to listen to those who advise it not to dismiss the life issues. Many things contributed to the Democrats’ victories in 2006 and 2008, but opposition to abortion simply wasn’t one of them. The pro-life voters were, in fact, the one group that stayed consistently with the Republicans. As Karl Rove recently pointed out, “Suggestions that we abandon social conservatism, including our pro-life agenda, should be ignored. These values are often more popular than the GOP itself. The age of sonograms has made younger voters a more pro-life generation. And California and Florida approved marriage amendments while McCain lost both states. Republicans, in championing our values agenda, need to come across as morally serious rather than as judgmental. More than four million Americans who go to church more than once a week and voted in 2004 stayed home in 2008. They represented half the margin between Obama and McCain.”
More to the point, such advice is probably unnecessary. Without resistance from the White House, the congressional Democrats are certain to push beyond the general public’s views on the life issues. And when they do, the Republicans will be forced to trumpet the Democrats’ extremism. That’s an inherent pressure on the politics of opposition, and it will keep the life issues in the news, whatever pro- Roe Republican pundits and activists wish.
Meanwhile, what should the pro-life movement do? The reasoning offered by some of the Catholic public figures who supported Obama was embarrassingly bad, but we should not, for that reason alone, admit to the perpetual tying of the pro-life cause to the Republican party. The Republicans have done some good and some ill for the cause since Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, but, however one weighs it up, the results are not full repayment for the support pro-lifers have given the party over those years. The coming fights promise no new seriousness on the part of the Republicans. They talk a better game than they play, in Congress at least, and they have often been better on the life issues when they are out of power than when they are in.
The first analyses of the poll results suggest that evangelicals voted for Barack Obama’s Democratic ticket in 2008 at slightly higher rates than they had voted for John Kerry’s in 2004, although good numbers of them didn’t vote at all in the 2008 election. Catholics did show up in apparently the same numbers as they did in 2004, and about 51 percent of them voted for Obama (a lower percentage than the national average, but still following Catholic voters’ general trend of mirroring the national result).
The extent of the Democrats’ overreach will determine some of the extent to which the religious and social-conservative voters return to the national Republican party. If, for instance, under health-care legislation, Catholic hospitals are forced to provide abortions—and if those hospitals summon the will to resist—we could see a pro-life issue become the major rallying point for conservative politics.
Generally speaking, however, Obama’s victory means the pro-life fight is off the national stage for the next few years. In the wake of the nominations of Justices Roberts and Alito, some in the pro-life movement imagined the time was right to try a silver bullet—a single piece of congressional legislation or a state referendum that would induce the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. All that now needs to be set aside. The current members of the Court aren’t going to give us more on abortion, and Obama’s nominees are certain to be far worse.
It is, rather, in the state legislatures and in the grooming of local candidates that the movement has its best chances to advance. We are, more or less, back where we were in 1992. Better off, in some ways: The intellectual argument against Roe is now far more robust and complete, for example. But worse off, in other ways: Barack Obama is no Bill Clinton, and even Clinton’s mantra of “safe, legal, and rare,” devoid as it was of practical effect, remains beyond Obama.
After every election, out in full howl come the voices declaring that the fight over abortion is over. And, after every election, those voices prove wrong. That’s because, in the long run, the fight will never be over until the slaughter of the unborn ceases. And it’s also because the supporters of abortion will not rest with their electoral victory. They are going to push and push until, at last, we stop them.
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.
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