Here are six empirically based propositions that should be considered before entering the ballot booth.
1. From the start, legal abortion has been favored by the most elite segments of American society. A list of American foundations that supported Roe v. Wade reads like a Who’s Who of American foundations. Abortion supporters obtained 42 amicus curiae briefs, a record for that time, with most coming from the cultural center of American life, such as the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association and the like. Abortion opponents mustered only four briefs, all from newly formed specifically anti-abortion activist groups. This history has political implications: No Supreme Court decision has ever opposed the dominant elite interest of the nation.
2. Veterans of the right-to-life movement themselves acknowledge that there will be no reversal of Roe in their lifetime or any time soon after. In Back to the Drawing Board (edited by Teresa R. Wagner), Terrence P. Jeffrey recalls that during no Supreme Court confirmation hearings did any Republican nominee ever unambiguously challenge the validity of Roe, and that while all seven of the Roe signers have retired or died and Republican presidents have nominated replacements for six of the seven, four of the six (John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter) later voted in Casey (1992) to uphold Roe.
Clark Forsythe, the former president of Americans United for Life, observes that even Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, the other Republican court appointees, while they call for a Roe reversal, accept the core premise of Roe, namely, that the word person in the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment does not have prenatal application. Moreover, in the unlikely event of Roe’s reversal, jurisdiction over abortion would return to the states. Given the long-term stability of abortion polls showing that less than 20 percent favor the recriminalization of abortion, this means that abortion would remain legal in most states.
3. The characterization of the Republican Party as pro-life is perilous for the movement. There is a gigantic difference between moral conservatives and fiscal conservatives. While moral conservatism requires costly health and human services inputs from the government, fiscal conservatives favor shrinking government services and cutting taxes. It is harder to welcome new life when life itself seems unwelcoming to parents as they face cuts in health care, growing economic inequality and minimum-wage levels below the poverty line. Such fiscal conservatism is at war with a compassionate conservatism and especially increases the likelihood that pregnant lower-income women will choose abortion rather than birth. It is not accidental that black women are three times as likely as whites to abort and that while less than one-seventh of all Americans fall below the poverty line, one-third of all abortion patients do.
While the service wing of the right-to-life movement has over 3,000 emergency pregnancy centers (see www.pregancycenters.org), their counseling and emergency aid cannot remove an important role for government, as Pope John Paul II notes in his encyclical The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae, 1995).
Originally the right-to-life movement’s political hopes resided more with the Democrats than with the fiscally conservative Republicans. But Ronald Reaganthough as governor of California he had supported the liberalization of the state’s abortion lawpromised abortion opponents that as president he would work to reverse Roe. Hence, the term Reagan-Democrats entered politics. In her insider’s account of this period, Tanya Melich (The Republican War Against Women, 1996) recalls that most of the delegates viewed Reagan’s courting of grass-roots anti-abortion activists as a shrewd tactic to counter the then declining Republican-affiliated base, which had slid to 20 percent of voters. She doubts that most convention delegates supported (it was a voice vote) the party platform’s call for a constitutional amendment reversing Roe. Indeed, studies show that Republican donors are overwhelmingly fiscal conservatives but social liberals, favoring both free markets and free abortion choices. Some prominent Republican politicians are in fact pro-choicefor example, the past or current governors Arnold Schwarzenegger, Christie Whitman, George Pataki, William Weld and John Rowland, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Schwarzenegger and Giuliani had starring roles at the recent Republican convention, while pro-life activists were kept in the closet.
Again, anti-abortion veterans themselves have noted that Reagan, even while he met or spoke on the telephone with anti-abortion leaders during their annual marches on Washington on Jan. 22, put abortion on the back burner as he pursued both tax reductions and increased military spending. Paul M. Weyrich, who tutored fledgling right-to-life leaders on the intricacies of fund-raising by mail, says in Drawing Board that perhaps the most important lesson that can be drawn from the experiences with Reagan and [George H. W.] Bush is that even a committed conservative politician, a Reagan, cannot be trusted to take on a cause like abortion and gamble power and prestige to make abortion a truly national issue. It is useful to politicians, for their own purposes, to have life concerns be a niche issue of concern to Americans who adhere to the values of life.
4. An abortion law more restrictive than one accepted by an ecumenical and interfaith consensus is not likely. Again in Drawing Board, Jack Willke, M.D., former head of the National Right to Life Committee and present director of the Life Issues Institute, acknowledges that the movement has failed to penetrate the mainline Protestant churches and the near unanimous Jewish support for Roe.
5. Scholars who study social movements classify the right-to-life movement as a countermovement. In ordinary language, counter implies reactionary. This should be of great concern to pro-life supporters, because countermovements succeed only when they come to be viewed widely as liberating rather than reactionary. As Pope John Paul II teaches in The Gospel of Life, It must be noted that it is not enough to remove unjust laws.
Abortion opponents greatly admire Robert P. Casey, the late two-term Democratic governor of Pennsylvania. But the movement has forgotten that in 1987 he vetoed Pennsylvania’s first abortion control act, which had been strongly supported by the state’s abortion opponents. I must note, he explained, that our concerns cannot end with protecting unborn children but must extend to protecting and promoting the health of all our children and their mothers. The right to life must mean the right to a decent life. Our concern for future mothers must include a concern for current mothers. This administration has called for significantly increased support for child and maternal health programs, for education, for rape counseling and support services.
After securing their support for these policies, Casey worked with right-to-life groups and persuaded the legislature to pass an abortion control bill that made informed consent more likely by its requirement of a day’s wait before obtaining an abortion, the provision of medical information showing the stages of fetal development and abortion risks, and the names of state agencies and volunteer groups providing material and counseling help. In the case Planned Parenthood of Southern Pennsylvania v. Casey (1992), the Supreme Court upheld the Pennsylvania law by a vote of 5 to 4. By 2004, 20 states required informed consent, with a one-day reflection period. But more recently Republicans in the New Jersey state legislature voted to refuse any additional aid to women on welfare who give birth to children. This encouraged many women on welfare to have abortions.
6. Alhough the national Democratic Party has made itself the party of abortion, in 1997 Democrats for Life of America was founded. They oppose abortion, the death penalty and euthanasia, with the greatest emphasis on abortion (www.democratsforlife.org). In March they met with the national Democratic Party leader, Terry McAuliffe. They had data showing that the Democrats’ majority in Congress had slipped at the same rate as pro-life voters left the party. In 1978 the Democrats had a 292-seat majority in the House; now Democrats are down to 204 seats. Between 1992 and 2002, 41 states saw Republican gains, while only seven became more Democratic. A Gallup poll in 2002 reported that more Americans (34 percent versus 31percent) now identify themselves as Republicans than as Democrats. Pro-choice rhetoric at the recent Democratic convention was noticeably muted. The party is not that hostile anymore, Democrats for Life’s president, Carol Crossed, said. The Democrats want to win.What Have We Learned From the Data?
I offer five conclusions based on the data:
The Supreme Court is most unlikely ever to recriminalize all abortions.
In a Republican Party contest between moral and fiscal conservatism, abortion funding for alternatives to abortion will be placed on the back burner.
The Democratic Party has been weakened by the intolerance of its power brokers against giving a national party voice to pro-life Democrats. (One hopes that the leadership is beginning to recognize this.)
Pro-life sponsored federal legislation is successful not when it directly attacks Roe, but when it emphasizes real choices and alternatives to abortion.
A Casey-like legislative approach corresponds to the three-decades-old stable structure of public opinion, where only the margins support either no abortion or any abortion, with support for legal abortion sharply declining when the fetus is manifestly one of us. The wide dissemination of sonogram images of fetuses ensures a continuance of these trends in the polling data.From Data to Discernment
While Kerry has not made even the simplest goodwill gesture toward our decidedly pro-life leaning citizenrysuch as acknowledging the several thousand volunteers who offer abortion alternativesthere is some hope that the voting data emphasized by Democrats for Life of America will eventually increase their influence within the party. The Gospel of Life reminds us that Catholic social thought cannot describe the legal killing of a developing human life as moral progress, but there is nothing in authoritative Church teaching that requires a Catholic public official to support the recriminalization of all abortion. The Church well knows, John Paul wrote, that it is difficult to mount an effective legal defense of life in pluralistic democracies, that the church must take into account what is realistically attainable and that it is not enough to remove unjust laws.
In reflecting on their efforts during the last four decades, right-to-life veterans say they now realize that ending abortion will take centuries. This means that the movement’s vitality depends on its continued transformation into what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called a consistent ethic of life. If this happens, future sociologists will classify abortion opposition not as a countermovement but rather as a culture-transforming movement that challenged an American society constantly tempted to exert itself forcibly as an empire to grasp the connections between the violence of abortion and the violence of war and the violence of poverty.
As for this election, data and discernment will bring me, though not without some reluctance, to pull the lever for John Kerry.