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Abortion And Hyperbolic Political Rhetoric

The recent drama surrounding the Congressional hearings on Planned Parenthood and its practices must have been confusing for many on the Pro-Life side.  To see an organization best known for providing abortions defended so vigorously and angrily – on Capitol Hill, in the media, and on the internet – may well have been disconcerting for some.  We – which is to say Pro-Lifers – understand why we take abortion as seriously as we do.  After all, we believe that we are defending life, the very essence of God’s gift and the very foundation of human society.  What we don’t always grasp, however, is why abortion is such a big deal to the other side.  How, pray tell, can anyone be so enthusiastic about the legal entitlement to “terminate” (i.e. “kill”) unborn babies?  Maybe this was a serious and obvious case of women’s freedom a half-century ago, but no one today can take seriously the idea that women without abortion are second-class citizens doomed to remain “barefoot and pregnant,” can they?  Why then do they care so much about abortion?  And, relatedly, why are they willing to compromise whatever values they may hold to support Planned Parenthood and to support candidates like Hillary Clinton, whose only appeal is her undying support for abortion?

These are complicated questions, I’ll grant.  And the answers are similarly complicated.  Most supporters of abortion prefer not to think of themselves in such terms, which is to say “defenders of abortion.”  With only a few notable exceptions, even the staunchest Pro-Choicers insist that they are not “pro-abortion,” at all and actually lament the practice.  They prefer instead to see themselves as defenders of liberty and human rights and warriors against the tyranny of the old patriarchy.  This is not by mere chance, of course.  The means by which abortion became a legal reality in this country and by which it remains so are critical to any understanding of the Pro-Choice movement.  To the Pro-Choicers, abortion is not just a means of birth control or even a mere means of advancing women’s “health.”  It is, in fact, a fundamental and unalterable condition of human liberty.

Pro-Lifers and other conservatives tend to see the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade as an unnecessary and unconscionable usurpation of the people’s rights in a democratic republic.  Pro-Choicers, by contrast, see the decision very differently.  When the Court rewrote the abortion laws of the states by virtue of its conclusion that abortion was protected under the 9th and the 14th amendments, it created a constitutional right to abortion.  The fundamental human rights traditionally associated with the Bill of Rights – speech, religion, bear arms, speedy trial, etc. – suddenly had a new and fully-equal companion right, the right to an abortion.  Indeed, some scholars, most notably Russell Hittinger, have argued that between Roe and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the Supreme Court established a regime in which abortion is the preeminent and defining right in the constitutional order.  Hittinger, who is the William K. Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and a Research Professor of Law at the University of Tulsa, put it this way, nearly twenty years ago:

In Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court made abortion the benchmark of its own legitimacy, and indeed the token of the American political covenant.  To those who cannot agree with the proposition that individuals have a moral or constitutional right to kill the unborn, or that such a right defines the trans-generational covenant of the American political order, the Court urged acceptance out of respect for the rule of law.  “If the Court’s legitimacy should be undermined,” the Court declared, “then so would the country be in its very ability to see itself through its constitutional ideals.”

What this means in the real world, then, is that those who define their politics in terms of “women’s issues” and the rights of women, see abortion not as a fundamental right, but as THE fundamental right, the one to which all other rights are subordinate.

Given this, the Pro-Choice side will broach no encroachment whatsoever on the “right” to abortion or even on the “right” to public funding of the nation’s largest abortion provider.  The waiting periods, parental consent, counseling, etc. that are common throughout the rest of the developed world and especially Western Europe are simply intolerable to American abortion supporters.  Any infringement on the absolute right to abortion on demand is an attack on that which is considered inviolable.  It represents tyranny and nothing more.

Unfortunately, this is merely the part of the issue which is most obvious and which has been recognized and understood for several years.  There is something else at work here as well, which is less understood but every bit as important as another federal election draws near and as the Democratic Party appears set to revive its “war on women” theme.

For most of the last century, the distinctions between the political Right and Left have been obvious and unchanging.  The basic political paradigm in the country was well known.  It was defined as hawks vs. doves; big government vs. small government; labor vs. capital; rich vs. poor, and so on.  Since the fall of the Soviet Union, however, that has all changed, and the distinctions between Right and Left, and thus between the Republicans and Democrats, have changed as well.  Today, the parties are generally unable to distinguish themselves from one another with respect to these traditional measures, and in some cases, the parties have actually swapped positions.  Consider, for example, the following from the New York Times’ dean of left-leaning columnists, Thomas Edsall, penned earlier this month:

Voters on both the left and the right often claim that there is no difference between the Democratic and Republican Parties, and of course that isn’t true. There’s a big difference between Elena Kagan and Antonin Scalia, for one thing.  But there may be more to this argument than you think.

Democrats now depend as much on affluent voters as on low-income voters.  Democrats represent a majority of the richest congressional districts, and the party’s elected officials are more responsive to the policy agenda of the well-to-do than to average voters.  The party and its candidates have come to rely on the elite 0.01 percent of the voting age population for a quarter of their financial backing and on large donors for another quarter.

Many on the Right have, of course, been aware of this shift for some time.  Indeed, it has now been more than a decade since the inimitable Michael Barone noted John Kerry’s remarkable and trend-setting performance among wealthy voters in the 2004 presidential election.  Edsall’s concession, though, confirms that the evidence for this shift is far too substantial to deny.  It is no longer merely a quirk that Democrats win more of the wealthiest counties in the country; it is, in fact, an emerging and enduring political reality.  The Democrats are the party of the rich – at least as much as, and likely more than, the Republicans.

Naturally, this presents some problems for the Democrats and their candidates.  They have always billed themselves as the natural home of the working and middle classes, but can no longer back up that claim either with policy or campaign strategy.  And while I wouldn’t go as far as Edsall, claiming that the there is virtually no difference between Republicans and Democrats on economic matters, I will concede that the differences that do exist are hardly the same as they once were.

As a result, Democratic candidates have to distinguish themselves somehow, and they have chosen to do so by emphasizing the differences between themselves and their Republican counterparts on social issues.  There is thick irony in this, of course, given that the Left spent virtually the entirety of the last two decades berating Republican officials for exploiting social “wedge” issues and Republican voters for having something “wrong” with them that would compel them to vote against their economic interests in favor of social concerns.

The war on women meme that has dominated Democratic campaign rhetoric for the last five-plus years is likely to dominate again next year, if for no other reason than many Democrats see it as the best way to distinguish themselves from Republicans.  Think about it.  You want to remind voters that you’re not a Republican, even though you’re up to your ears in Wall Street money, hedge fund backing, and billionaire buddies?  What do you do?  Well, you make a big show of your support for Planned Parenthood and abortion “rights,” and all the other trapping of social liberalism.  You insist that the war on women is real and that any concession to the other side is tantamount to “setting the nation and its women back 200 years.”  In short, you emphasize social issues every bit as much as Karl Rove did more than a decade ago.  You make them the centerpiece of your candidacy.  This is the new political reality in post-Cold War America, and it makes for awfully-ugly politics.

A fundamental “right” plus a fundamental campaign strategy equals a fundamentally-intemperate political climate, one in which any perceived affront is exaggerated and political rhetoric is defensive and belligerent.  There’s a war on, after all, and the stakes, apparently, are quite high.