What Now: The New Politics of Abortion

When the Supreme Court handed down its Webster ruling on July 3, partly reversing Roe v. Wade, while denying that fact, anti-abortion forces thought they had passed the crucial turning point in their long struggle. But they have learned since that it was far from that simple. As in the battle over the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court, the other side turns out to have had unsuspected resources—and to have used them resolutely.

As of the New Year, 1990, the pro-abortion forces hold an almost commanding political position. By one count, 45 members of the House of Representatives who used to vote against abortion have switched sides in the past year. For the first time, the House has voted down the Hyde Amendment, banning the use of federal funds to pay abortionists. Only President Bush’s veto, in fact, has spared the taxpayer from having to subsidize the killing of unborn children.

While pro-lifers were concentrating on the narrow fight over constitutionality, their opponents were opening hostilities on a much broader front. This was clear as early as April last year when the news media virtually promoted a pro-abortion march in Washington by supplying advance publicity for several days. This march got more media attention before it was held than the annual January 22 pro-life marches ever get after they occur. Linda Greenhouse, who reports on the Supreme Court for the New York Times, raised a mild controversy by participating in the march, against the paper’s policy; there was some discussion among journalists as to whether this constituted a conflict-of-interest problem, but the significant fact is that the question had never come up before. No reporter for any major news organization ever seems to have wanted to participate in any of the pro-life events.

Having publicized the march, the media then covered it lavishly, marveling at its size—an estimated 300,000 people—which dwarfed the 60,000 or so the pro-life marches usually attract. None of the accounts saw fit to mention that the media themselves had boosted this event, or that it had been conveniently scheduled for a warm spring weekend. The Washington Post actually furnished a map of the march’s route for the convenience of the demonstrators, something it had never done for the pro-lifers.

The subtext of the coverage was that the nation’s “pro-choice majority” had finally been roused to assert itself by the realization that a woman’s right to choose was in danger. The time for complacency had ended. America’s women had spoken. The theme was reinforced by an NBC movie broadcast at about the same time, depicting, with sympathy, the woman whose unwanted pregnancy had led her to become “Jane Roe.” After the film, Tom Brokaw led a panel discussion, in which he heatedly denied that the film was “propaganda.” Its timing, coinciding with the march during the Court’s deliberations in Webster, was no doubt fortuitous.

Nobody who watched network news carefully could doubt that coverage of the abortion debate was being slanted in favor of abortion advocates. To take the most obvious detail, TV reporters almost consistently called one side by its own chosen tag, “pro-choice,” while avoiding doing the same favor for the “pro-life” side.

In fact, one of the big stories of the season was the active role the media were beginning to play on behalf of one side. This was a story the media themselves never told.

The anti-abortion forces had more bad luck: Republican candidates in three of 1989’s major political races ran away from their own previous anti-abortion positions. Running for mayor of New York City, Rudolph Giuliani flatly reversed himself. James Courter, running for governor of New Jersey, opened his campaign with a pledge not to let his “personal” opposition to abortion affect public policy. Marshall Coleman, running for governor of Virginia, dodged the abortion issue until nearly the end of the campaign.

All three faced forthrightly pro-abortion Democrats and, of course, all three lost their elections. The result seems to have strengthened a deep Republican propensity to learn nothing from victory and to draw the wrong conclusions from defeat.

Republicans in general have inferred that the lesson of 1989 is that the pro-life position is a loser—just the conclusion their opponents want them to reach. Lee Atwater, the Republicans’ national chairman, got it right when he said that the real lesson is: whatever position you take, don’t waffle! Then Atwater himself waffled, by saying that the Republican Party can accommodate both points of view. Even President Bush echoed this feeble line, a virtual retraction of recent Republican platforms. Already, it seems, the Republicans have forgotten how Ronald Reagan won two landslide victories.

“Republicans had long since made it clear that they didn’t know how to win,” William McGurn wrote with caustic percipience in National Review. “What they proved Election Tuesday was that they didn’t know how to lose.” By this he meant that even a losing campaign can be constructive, can lay the foundations for future victory. He cited Ronald Reagan’s 1976 race against Gerald Ford for the Republican nomination. Reagan lost, but he defined himself so well that he was perfectly poised to run again in 1980. He was, so to speak, a strong loser. Giuliani, Courter, and Coleman were weak losers. Even though Giuliani and Coleman ran close races, none of the three established himself well enough to have much of a future in politics. Nobody who voted against them is likely to regret having done so at some later date.

In the year since Reagan left office, the Republicans have made a running start toward obliterating their party’s new found identity. The Reaganite coalition of moral conservatives, cold warriors, and economic libertarians seems on the verge of dissolving. The Bush Administration is a passionless sort of entity, with no perceived dedication to any particular principle, let alone the Reaganite triad. The country isn’t sharply divided over any economic issue. The Cold War has at the very least lost its urgency. Abortion has moved to center stage in American politics. And the Republicans are stuck with their position, without having the conviction, the understanding, or the elementary political skills to make the most of it.

Unhappily, the pro-life movement has no other vehicle than these reluctant champions. But if it feels that the Republican Party has sold itself down the river, that may change. Pat Robertson has threatened to start a third party if the Republicans bail out on abortion. He lacks the following the make good on this, but his sentiments are widely shared. Those conservatives who regard the “social” issues—issues of public morality—as crucial may quickly lose patience with the Republicans. Some Catholics who changed parties to vote for Reagan may decide they would spend their energy more profitably by returning to the Democratic Party and working within it. Others may just withdraw from politics.

Say what you will about the Democrats, they are not dodging this most sensitive issue. If the Republicans do, they will risk the political irrelevance that destroyed the Whigs when they refused to confront the problem of slavery. Pro-lifers should dwell pointedly, and audibly, on this analogy. Republicans should be made acutely aware that they have nothing to gain and much to lose by displaying cowardice on abortion. In New Jersey, for example, Courter was hurt not only by his stance but by his evident lack of principle and courage. Even voters with no strong feelings about abortion regarded him with contempt. No pro-lifer could fail to be a little shaken by Courter’s apostasy. He had one of the most solid pro-life voting records in the House, and he was willing to blow it away like cigarette smoke when he deemed it opportune. Pro-abortion polemicists often accuse politicians of “pandering” to pro-lifers, as if opposing abortion were a sleazy cause.

Unfortunately, this is how many ostensibly anti-abortion politicians seem to feel about it too. They try to appease their anti-abortion constituents without much real conviction, and, as events have shown, may quickly desert the cause when the wind changes.

And the wind has changed. The mere availability of abortion on demand for 17 years has dulled the nation’s conscience. Many fair-minded people now feel sincerely that it is presumptuous to forbid a woman by law to have her child aborted. And the larger mass of people without real convictions feel less shame than formerly about advocating legal abortion. The adoption of the slogan “choice” has moved the discussion to a level of abstraction where it is not necessary to address vividly the question of what abortion is. Opposition to abortion has been ghettoized as “religious,” the implication being that there is literally no earthly reason to disapprove of it.

What we are seeing in the media is a subtle consolidation of attitude. An ideology is assuming the guise of an etiquette: It is bad taste to oppose abortion, to speak of “baby-killing,” to display pictures of mangled fetuses. “Choice” is the language of dainty refinement or, as we say nowadays, nuance. The media implicitly observe the pro-abortion etiquette. They adopt the propaganda vocabulary of one side in this controversy for purposes of reporting. The word “kill” is carefully avoided, even though we speak freely of killing everything from crabgrass to cancerous cells and there is no evident reason why even the most ardent abortion advocate should deny that an abortion is the killing of a human fetus. Pictures of the destroyed fetus are never shown, though in every other area the tendency of the media has steadily been toward increasingly graphic depictions of sex, violence, and the private lives of celebrities. In fact, it is hard to think of another subject besides abortion in which the general tendency of public discussion has been toward more euphemism, not less.

The Washington Post has even given the pro-abortion cause the benison of chic by assimilating it to its Style section. Readers outside the Beltway may not realize how much influence the Style section wields as a sort of running catechism of fashionable liberal attitudes; someone once said he cared not who wrote Scotland’s laws, so long as he could write her songs, and one might adapt the saying to our time by substituting the terms “the Post’s editorials” and “the Style section.” Lately that section has featured a sympathetic profile of a crusading abortionist—without, of course, using the word “abortionist.” That, too, would violate the etiquette of “choice.” In this rhetorical universe, abortionists don’t kill babies: doctors terminate pregnancies.

Even anti-abortion politicians tend to sink into the new lingo. Such is the power of etiquette, whose rules are simply to be observed, not questioned. Liberal etiquette exerts a constant quiet pressure on our attitudes. As Dr. Johnson once said, “Every man of education would rather be called a scoundrel than accused of deficiency in the graces.” And anyone in Washington knows it is easier to survive being denounced as a danger to the ozone layer than being put down as dowdy in the Style section. Few Washingtonians have the moral hardihood to risk being likened to, say, Jesse Helms.

To put it a little differently, the pro-abortion cause has acquired a certain snob appeal. “Choice” is very yuppie. “Baby-killing” is vulgarly proletarian, unprofessional, simplistic, lacking in les nuances. If you are socially ambitious, or (as we say) upwardly mobile, you definitely want to be pro-choice.

This is not some trivial sidelight of the abortion war. It is the latest form of class struggle. The pro-abortion forces are doing a skillful job of characterizing their opponents as fanatics, frumps, and constitutional boors who don’t understand the delicacies of “pluralism.”

One can see this in distilled form in the hip pages of the Style section, but it also goes on in the solemn editorial columns of the New York Times. When Bishop Leo Maher of San Diego denied communion to a vociferously pro-abortion Catholic candidate for the California state senate, the media gave the story coast-to-coast attention, with the bishop as the inquisitorial heavy, butting into politics. A Times editorial conceded Bishop Maher’s formal right to discipline his flock, but warned darkly that his action “threatens the truce of tolerance by which Americans maintain civility and enlarge religious liberty.” It further warned that “if other bishops follow the San Diego example, many non-Catholic Americans may once again be moved to withhold their trust from Catholic candidates”—a touch of nativism in the accents of the civics book.

Laying it on thick, the editorial continued: “Forced obedience to a religious political agenda could thus prove costly to all,” etc. “Above all,” the Times concluded, “to force religious discipline on public officials risks destroying the fragile accommodations that Americans of all faiths and no faith have built with the bricks of the Constitution and the mortar of tolerance.”

So Bishop Maher was menacing religious freedom by the very act of exercising it. Setting the terms of membership for his own flock was “forced obedience,” though the politicians in question faced fewer material sanctions than Miss Greenhouse had courted by challenging the Times’s rule against reporters taking public positions on issues they cover.

But the editorial mattered less as substance than as gesture. The Times was giving a Catholic prelate instruction in how to be a good American. If he and his colleagues failed to take the lesson to heart, they would be saddling Catholic politicians with the old specter of dual loyalty. It seems safe to say that the Times would not talk down this way to any other minority. Here, under the color of egalitarian-pluralist rhetoric, we have a glimpse of liberalism’s cultural pecking order.

Taking note of the editorial, Mark Shields of the Washington Post pointed out that the Times in 1962 had praised another Catholic prelate, Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans, for excommunicating a segregationist politician. The wall of separation, Shields remarked, seemed to have shifted.

If the bishops can really be faulted for anything, it is for having muted their voices too long. This should not be said as an indictment, but they have been slow to understand that the demand for easy abortion is part of its own “seamless garment,” the aptly named sexual revolution. The American commercial culture, with its feeble sense of tradition, has legitimated male lust. And the revolution has struck hardest in the very centers of liberal solicitude: the black inner cities. The decorum of the new morality forbids us to stress that sex is primarily procreative and that people simply have to be held accountable for how they use it. And if men can have sex without responsibility, women are going to want abortion on demand.

It is sometimes said as an accusation against pro-lifers that their real goal is to restore sexual repression. The charge is not as true as it should be. It is very hard to fight abortion in isolation from its context in the general destruction of the family. You can’t very well insist on sexual responsibility only for women. Without easy abortion, poor black women in particular receive the bill for the revolution. They are the ones who stand to gain from sexual “repression,” meaning the restoration of old and indispensable norms of conduct.

Under liberals’ expressed concerns for poor blacks one hears a note of demographic anxiety. As Nat Hentoff has observed, we are hearing pro-abortion arguments that go beyond the insistence on the individual woman’s right to choose and warn us of increased numbers of criminals and welfare recipients unless abortion is kept legal. The subtle message of these warnings is that blacks must be nudged toward the abortion clinic as a matter of unstated public policy. The language of unfettered individualism conceals a darker sophistication about social realities.

Since Webster, the abortion war has widened. The media are players in the game now, slanting their coverage more than ever, intimidating pro-life politicians, stoking social antagonisms. The main action is no longer in the courts. Pro-lifers are going to have to fight even harder and, in addition, to broaden their strategy to meet the more sophisticated propaganda methods that are now being used against them. What we are seeing now is the Bork confirmation fight writ large, with the central issue being swamped in a sea of distractions.

In the rhythm of events, the pro-life movement has been overdue for a few set-backs. Still, pro-life forces should take heart from recent victories in Pennsylvania and Michigan, including a ban on late-term abortions and a parental notification requirement for teen abortions. The pro-life movement has the strategic advantage of not having to suppress the facts of abortion. By focusing on “winning issues,” it can establish the political groundwork for greater victories ahead. These victories will affirm the sound moral sense of ordinary people over stylish decadence. Thus will the least powerful prevail in the end, and the last will be first, as was foretold long ago.


  • Joseph Sobran

    Michael Joseph Sobran, Jr. (1946 - 2010) was an American journalist and writer, formerly with National Review and a syndicated columnist, known as Joe Sobran. Pundit Pat Buchanan called Sobran "perhaps the finest columnist of our generation".

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