Wednesday, November 24, 2004

More Nuance, Not Less
Regular AIS readers (all six of you) know that I've been groping toward a formulation of how Democrats can maintain their principle-based support for abortion rights while being more politically effective in articulating this position. I'll have more to say about the substantive case for this when I get into "Community Values," one of the Democratic agenda pillars I noted a couple days ago, but for now I want to recognize that I'm apparently not alone in trying to think this through--and that Sarah Blustain at the American Prospect has written about it in a much more compelling way than I have, or probably could:
I’m tormented by the idea that even as I support Democratic candidates -- and, yes, on this issue -- I’m turned off by their abortion rhetoric.
...
To this generation, the “choice” of a legal abortion is no longer something to celebrate. It is a decision made in crisis, and it is never one made happily. Have you ever talked to a woman who has had an abortion? Even a married, intentionally pregnant woman who has had a “D and C” for a dying or dead embryo? A college student whose birth control failed? I promise you, such a woman does not talk about exercising the “right to choose.” You may accuse her -- and me -- of taking such rights for granted, and maybe you’d be right. But mainly she will tell you how sad she is, how she wished she hadn’t had to make that “choice,” how unpleasant the procedure was. She is more likely depressed than defiant.

That’s why liberalism’s vocabulary of “rights” when it comes to abortion rings a little hollow. It’s constitutional, intellectual -- and not nuanced enough to absorb the emotional or even legal complexity... abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration. It’s not like women’s suffrage or the equal access to public accommodations, rights whose outcome is emotionally unambiguous.
...
[Democratic politicians should] acknowledge that every woman would rather not have an abortion, and that might enable them to talk more genuinely about the impossible situations women who consider abortion face. It might humanize the mothers, and allow Democrats to argue for all the health benefits to women and their families when abortion is legal, without sounding so darn cheerful about it.

Talking about the human element of abortion also might help lessen Democrats’ dependence on the vocabulary of “rights,” which John Kerry invoked during his campaign... The language of “rights,” Elizabeth Cavendish, interim president of NARAL, told me, mainly speaks to the college-educated crowd. For others, she says, the left needs to talk about women’s health, including sex education and birth control, and about the opportunity to make personal decisions based on personal values.

This makes sense. Much of Blustain's article details her experiences and impressions at the March for Women's Lives, held in DC last April. I didn't go to this event myself, but several friends of mine who work in the reproductive health field did. I was hesitant to talk with them about it because of concerns similar to what Blustain gets into here: as Democrats, we are tone-deaf to the reality that this is a tragic choice, not a joyful one--and we come off as almost ghoulish when we respond to the abortion issue with such vehemence and what I suspect is perceived as insensitivity. We need to acknowledge the complexity of this issue and the valid moral concerns of at least the more principled "comprehensively pro-life" anti-abortion thinkers--and I believe we can do that while still making the argument that abortion rights should be preserved (a view that voter majorities still share, by the way).

Like Blustain, I still think Bill Clinton had it right when he envisioned a country in which abortions were "safe, legal and rare." The "rare" at least sent a signal that this wasn't really something to desire--a key point that has been obscured since the Big Dog left the stage. Further, acknowledging that we are not "for" abortions makes it easier to shift the debate to the hypocrisy of Republicans who seem far more concerned about embryos--or even clumps of stem cells--than real children, post-birth, whose "rights" to housing, equal education, ample and nutritious food, and stable, loving families are transparently of little concern to the moralizing majority.

On a totally different subject, Matt Miller's latest column offers a nice vent at John Kerry's inexplicable and extremely frustrating decision to withhold $15 million from Democratic campaign efforts. I'm with Jody: I want my money back!

Happy Thanksgiving, folks. Back next week.

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