Will the GOP Go Wobbly on Abortion?

With the passage of the new South Dakota law banning abortion, right on the heels of Senate confirmation of Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito to the Supreme Court, some mainstream media types, fed by liberal Republican angst and Beltway timidity, are predicting dire consequences for the GOP if Roe v. Wade is reversed.

Exceptions, Exceptions

Joe Conason, writing in the New York Observer in the March 20th edition, castigates Senator McCain and President Bush for not having the guts to admit the inconsistency of opposing abortion while allowing for exceptions for rape and incest (“Abortion Ban Will Test ‘Moderate’ Republicans”). Conason is trying to hoist pro-life Republicans on their own petard, so to speak. The South Dakota legislators were consistent while Bush and McCain are not.

“Endorsing the exception conveniently allows any politician to sound more moderate without completely forfeiting his or her anti-abortion credentials. The leaders of the religious Right and the anti-abortion movement colluded with their conservative Republican favorites by permitting this little deception. They know that as a practical matter, the exception would have little effect,” argues Conason.

Conason accuses McCain of releasing “a transparently stupid statement to the press” in which he stated he would sign the South Dakota legislation “but would take appropriate steps under state law — in whatever state — to ensure that the exceptions of rape, incest or life of the mother were included.” Conason points out, correctly, that signing the law would have done away with the exceptions.

Even the Republican Governor and Senator of South Dakota hedged a bit. Conason claims he was “simultaneously trying to disown it [the abortion law] as something the legislators ‘chose to do’ on their own. Senator John Thune, the South Dakota Republican who unseated Democrat Tom Daschle with anti-abortion rhetoric, promised to ‘continue to watch [the South Dakota bill] closely as it moves through the courts.’” Conason is making the not-so-subtle point that these politicians are something other than profiles in courage.

Conason has plenty of venom left for the leader of the GOP: “In Washington, the president’s press secretary responded to questions about the bill by noting that it was a ‘state matter,’ and that the president always seeks to build a ‘culture of life,’ except for those fetuses conceived in rape or incest. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Bush articulate the reasoning that led him to that contradictory position.”

One has to marvel at the rigorous pro-life logic of the rigorously pro-choice Conason.

“Squirming a Bit”?

Such a reversal is not likely to happen anytime soon given Justice Kennedy’s pro-Roe record, not to mention genuine uncertainty as to the positions of Roberts and Alito. So what we are seeing is a brush-back pitch, of sorts, at the social conservatives in the party, a warning that enough is enough on these peripheral matters. It is an attempt at creating a self-fulfilling prophecy that will inhibit Republicans and thereby alienate them from one of their key constituencies.

There may be tough times ahead for the Republicans in 2006 and 2008 due to the war in Iraq, Katrina, and overspending, but setting up the pro-life movement for a fall is an exercise in wishful thinking as it relates to this social movement with deep roots in American soil.

Newsweek’s Howard Fineman and Evan Thomas describe the current sense among some Pachyderms as “The GOP’s Anxiety” (March 20, 2006 issue). In their telling, Ken Mehlman, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, responded with a monosyllabic “No” when asked if he had anything to say about the new South Dakota law. Mehlman was at the recent gathering for presidential hopefuls in Memphis.

Fineman and Thomas continue: “Did he plan to make a statement on that topic at the Republican gathering in Memphis? 'No' was the answer. Would he ever be willing to comment on the topic, other than to say that it’s up to the states to make their own choices on abortion? Again, the answer was 'No.' The look on his face was more expressive. It appeared to ask, ‘Are you kidding?’” They speculate that Mehlman’s reticence reflects the belief that, despite the tangible benefits the abortion issue has brought to Republicans, “They may be in the awkward position of getting more than they asked for.”

While recognizing that the Democrats have their own problems with abortion and noting the presence of Bob Casey, a pro-life Democrat on the ballot for US Senate in Pennsylvania, they are quick to note the reservations of several prominent Republicans with respect to the South Dakota law which does not recognize exceptions for rape or incest.

“It could backfire,” says Louisiana Senator David Vitter. In other words, even if Roberts and Alito would vote to reverse Roe, the votes (especially Justice Kennedy’s) are still not there to overturn the South Dakota law. Fineman and Thomas do not quote the Senator beyond this brief statement. So we are left to speculate as to what the backfire phenomenon is all about.

Virginia GOP Senator and former governor George Allen, a presidential hopeful and a Jeffersonian tending toward libertarianism, is described by the Newsweek writers as “firmly anti-abortion.” However, he told them he would have vetoed a similar bill if it passed his own state’s legislature.

GOP maverick, Arizona Senator John McCain, another presidential aspirant, but a reliable pro-life vote in Washington, is described by these writers as “squirming a bit.” McCain told them that he did not know the “technical” details of the law. “But he said he would support the measure if it were consistent with his long-held view that abortion should be banned except in cases of rape or incest — or to protect, as he put it, the ‘health’ of the mother. His aides had to scramble to correct the record: he meant, they said, the life of the mother,” reported the Newsweek duo.

Finally, asked if the South Dakota law could cause problems for the GOP, McCain said, “I just don’t know.”

Pro-life stalwart, Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, among the early prospectors in the presidential gold rush, strongly supported the South Dakota law and stated, forthrightly, “I’d have signed it.” The aides of Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney let it be known he would have signed the legislation, too.

With the grin of the Cheshire Cat on their faces, Fineman and Thomas conclude that “Republicans may not want to be called ‘South Dakota Republicans.’”

Mort Kondracke, executive editor of Roll Call and left-of-center political commentator for Fox News, believes “…Republicans should thank their lucky stars” for the fact that the Supreme Court is unlikely to use any legal challenge to the South Dakota law as an opportunity to reverse Roe v. Wade. For Kondracke, a long-time supporter of embryonic stem-cell research, the South Dakota law will elevate abortion on the political agenda for the 2008 presidential race and cause problems for the likes of Senator McCain.

The law “gives the pro-choice movement a graphic example of what life might be like in a large swath of America if Roe were overturned,” says Kondracke, writing on RealClearPolitics.com on St. Patrick’s Day. He quotes anonymous pro-choice House Members to bolster this vision of an America without abortion on demand for all nine months of pregnancy. “We’d be blown away in the suburbs, and you wouldn’t see another Republican president for 20 years.”

Another is quoted as saying that “If you take away a right that people have taken for granted, they will rise to defend it. A sleeping giant would be aroused.”

Kondracke spends a great deal of time reassuring himself and the pro-choice Republicans that the relevant polling data “overwhelmingly indicate that Americans favor retention of Roe, even if they support limitations on abortion.” This seems to contradict his prior assertion that a “large swath of America” would turn out like South Dakota, i.e., no access to abortion. But let’s not put too fine a point on this.

Strengthening Spines

So what is one to make of all these crocodile tears for pro-life Republicans in the face of a renewed right-to-life movement and at least a partial return to judicial restraint on the highest court of the land?

It must be conceded that Republican politicians for three decades have always been tongue-tied on the issue of abortion and the humanity of the unborn. With few exceptions — Ronald Reagan, Congressmen Henry Hyde and Chris Smith, and Senators Santorum and Brownback — Republicans shy away from adequately articulating consistent principles relating to the integrity of the human person from conception to death. It is hard to recall any memorable rhetoric on the subject from, say, the first President Bush or Senator Bob Dole whose senatorial career was saved by the pro-life movement at a critical stage of his career.

The fact is that the politicians are lagging, not leading indicators of the strength of the movement to protect the human person. Many, not all, of them have been carried across the goal line by a motivated, well-organized phalanx of activists throughout the country. Just like the National Rifle Association on the Right, or labor unions on the Left, when spines need strengthening, the right-to-life movement gets the job done.

It is not a question of if a politician will go wobbly on a difficult, wrenching issue such as abortion. It is only a matter of when. The right-to-life movement has always operated on that assumption. The same is probably true for the pro-choice crowd. The big difference, though, is that the right-to-life issue has been a winner for the Republicans, especially in swing Midwestern states with many Catholic voters and in the evangelical precincts of the South and West.

It is also true that many “pro-life” politicians are inconsistent in allowing for exceptions for rare cases of pregnancy from rape or incest. Such a position does violence to logic, as Joe Conason points out, but also to a consistent view of the innocence and humanity of the unborn. Still, the fact is that the subjective state of mind of numerous supporters of these exceptions is not necessarily that of a dishonest or hypocritical person. Many Americans experience the moral and intellectual difficulties inherent in a consistent ethic of life. Would that the rabidly pro-choice politicians in the Democratic Party experienced such a failure of logic or nerve in the case of third-trimester and partial-birth abortions even unto birth!

Finally, those finding pleasure in a supposed political dilemma on abortion for the GOP in the event of a limiting or outright reversal of Roe v. Wade simply misunderstand the political dynamics in the wake of just such an occurrence. If this abortion ruling is reversed, the matter is actually de-nationalized. Campaigns for president, senator, or the House of Representatives will not be focused on the abortion issue as much as they are today. It would become a huge issue in statehouses across America. There will be places where the pro-choice view will predominate, and places where the pro-life view will be on the ascendancy. There will be jurisdictions which will gravitate to very messy compromises which are the product of difficult political negotiations and compromises.

It is not a pretty sight, but that is what we signed on for when we severed the tie to King George and resolved to protect our liberty by distributing power in a federal system operating through democratically elected representatives at the state as well as national level.

© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange

G. Tracy Mehan, III, an attorney, was Assistant Administrator for Water at the US Environmental Protection Agency. He served in several pro-life organizations in Missouri and Michigan.

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