by Helen Alvarè
February 4, 2000
What is it about the abortion issue that drives presidential candidates wild? That makes them by turns squirm, dodge, weave, reverse themselves and apologize?
At the risk of sounding simplistic, "It's abortion, stupid." The thing in itself. The act of taking a completely defenseless human life, and terminating it.
And then there's the claims of competing groups. On the one hand, there is a small but very visible cohort of pro-abortion interest groups saying that abortion is the very, very most fundamental right that American women possess. At the core of women's very liberty and freedom. And there are a significant number of unusually well-placed and visible Americans -- in the media, the entertainment industry, the academy, etc. -- who believe this with every fiber of their being. On the other hand, you have the intellectually unassailable argument made by pro-lifers that abortion is medically and morally the taking of a defenseless human life.
Any candidate trying even remotely to please these two groups simultaneously is in for a rough ride.
Not to mention that abortion intersects all those other tricky issues in American life -- like sex, death, feminism, women's roles, and male responsibility. Pro-abortion voices have managed to get some of the public automatically to associate their view with all that is "progressive" on these hot topics. And to cast a jaundiced eye on pro-lifers as if we would just as soon harbor an abortion clinic shooter in our attic as help a pregnant woman in need.
Enough explanation? We're not done yet. Candidates' gymnastics are also a result of the way party politics has developed in the last two decades, and of Americans' nuanced, though oft-misreported, opinions on abortion.
It used to be that both major parties were pro-life by platform. The Democrats changed that in 1976, under pressure from pro-abortion groups. The Republicans have held on to their pro-life platform, but many have publicly aired their disdain for it, or even a desire just to "tinker" with it a little bit to try to please everybody. This game can perhaps best be summarized by Bob Dole's artless disclaimer before the 1996 presidential elections -- after a huge party struggle resulting in retention of the pro-life platform -- that he "hadn't even read it."
Today, both parties are trying to attract people of both persuasions on the abortion issue. They are reading the very same polls, and discovering that grassroots Americans, Democrats and Republicans alike, mostly disfavor abortion. The majority, in fact, would outlaw it except for the tiny percentage of cases involving rape, incest or the mother's life. An additional 23% would outlaw it except in the first trimester. On the opposite side, the major abortion advocacy groups would preserve abortion, throughout pregnancy, and even after a child is partially delivered; this is a view held by only 11% of the public. But more importantly, it's a view held by 100% of the dollars in some of the richest -- read VERY PERSUASIVE -- political action committees funneling money to campaigns. Emily's List, for example, a political action committee just for strongly pro-abortion Democratic women, has held the record for being the very richest pac in the United States for years.
I'll conclude with a suggestion to any political candidate who cares to read it, of any party. Forget about all the complications I just mentioned. Consider the "Henry Hyde" model of abortion politics. Be pro-life. Be honest. Be eloquent in the defense of life. Be a gentleman or a lady in your demeanor. When you make your case in such a way, when you inspire the public to understand what you're for and why, when you make them understand that no disrespect for women is intended, but rather the truest form of respect -- you'll win people's respect in return.
Helen Alvare is Director of Planning and Information at the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities at the NCCB in Washington, DC