Democrats on abortion: Love-hate relationship

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Politics, life choices don’t always go hand-in-hand

Bob Casey Jr. isn’t being punished for the sins of his father, even though he shares them. Casey is a Democrat running for the U.S. Senate. His late father, then the governor of Pennsylvania, was banned from the podium of the 1992 Democratic Convention because he was pro-life. Casey Jr. is pro-life too, but the national party is embracing him.

This shift is a sign that the Democrats are beginning to grapple with a painful truth, one that will hurt even more as its full weight becomes evident to them: The absolutist pro-choice position on abortion is a political loser. In his brilliant and incisive new book, “The Party of Death,” my National Review colleague Ramesh Ponnuru demonstrates why.

In the early 1990s, no one would have guessed that Democrats would be eager for a Casey do-over. Then, it seemed that all pro-lifers were headed to oblivion, bulldozed under by the Soccer Mom ascendancy and the public’s reaction to the (supposedly) noisome social conservatism of the failed 1992 Republican Convention. But a funny thing happened on the way to the rout of pro-lifers – the rout began to happen the other way.

Now, it looks like abortion is going the way of the other cultural issue that 10 years ago was considered a boon to the Democrats, but became a liability: gun control. Ponnuru argues that the pro-choice position was never as strong as it seemed because abortion “had never been normalized in the culture.” It has never been considered just another medical procedure, the way pro-choicers had hoped.

Ultrasound images worked to undermine pro-choice premises. What was called a “blob of tissue” that was easily disposed of, looked instead on the scans like a little baby. Asked to believe the pro-choice rhetoric or their own lying eyes, most people preferred the evidence of their eyes.

Then, the pro-life side began to exploit its openings with a shrewd incrementalism. Gone were the calls for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion, replaced instead by a push to ban a particularly gruesome form of the procedure, partial-birth abortion. Now it was pro-choicers opposing this targeted ban who seemed like extremists. The hit that pro-choicers took was almost immediate. In September 1995, 56 percent of people described themselves as pro-choice and 33 percent as pro-life; by August 1997, this 23-point gap had sunk to just three points, 47-44.

By 2004, Democrats knew they had to adjust. John Kerry said he believed that life begins at conception – not that he would actually do anything about it. Neither he nor his running mate, John Edwards, pledged to defend abortion rights at the Democratic Convention. Suddenly, the uninviting was aimed in the opposite direction than it had been in 1992 – former NARAL Pro-Choice America head Kate Michelman was uninvited to a Kerry rally.

Still, Democrats lost the Catholic vote for the first time since 1988. Democratic strategist Donna Brazile said, “Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies.” So the Democrats are trying even harder. Democratic chairman Howard Dean has refused to call the party “pro-choice.” Hillary Clinton has called abortion “a sad, tragic choice,” and said the number of abortions should be reduced.

But these rhetorical feints can’t gain Democrats much, especially when they are at odds with their opposition to any restrictions on abortion. “What’s so tragic about abortion anyway?” Ponnuru asks. “Abortion is regrettable and needs to be minimized, for the same reason that abortion is wrong and unjust: because it kills an innocent human being. That is also the reason it should be prohibited.”

Democrats, of course, will resist that logic strenuously. They might stomach Bob Casey Jr., but only because he is running against pro-life leader Sen. Rick Santorum, and a Casey victory could help deliver the Senate to pro-choice Democrats. This Casey is welcome, but only so long as he is useful to the uncompromising and ultimately untenable cause of abortion on demand.

Rich Lowry can be reached via e-mail: comments.lowry@nationalreview.com

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