January 12, 2006
Straight Talk on Choice
By John Avlon
It's ideological 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.
Here's some 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 the question.
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 their flipside.
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 their position.
Anti-abortion activists 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.
Nonetheless, despite 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.
John Avlon is a columnist for the New York Sun and the author
of Independent Nation.