In 1995, William Bennett, addressing a gathering of conservative Catholics in Washington, proposed “a pro-life agenda that is both incremental and principled.” Bennett argued that in considering antiabortion strategies, alternatives existed to the all-or-nothing tactic that focused on overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Bennett, an outspoken opponent of abortion and an official in both the Reagan and first Bush administrations, suggested that the antiabortion movement take what the culture would give — certain legal reforms, informed consent, prohibition against late-term abortions and other controls — and work on preventing abortion as well as outlawing it. In other words, he urged a move from the extreme edge of the debate to the center, where even then polls consistently showed that most Americans, while not supportive of criminalizing abortion, would support measures to reduce abortion.
Bennett’s argument hasn’t gotten much traction. During the past 13 years, the debate has remained hopelessly polarized. The extreme right has remained as resistant to a compromise in its absolute (and so far failed) determination to overturn Roe as the extreme left has remained deaf to any position beyond its desperate orthodoxy that abortion should be available without restraint or condition.
The recent effort by the Democratic Party to move a few steps away from that orthodoxy is welcome, and just might be the required initial moves necessary to find common ground on the issue of abortion.
You can read NCR coverage of the new platform language, Democratic platform shift to reduce abortions commended, and a discussion by experts, Alternative ways to discourage abortion.
While unqualifiedly upholding a woman’s right to choose, the party’s insertion of language seeking a reduction in the number of abortions required a significant effort to broaden thinking on the issue. Essential to the new approach is an acknowledgement that attacking the root factors that figure into most abortions — economic hardship, lack of education, lack of access to affordable child care — has to accompany the affirmation of a woman’s decision to carry a child to term.
Whether the new language is to mean more than a way for Democrats to placate its pro-life wing through the next election will depend in great measure, as the Rev. Tony Campolo put it, on how candidate Barack Obama speaks to the issue. Campolo, an evangelical author, teacher and member of the Platform Committee who is staunchly antiabortion, hopes Obama speaks of abortion as “a moral issue, a conscience issue” since “this is not simply a pragmatic social issue of economic dimensions.”
Any significant change in the national conversation about abortion depends, too, on whether enough Republicans are willing to see the struggle as more than finding the fifth vote on the Supreme Court to overturn Roe and as a complex issue that requires a variety of approaches.
“We have been at the business of trying to find the elusive fifth vote on the Supreme Court for now over 30 years,” said law professor Douglas Kmiec, who is ardently antiabortion and who served as Ronald Reagan’s constitutional lawyer. “We haven’t found it and even if we do find it, overturning Roe would not save a single life, but instead merely return the question to the state.” Kmiec, a Republican who worked on some of the briefs seeking to overturn Roe, applauds the language of the Democratic platform precisely because it drives the conversation beyond the single ambition of upending Roe.
During those 30 years, the U.S. Catholic bishops have been in lockstep with the right’s partisan extremes on this issue. They’ve expended enormous political capital to fight Roe v. Wade, going so far as to use the Eucharist as a political bludgeon, all the while getting little in return.
Thirteen years ago, Bennett said he believed that “reasonable people of goodwill can and do disagree on the means” to reducing the numbers of abortions. “Differences aside, it seems to me that we ought to bring to the cause all of those — all those — who look at the figure of one and a half million abortions a year with horror and misgiving. They should all be our allies.”
It’s not too late to take his advice.