Anti-Abortion Strategy in the Age of Obama
Whatever the final outcome of the debate about abortion and health care reform, the anti-abortion movement is ginned up for the Democratic era.
I have a new essay Anti-Abortion Movement in the Age of Obama coming out in the next issue of The Public Eye magazine (full disclosure, where I am on the ed board), published by the progressive think tank, Political Research Associates.
We have seen over the past few years a certain creeping Religious Rightism in the Democratic Party, and yet people were surprised that abortion became a major obstacle to health care reform. This is what happens when we turn a blind eye to the religious right and engage in such wishful notions as "the religious right is dead" and "the culture wars are over."
Excerpts on the flip:
It didn't turn out like they had planned. Two decades of political investment by the antiabortion movement and the Religious Right did not result in the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Even conservative Chief Justice John Roberts acknowledged during his confirmation hearing, "Roe v. Wade is the settled law of the land." Then the rising prospects of the Democratic Party, and the historic election of the prochoice president Barack Obama and a Democratic Congress, seemed to have secured Roe for the foreseeable future.
But due to the success of the notion of "abortion reduction," the general approach driving the politics of the antiabortion movement for at least two decades, all has not been lost.
A broad strategy to reduce the number of abortions performed in the United States has been pursued by most of the movement, although there are disagreements about how to do it, notably over violence and other criminal acts. The tactics employed fall under three broad categories: erecting legal obstacles to abortion at the state level such as mandatory waiting periods; preventing the use of public funds for the provision of abortion care at all levels of government; and political, legal, and extralegal interference with obtaining and providing abortion care, which includes harassment of patients and clinic staff, violence and threats of violence. A goal of the last tactic is to get doctors to abandon the practice and discourage new doctors from including abortion as part of standard ob/gyn practice. "We have opportunities before us which if properly exploited," declared militant strategist Mark Crutcher, of Life Dynamics in 1992, "could result in an America where abortion may be perfectly legal, but no one can get one."
In the mid-90s, the mainstream of the anti-abortion movement found itself in crisis in the wake of a high profile assassination of doctors and clinic staff in Florida, Massachusetts and Canada; an escalation of death threats, bomb and anthrax threats as well as actual bombings and arsons. Movement leaders were beset by an unflattering media circus in the wake of the incendiary claims of some that the murder of abortion providers was "justifiable homicide." What's more, many proponents of anti-abortion violence shared the anti-government ideology and revolutionary rhetoric of the Christian Patriot and militia movement of the era. They saw legal abortion as violence waged against the people by an increasingly secular and tyrannical government.
Then, as now, there was a prochoice Democratic president, and the end of legal abortion was nowhere on the horizon. In the wake of the 2009 assassination of prominent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller by a veteran of both the Patriot movement and militant antiabortion activism, and a dramatic escalation in militant antiabortion activism and violent rhetoric, the movement finds itself in an analogous situation today. As in the 1990s, steady efforts to reduce access to abortion provides a viable, incremental, way forward for the movement as it copes with the climate as well as actual violence promoted by their co-belligerents in the war on abortion.
But there is also an important difference.
Battleground Democratic Party
The anti-abortion movement could not have anticipated that elements of the prochoice Democratic Party would promote policy in their direction just at the moment of the Democrats' political ascendance. Although there had been rumblings and debate, the first real indication of this move was during the election campaign of 2006, when the centrist, business-funded think tank Third Way advised Democratic candidates to try to neutralize the issue by saying, "We must reduce the number of abortions while protecting personal liberties." They claimed to want to appeal to anti-abortion Roman Catholics and conservative evangelicals as part of the party's various "faith outreach" efforts. However this approach to finding common ground required turning a blind eye to the reality that access to abortion care in the U.S. is receding, and that their approach mainstreams a fundamental concept of anti-abortion strategy and related terminology. They did this by recasting contraception and sex education as if their primary purpose was to achieve the goal of reducing the number of abortions.
Further, this approach to common groundism accompanied by an effort to "dial down" the rancor of the so-called culture war, led the Democratic Party and its presidential candidate to seek if not a reduction in the number of abortions, a reduction in the "need" for abortion through public policy that supports women so that they are less likely to become pregnant, or so they enjoy support if they do become pregnant.
The America We Seek and the Origins of Abortion Reduction
The general approach crystallized over several months in early 1996 when 45 antiabortion and religious right leaders, organized by the neoconservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, formally adopted abortion reduction as a series of related tactics short of criminalization. Their manifesto, The America We Seek: A Statement of Pro-Life Principle and Concern was published in the flagship journal of Roman Catholic neoconservatism, First Things.
The writers were inspired by the 1992 Supreme Court decision in Casey v. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania, which ratified the state level laws seeking to discourage abortion by making the procedure more difficult to obtain.
"Now, as pro-life leaders and scholars," they declared, "we want to propose a program of action..." And the core of that program was abortion reduction via the erection of barriers to abortion access "in all 50 states" while also creating incentives for women to carry unplanned pregnancies to term. While they understood that the legal obstacles upheld in the Casey decision "do not afford any direct legal protection to the unborn child," they stated that "experience has shown that such regulations--genuine informed consent, waiting periods, parental notification--reduce abortions in a locality, especially when coupled with positive efforts to promote alternatives to abortion and service to women in crisis." [Emphasis added]
Under the gun to distance themselves from the anti-abortion violence of the era, anti-abortion leaders had found a way to hold to a credible political strategy that conveyed a sufficient urgency. Nevertheless, they struggled with the emotional and political disconnect between the demagogic, if heartfelt, "bloody shirt" type rhetoric (i.e.: abortion is "murder" or a "holocaust") and the moderate, incremental policy ideas of abortion reduction. They declared, for example, that abortion "has killed tens of millions of unborn children," but that they were nevertheless committed to abortion reduction and providing "the infrastructure for "alternatives" to abortion via a national network of 3,000 "Crisis Pregnancy Centers."
More consistent with their sense of moral urgency, was their referencing bills then being considered in Congress that would involve "criminal sanctions" for abortion providers, and demanded that Congress "recognize the unborn child as a human person entitled to the protection of the Constitution." The America they seek is one whose politics and public policy advances reduce abortions while seeking to build political clout sufficient to criminalize abortion forever. But they recognized that while criminalization was unlikely in their lifetimes, they were not then, and are not now, without options. But of course, the tension remains, and the state level campaigns aimed at constitutional declarations of fetal personhood and thus challenges to the constitutionality of Roe, are ongoing.
The authors of The America We Seek were a bipartisan group of significant leaders led by host George Weigel of the Ethics and Public Policy Center (the official biographer of Pope John Paul II) and included Roman Catholic legal scholars Robert P. George of Princeton and Mary Ann Glendon of Harvard (whom George W. Bush would appoint as Ambassador to the Vatican), Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life; Clarke D. Forsythe of Americans United for Life; James Dobson of Focus on the Family; Ralph Reed of the then-powerful Christian Coalition, Beverly LaHaye of Concerned Women for America; William Kristol, former Chief of Staff to Vice President Dan Quayle; Phillip E. Johnson founder of the theocratic think tank of the "intelligent design" theory, Discovery Institute; Jean Bethke Elshtain, a political philosopher at the University of Chicago, and currently a cochair of the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life; and former Gov. Robert P. Casey, (D-PA).
Anti-abortion leaders know that state-level barriers to access have reduced the number of abortions, and that any advance in abortion coverage in the current health care reform debate or improved access in any way would be a reversal of their fortunes. Abortion services are unavailable in 87% of the counties in the United States, according to a study by the Alan Guttmacher Institute.
Prochoice leaders recognize the situation as well. NARAL reports that "more than 500 anti-choice measures have been enacted in the states since 1995" and that in effect these measures, all legal under Casey, are "essentially rolling back this fundamental right for many women." Such laws are known as TRAP laws (Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers). These include, among others, abortion bans after 12 weeks, counseling with an antiabortion slant, mandatory delays, insurance prohibitions for abortion, and allowing health care providers such as hospitals to refuse to provide medical services and referrals.
In 2009, improved access was nowhere on the national political or legislative agenda in Washington, apparently so that fighting over abortion would not derail health care reform. Even some prochoice groups and legislators went along with this. The key piece of prochoice legislation is the Freedom of Choice Act, (FOCA) which has been introduced in every Congress since 1989. FOCA would codify Roe v. Wade, and eliminate the legal barriers to access. That is why the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and leading antiabortion groups waged a vigorous preemptive lobbying campaign before the new Congress was seated in 2009. All year (and as recently as December 2nd) the conservative weekly Human Events issued screeching fundraising letters signed by Mike Huckabee warning about "this EVIL law" (sic), which he described as "the most radical piece of pro-abortion legislation ever proposed." In fact, the bill was not even introduced in the 111th Congress - even though President Obama had previously said he would sign it if it reached his desk.
In short: Barriers to access are up; the number of abortion providers is down; and the only legislative remedy is stalled in Congress with its future uncertain.
Read the whole thing here. It is a long essay, but like most Public Eye articles, it is carefully documented with lots of endnotes. I should add that this essay seeks to take the long view, beyond the heat of the Stupak/Pitts and Nelson/Hatch moment.