Armageddon time on Capital Hill, as anti-abortion and pro-choice
activists fall into formation for their fight over life. Everyone's
so tangled up in their talking points trying to claim "mainstream"
status for their side in the Judge Alito hearings, that no one
seems interested asking what the American people consider a mainstream
position on abortion. The answer might surprise them. Because
Americans aren't nearly as divided on choice as the warring political
elites would have you believe.
straight talk on choice: Sixty-four percent of Americans agree
that the decision to have an abortion should be between "a
woman, her doctor, her family, her conscience and her God,"
according to a 2003 poll by Luntz Research Companies, confirming
the results of a 1995 Newsweek poll. Likewise, 66% of
Americans would not like to see Roe v. Wade completely
overturned, according to a 2005 NBC/WSJ poll. Furthermore,
according to the Gallup Poll, only 19% of Americans think that
abortion should be illegal in all circumstances - a number that
has held steady over the three decades Gallup has been asking
But at the
same time, 68% supported making partial birth abortions illegal,
when asked by a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll in 2003. What
does all this mean?
In a 51-49 nation,
this is not a 51-49 issue. Roughly two-thirds of Americans support
a basic but not unrestricted right to choice. Third trimester
abortions are regarded as an abomination, but there is also overwhelming
opposition to a constitutional ban on abortion. Activists on either
side might be unsatisfied, but the reality is that there is broad
common ground and emerging consensus on the issue of abortion.
So how have we been convinced otherwise?
First, we've been
suckered by the pro-choice and pro-life labels. Activists don't
call themselves anti-choice or anti-life for a reason - they wouldn't
have folks rallying around their flag nearly as fast if they advertised
Second, and most importantly,
pro-choice and pro-life are not equivalent positions. You can
be personally against abortion but pro-choice. It's about distinguishing
personal beliefs from your right to impose them on everyone else.
For example, it is often forgotten that in the 2000 election,
both then-Governor Bush and Senator McCain - self-described pro-lifers
- were asked what they would do if their daughter became pregnant
out of wedlock. Both replied they would ultimately respect whatever
decision she made.
Finally, while social
conservative Republicans have tried to make a principled pro-choice
position a political impossibility within their party, they intentionally
obscure the libertarian impulse that defines pro-choice Republicans.
According to an American Viewpoint survey, 69% of Republicans
strongly agreed with the following statement: "The decision
to have an abortion should be between a woman, her doctor and
her family. Government should not be involved in making such a
personal decision." A subsequent poll by Fabrizio, McLaughlin
and Associates confirmed these counter-intuitive results, showing
that only 27% of Republicans disagreed with the statement.
"I tell my conservative
friends that I'm the more consistent conservative because I believe
in the individual's ability to make the best decision," says
Ann Stone, national chairman of the 150,000 member Republicans
for Choice political action committee, which commissioned the
surveys. "We can't be the party that asks the government
to get out of the boardroom and then invites them into the bedroom."
Nonetheless, the Republican
Party platform continues to advocate a constitutional ban on abortion.
With that policy so clearly out of the mainstream of both American
voters and the Republican Party, it's worth examining how pro-life
forces have successfully swung the perception pendulum toward
have re-seized the center in this debate by employing an incremental
strategy designed to make abortion rights activists appear comparatively
extreme. There is little public talk about banning abortions.
Instead, the debate has shifted towards defining limits on abortion.
The successful fight to ban partial birth abortions forced pro-choice
politicians to defend what appeared to many Americans as an indefensible
procedure. Likewise, current court debates about parental and
spousal notification sound like common sense. This shift has also
been aided by the presence of a post-menopausal baby boom generation
for whom the question of abortion has become less of a potential
individual imperative and more of an abstract moral issue.
the shift to the right in the debate on abortion, the American
people have not been persuaded to support the long-term agenda
of the anti-abortion activists - the end to the constitutionally
protected right to an abortion. All of which brings us back to
the desperate all-or-nothing tone of the Alito hearings to date.
With Senator Schumer
flirting with a filibuster and Senator Coburn of Oklahoma employing
gothic sarcasm in his opening statement about "this wonderful
right to kill unborn babies," the more partisan warriors
in Washington want a showdown, complete with nuclear option. But
the more level headed voices are who we should be listening to
at this time.
In the past, the Senate
has managed to forge bipartisan bills that move forward the abortion
debate instead of dragging it to the left or right. A moderate
Republican senator, Olympia Snowe of Maine, joined with Senator
Daschle, who was then the Democratic leader, and others in a 1997
bid to ban all third trimester abortions, except in the case of
a threat to the life of the mother. Last spring, Senator Brownback,
a conservative Republican from Kansas, joined with Senator Kennedy
to sponsor a bill offering education and counseling to women prenatally
diagnosed with children afflicted with conditions such as Down
Syndrome as a way of calming the initial impulse toward abortion
in such cases.
Rather than encouraging
the culture wars to hit new heights, these are the kind of coalition-building
actions from Congress that can extend the broad consensus that
already exists - even on the issue of abortion.
Avlon is a columnist for the New
York Sun and the author