Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Abortion: Seeking Higher Ground

Yesterday I got into a little dustup on Daily Kos about how, or actually if, Kerry could try to appeal to moderate anti-abortion voters. This is something I've been thinking about off and on for a long while now; at this point, I describe himself as "uncomfortably pro-choice," which makes me believe that there must be a few "uncomfortably anti-choice" folks out there as well. So how can we peel away voters who are somewhat motivated by abortion politics but probably "reachable" on economic or other issues?

I think it can be done, and that Kerry--a Catholic who also comes across as "uncomfortably pro-choice"--could be the guy to do it. He should absolutely pledge to protect the legal right to abortion, but should also challenge the "pro-life" people to work with him on how to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. This strikes me as a salutary example of "third way" politics in the best Clinton tradition: government can help by providing more and better sex education and subsidized or free contraceptives, but we should call on individuals to be responsible as well for birth control.

Winning politics involves finding niches within issues where there's broad societal agreement. Even most of the religious pro-lifers I've run across are okay with birth control; the Catholic/fundamentalist position is a joke (remember "Every Sperm is Sacred"?), and Kerry's not going to reach those people anyway. But there are a lot of conflicted Catholics out there who might be with us on a lot of issues but don't want to associate with a party they see as much too casual about "abortion as birth control." I believe there's an opportunity here to close the breach a little bit, and at least work toward the good goal of "safe, legal and rare" abortions in the U.S. It's good politics and responsible public policy.

Of course, it would also help if we had better statistical information about the abortions performed in the U.S.--how many would have been preventable with birth control? What's the socioeconomic or racial breakdown of women who have abortions? How often was birth control used, but pregnancy resulted anyway? It's tough to do good public policy without good information. But this is such a contentious subject that I'd almost doubt most "sources" anyway; perhaps a less politicized presidential administration could do it.

Also wanted to mention an article that covers some of this same ground and impressed me pretty deeply. I've heard of Jim Wallis and Sojourner magazine for awhile now, but this was the first piece I've actually read. I was pretty impressed:

...Democrats, like Republicans, could still take a strong party stance (their official position being pro-choice) yet offer space for different positions. Such a respect for conscience on abortion would allow many pro-life and progressive Christians the "permission" they need to vote Democratic.

But if the Democrats were really smart they would do something more. And indeed, this is what candidate John Kerry should do. The Democrats could affirm that they are still the pro-choice party, but then also say what most Americans believe: that the abortion rate in America is much too high for a good, healthy society that respects both women and children. They could make a serious public commitment to actually do something about significantly reducing the abortion rate. Abortion is historically used as a symbolic issue in campaigns, and then forgotten when the election is over. Republicans win elections on the basis of their anti-abortion position, and then proceed to ignore the issue (and the nation's abortion rate, highest in the industrial world) by doing nothing to reduce the number of abortions.

Democrats could vow to change that by uniting both pro-choice and pro-life constituencies around goals that could become the basis for some new common ground, i.e. really targeting the problems of teen pregnancy and adoption reform--so critical to reducing abortion--while offering real support and meaningful alternatives for women at greater risk for unwanted pregnancies, especially low-income women.

John Kerry, while reasserting his pro-choice stance, could also credibly assert his Catholic faith as a motivator to save unborn lives by dramatically reducing the abortion rate. Given the bitter partisan division on the issue of abortion, it may be that the Democrats are the only ones who could initiate a common project to make abortion truly "rare" in America.

Wallis goes on to talk about a "a consistent ethic of life" that links a number of issues for progressive, religious voters, including abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment, nuclear weapons, poverty, and racism. It's a compelling argument, even for someone like me who probably disagrees with Church teachings on half of these issues (the first three in this list, if you're curious). At the least, it's a far more nuanced and thoughtful take on religion and public life than the Republican position that "CEO Jesus" is Bush's real running-mate.

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