Time for the GOP to rethink abortion politics

Photo credit: Daveynin via Flickr

By Dan Calabrese

There is a lot the Republican Party has to rethink in light of what happened on Tuesday, and I certainly don’t want to suggest that social issues alone – or even primarily – are the cause of the GOP’s current travails. But you have to start somewhere, and when you can’t defeat an incumbent president with the economic record Obama’s dragging around, there’s no issue that should be exempt from rethinking.

So consider:

In a winnable red state Senate race, Missouri’s Todd Akin makes an astoundingly stupid statement about rape and pregnancy. He is toast. In just-as-red Indiana, Senate candidate Richard Mourdock makes a slightly more defensible but still incredibly stupid statement about rape and pregnancy. It ultimately costs him the race, and all the conservative triumphalism over the primary takedown of Richard Lugar turns to gnashing of teeth as the seat flips to the Democrats.

Why did these fiascos occur? They occurred because the standard Republican position on abortion, while admirably principled, becomes almost impossible to defend when a skilled and determined questioner starts drilling down into the details. Ask a pro-life Republican what kind of prison sentence they would recommend for a woman who gets an abortion? Good luck getting a clear and confident answer. Rape and incest? I’m with you when you say that God still loves that baby, but get into the details of how you enforce the law that forces the woman to carry the child to term when she doesn’t want to? It’s a disastrous debate moment just waiting to happen.

This is inevitable, though, because the uncompromising nature of the pro-life position demands it. If you oppose all abortion as a matter of principle, because all life is sacred, then your principle also demands that you accept the difficulties involved with enforcing the ban you advocate – politically untenble though they may be. But because they are so politically untenable, politicians inevitably try to squirm, finding ways to make their stances sound less harsh. The next thing you know, you’re trying to claim that rape can’t cause pregnancy. Why would someone say something so absurd? Because as absurd as it is, it seems easier than saying you want to force rape victims to bear the offspring of their rapists.

Once you’ve staked out that position, and the heat is turned on, there is nowhere safe for you to go.

But these are mere political considerations. Yes, it does hurt the GOP with a certain core of female voters, some of whom might be more open to backing them if abortion were not an issue. But as someone who hates abortion, I would be willing to pay that political price if it meant saving the lives of babies.

But that gets us to the other problem. It doesn’t. This is where we get to the practical realities of abortion politics. I can’t even begin to imagine what right-to-life groups have spent over the past 39 years to elect pro-life candidates to every office imaginable at every level of government. It must be astronomical. What has it accomplished? Abortion is still legal in all 50 states because Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land. So all those pro-life senators, congressman, state legislators, county commissioners and drain commissioners they worked to elect? Many of them won, but not a single one of them placed a meaningful restriction on abortion.

The three pro-life presidents we’ve had since 1973 haven’t been able to touch abortion policy in a meaningful way either. George W. Bush did sign a ban on partial-birth abortion, but neither Reagan, Bush 41 nor Bush 43 was able to restrict the procedure in its conventional form.

The political assault on abortion has been a complete and utter failure. I suppose you could argue that this cuts both ways. It’s a little silly for liberals to freak out over a conservative’s position on abortion, since his position will almost certainly never become law. But by the same token, it’s silly for conservatives to insist that a candidate hold that position considering that it will remain a mere position and not policy.

But wait, you say, the fight’s not over. Let’s say that somehow all five conservative Supreme Court justices manage to outlast the Obama presidency, and that in 2016 we elect a Republican president who appoints the fifth vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Then everything changes, right?

Not really. The only thing that would do is return the issue to the states. Now let’s say for the sake of argument that some states would ban abortions and other would not. (And let’s skip the discussion of the political implications of the battles that would ensue in all 50 states.) And let’s say the pattern of who does what hues exactly to the 2012 electoral map. In that case, you’d have 24 states banning abortion and 26 states keeping it legal. Aha, you say! You just saved babies in 24 states!

I say no you didn’t. What do you think will happen in the 24 states that ban abortion? Pro-abortion groups will raise money, organize transportation, conduct public information campaigns and basically do everything within their power to get women who want abortions to a clinic in a state where it’s legal. Granted, many women wouldn’t even need the help. You live in Indiana, you’re pregnant and you want an abortion? You can be at a clinic in Illinois or Michigan in a few hours.

Don’t think women would make the trip? I think you’re wrong. A woman who has decided to abort a pregnancy has just made what she probably views as one of the most important decisions of her life. You seriously think she’s going to go through childbirth because a half-day trip to another state is too much of a hassle?

I know this is a hard truth for pro-lifers to accept, but when you think about it, it’s hard to deny: Overturning Roe v. Wade would prevent very few abortions. Maybe none. I understand its appeal as a political victory, but as a practical matter, that is all it would be. If your goal is to save babies, your goal would not be met.

So where does that leave the Republican Party? It is left defending a politically tricky position, and often tying itself in knots trying to do so, only to realize that even if it were to somehow achieve its political goal it would be a completely hollow victory as far as the unborn babies of the world are concerned.

Look, if I were the governor of my state and I was handed a bill banning abortion, I would sign it. That’s because I think those children deserve protection under the law. But I would be under no illusions that my action would really save the lives of any children. The people who have labored for years on behalf of the right-to-life cause should be under no such illusions either. For all their insistence that every Republican candidate for every office take a pro-life stance, they have accomplished nothing toward their goal. And as long as they choose to pursue it in the political realm, they never will.

So what does this mean for the Republican Party in 2012? I understand there is no one person, or group of people, who can make this happen – but I believe it’s time for the Republican Party to cut ties with the right-to-life movement, and move beyond abortion politics. It simply makes no sense to allow itself to get tripped up in crucial races like the Senate races in Missouri and Indiana this year over an issue on which they can really never do anything but achieve symbolic success.

That doesn’t mean Republicans have to become pro-choice. If pro-choice means do what you want and either way is fine with me, I am not pro-choice. But it means they recognize – as small-government conservatives do on so many other things – that there is really no governmental solution to this problem. Abortion will only end when women decide to end it. Indeed, that is already starting to happen. Some of the reasons are hopeful (stunningly clear ultrasound images that leave no doubt about the humanity of the child), while others are mixed blessings (out-of-wedlock births no longer carry a stigma so fewer women abort to protect secrets, but we also have a lot more out-of-wedlock births). The point, though, is that nonpolitical factors are doing more to reduce the number of abortions than any political factor ever could.

How, then, might Todd Akin or Richard Mourdock have answered that question about rape and pregnancy if not hogtied by the right-to-life movement to find some way to defend an all-encompassing abortion ban? Maybe like this:

“Rape is an unspeakable evil, and I cannot imagine the anguish of a woman who finds herself pregnant as a result of being raped. Now, do I believe the child conceived as a result or rape is loved and valued by God? Yes. Do I believe that child deserves death? No. Any woman in that circumstance who would choose to bear that child and give birth would be a hero in my eyes, and should be a hero in everyone’s eyes. But as far as the law is concerned, there is no way we will ever see a political consensus in favor of a law that would force such a woman to make that choice, and I have no intention of trying to create one.”

If every Republican gave that answer when asked about abortion, the Republican Party could shed one of the anvils that makes it harder to win elections, without causing the death of a single baby as a result.