We have all heard the saying, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.” We are about to see if large numbers of Catholics are going to fall into the “shame on me” category.
Many of us bought into the repackaging of Bill Clinton in his two runs for the presidency. He got the majority of the Catholic vote in both elections. Hillary Clinton is involved in a similar attempt to redefine herself, especially on the abortion question. We’ll see if Catholics bite this time. The New York Times praised her recently for working to “define a promising path” toward “common ground” with Americans opposed to legal abortions and for “deftly shifting the focus of the abortion discussion to where there is the broadest agreement, and where President Bush’s policy failure is most apparent namely, abortion prevention.”
Senator Clinton adopted her new stance in a speech in Albany, New York, to a group of over 1000 abortion-rights supporters. After reaffirming her support for Roe v. Wade, she went on to urge both sides in the abortion debate to find ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies and ultimately reduce the number of abortions performed in the country. The Times reports that Senator Clinton had “warm words” for opponents of legal abortion and that she praised the influence of “religious and moral values on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active.” The Times observed that the Democrats’ defeat in last November’s elections led Senator Clinton “to recalibrate the party’s thinking about new restrictions on abortion.”
Several other prominent “pro-choice” Democrats are joining Hillary in this new stance. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign, is seeking to persuade Robert P. Casey Jr., Pennsylvania’s state treasurer, to challenge Senator Rick Santorum, an outspoken opponent of abortion on demand, in 2006. The younger Casey is the son of former Pennsylvania Governor Bob Casey, who denounced the Democrats for refusing to let him speak at their 1992 convention on behalf of Democrats who shared his pro-life views. The wire service stories report that Schumer is encouraging the younger Casey to run as an open opponent of abortion rights. “He was very welcoming and very candid about the party’s need to speak for a broad section of Americans,” said Casey in an interview.
Howard Dean, the new chairman of the Democratic National Committee, joined the chorus. At a speech in Jackson, Mississippi on March 1st, he told the crowd that Democrats “should reach out to people who are worried about values. We are going to embrace pro-life Democrats because pro-life Democrats care about kids after they’re born, not just before they’re born.”
And what is wrong with all this? Isn’t it a good sign that the Democrats are recognizing that it is not in their best interests to be identified as the party of abortion on demand and partial-birth abortion?
It would be, if they were not merely conning us; if they were not merely making it look as if the party is less doctrinaire on the matter of abortion, while continuing to do everything in their power to maintain the status quo. And that is what is happening. What Hillary and the others are engaged in is an attempt to blur the Democrats’ pro-abortion image sufficiently to win enough swing votes to carry the day at the ballot box, while doing nothing to end the reality of abortion on demand.
Is that an unfair charge? I say no. Coincidence or not, on the same day that Senator Clinton delivered her speech in New York, the new Democratic leader in the US Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada, introduced a bill he calls the “First Prevention Act.” It was more specific than Senator Clinton about how the Democrats plan to “reduce the number of abortions.” His bill calls for funding for more sex education, “including but not limited to abstinence counseling,” expanded access to family-planning services for low-income women, greater availability of “morning-after emergency contraception” for all women, and legislation to mandate that health care plans include contraceptives for women. That is what Senator Reid means by being pro-life.
Schumer was equally calculating about his call for openness toward pro-life Democrats. He told “pro-choice” Democrats that it would serve their cause if a pro-life Democrat like Robert Casey were to replace Rick Santorum. He argued that abortion rights groups should worry about Republicans, not pro-life Democrats, if they wanted to preserve Roe v. Wade. “What we find is that even the most pro-choice Republican senators just vote down the line for judges that are chomping at he bit to overturn Roe,” he said.
Clever, no? Schumer is arguing that if Democrats back a pro-life candidate such as Casey, they will soften their image as the party of abortion on demand, while at the same time increasing the chances for a Democratic majority in the Senate, which will increase the odds that the votes will be there to ensure that abortion on demand will never come to an end.
The Times understands the calculus. Its report noted that if the Democrats alter their rhetoric, perhaps even indicate a willingness to enact more restrictive laws on partial-birth abortion, they will appeal to the swing voter who is “uncomfortable with partial-birth abortion but who favors public funding for comprehensive family planning services.”
Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for Free Choice, is doing her part in this effort. (The pro-abortion Democrats have put together a full-court press on this one, haven’t they?) In an article in the winter 2004/2005 issue of the group’s quarterly, she agreed that supporters of legal abortion need to find a way to free themselves from the image that they are “reluctant even to consider whether or not fetal life has a value.” As you might expect, she blames pro-life groups for this state of affairs, arguing that their “obstinate insistence” that all abortions be outlawed is what has forced those on the “pro-choice” side to counter with a defense of an absolute right to abortion on demand, even partial-birth abortion, as if there were no moral or legal dimension to ending a pregnancy.
Kissling recognizes that this doctrinaire defense of abortion is counter-productive; that it can no longer be sold politically in an age where sonograms of children in the womb make clear that a fetus is human life. Her objective is to come up with a platform for those who favor legal abortion that will affirm that fetal life “has value” without restricting access to legal abortion.
So there’s the strategy Hillary Clinton’s, Charles Schumer’s, Harry Reid’s, Howard Dean’s, Frances Kissling’s: Permit pro-life Democrats to speak their piece as a powerless minority within the party, employ sad-faced rhetoric about the gravity of ending a pregnancy, indicate a willingness to discuss some vague restrictions on partial-birth abortions all for the purpose of protecting Roe v. Wade and promoting the Democrats’ agenda for increased federal funding for “family planning.”
Clinton advisor Harold Ickes described the strategy in an interview for New York magazine (February 21). He said, “The issue of choice is deeply, deeply felt. We progressives can’t dismiss people who feel to the contrary. This is a helpful dialogue Hillary’s opened up.” He added, “Bill Clinton’s main plaint was that we Democrats, primarily Kerry, were ignoring the issues of abortion, guns, and gay marriage to our peril.”
Will it work? Will enough Catholic swing voters be won over by Hillary’s repositioning of herself for her to win the presidency in 2008? I am not the best one to make odds on that. I never thought her husband would be able to package himself in a way that would attract Catholic voters. We shall see.
James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)