Books: Review of William Saletan's Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press)
Mr. Kutler is the author of several books, including The Wars of Watergate and Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes.The Thirty Years' War raged in Europe from 1618 to 1648, largely the consequence of religious conflicts between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought temporary peace, but it proved fragile, and conflict continued on the European continent for another 150 years.
One thinks of such a protracted conflict as belonging to another time, not ours. But the abortion wars are our Thirty Years' War, rooted in the same religious and moral claims that fueled that earlier clash. With the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade to legalize abortion on a national scale in the United States, conflict has metastasized far beyond the boundaries of abortion and with profound consequences affecting our political and cultural discourse. And there's no treaty in sight.
Periodic Supreme Court decisions since 1973 have only inflamed the conflict. They resolved many of the subsidiary issues, such as parental consent, while narrowly retaining Roe's basic holding. Abortion remains legal, but it also remains contentious and controversial. It has become, in its purest extremes --whether of absolute prohibition or of access to abortion on demand -- a litmus test for two contending forces, competing captains in the larger cultural war and its attendant skirmishes. Neither side will abide compromise, and neither grapples well with setbacks or reality.
William Saletan's Bearing Right demonstrates, however, that abortion is an enormously complicated, complex issue; the simplistic, rigid stances of the two major players only trivialize the subject and obscure other problems. The abortion rights forces apparently command a majority that believes abortion is a personal and family choice. But it is a fragile coalition, easily fragmented by subsidiary issues of public financing or parental consent. Abortion remains legal, but"pro-choice conservatives," as Saletan describes them, have largely won the struggle. They have shut down most public financing of anything relating to abortion or family planning, and they have joined with abortion opponents to support parental consent legislation. Roe stands, but significantly eroded and certainly qualified.
Debates over the legality of abortion easily ignite inbred American suspicion, even hostility, toward government. Americans are reluctant to allow governmental intrusion into their personal lives; consequently, most accept abortion as a private matter. Saletan deftly explores the labyrinth of polls and focus groups to tease out the complexity of opinion on abortion. He traces the lines between their findings and how politicians carefully use the message pollsters uncover. It is hard to imagine another issue so choreographed and manipulated.
Abortion opponents yearn for a constitutional amendment to override Roe. Yet even President Bush, their new paladin, has refused to endorse such a move, obviously sensing the public belief that government shall not deny a woman's choice on this matter. Nevertheless, abortion foes diligently have pursued a course of gutting the Supreme Court's decision. Choosing their political battlegrounds carefully, they have crafted legislation in such various states as Pennsylvania, Missouri and Louisiana to deny public funding of abortion and to provide for parental consent.
Politics involves coalition building. The smart money has been with those who have understood American ambivalence on the issue. When Republicans took power in the House of Representatives in 1994, they promptly reversed the gains that abortion rights advocates had made at the outset of the Clinton administration. With significant Democratic support, Republicans barred federal employees' health insurance for abortion, the use of military hospitals for servicewomen or military dependents serving abroad and federal funding of abortions for federal prisoners, and they eliminated a substantial amount of U.S. aid to international family planning programs.
Clinton retreated and readily acquiesced. Bob Dole, Clinton's prospective opponent in 1996, supported the conservative agenda, yet he also announced he would not support a constitutional ban on abortions. Heads I win, he said, tails you lose.
Bush has legitimated what Saletan calls the"pro-choice and pro-life" position, and Saletan believes he commands the terrain. As governor, and as a presidential candidate, Bush described the issue in terms of"family rights." The outright prohibition of abortion was reduced to mere statements of principles, basically retaining the Republican Party's antiabortion plank. Parents had to love Bush. He signed Texas legislation in 1999 prohibiting a teenager from body piercing without parental approval. Abortion, he insisted, required parental consent, just like any other surgical procedure."I'm a pro-life person," he said, yet he quickly added that"America is not ready to ban abortions."
Politicians have nursed their poll findings; ideology and principle count for little, it seems. Liberal activists believe they had been betrayed by Clinton and Gore's trimming from the absolutist position, although neither ever promised a rose garden. Ronald Reagan reversed the old political saw,"Watch what I do and not what I say," to a high art form. As California's governor, he signed into law the most liberal abortion legislation. As president, he offered little more than lip service to a constitutional prohibition of the practice. He never directly addressed anti-abortion rallies; instead, his remarks would be piped in through a loudspeaker. Unlike his public support of the failed school prayer amendment issue (which was largely symbolic, for he knew it was destined for defeat), Reagan never really expended legislative capital on the abortion amendment.
Bush's advisors have an unerring instinct to win, and they have carefully choreographed what Saletan calls his"three-step." Bush maintains that he opposes abortion, that America does not want to ban abortions, but that parents must be involved and there can be no federal financial support. He repeatedly has shown no interest in making reality out of the antiabortion Republican plank, yet he insists that"it's very important for the Republican Party to be viewed as the pro-life party." (Meaning that Democrats are not?)
The formula worked perfectly for Bush during the 2000 election, while his primary opponent, John McCain, failed with a similar tactic. The Arizona senator said he would not support the repeal of Roe but would join with both sides to eliminate the need for abortions. Abortion opponents dismissed him as a stealth candidate for the other side, and South Carolina voters buried McCain, crippling his candidacy. Saletan captures the moment perfectly:"Bush had become the Republican nominee, and pro-life pragmatism and pro-choice conservatism had become indistinguishable." Bush had squared the circle and elevated image above ideology.
The issue grows richer in complexity. In July 2003, after Saletan had completed his book, the Florida Supreme Court struck down a parental consent law, holding that the requirement violated a minor's right to privacy. Though the U.S. Supreme Court found a concept of privacy in the Constitution to justify Roe, the lack of specificity has enraged the court's conservatives, who remain committed to overturning the decision. But Florida is one of a handful of states with an explicit privacy clause in its constitution. The Florida court reached out to that basic suspicion of government interference."Under our decision," the court ruled,"parent and minor are free to do as they wish in this regard, without government interference." The lone dissenter ironically spoke of the larger community need, which has a compelling interest in having parents parent their children. And so, judges, like the rest of us, make their choices. This time, the Florida judges have the state's constitution on their side. (If their ruling is appealed, it will be interesting to watch the Rehnquist-Scalia-Thomas axis figure out a way to reverse them.)
Saletan skillfully dissects the politics of abortion to offer fascinating insights into the larger question of our public debates and life."Politics is the art of the possible," once an article of faith of public life, has, over the last three decades, been eclipsed by the politics of extremism. The fringes of the debate dominate the political landscape. Advocates of either side often are happy to lose and maintain their passion for ongoing agitation. They command the public microphone. For them, there is no pause, no repose and certainly no retreat. The tentative, pragmatic positions of voters offer the only effective restraint on the apostles of extremism. Meanwhile, we are in Saletan's debt for providing an understanding of this divisive, complex and corrosive issue.
This article first appeared in the Los Angeles Times and is reprinted with permission of the author.
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Dave Livingston - 10/13/2003
Friend Tim Furnish,
IMHO as a Pro-lifer you are far too generous to suggest that we've achieved any sort of victory, even a pyrrhic one, thus far.
Dave Livingston - 10/13/2003
Dear Pierre Troublion,
Thank you ever so much for drawing attention to the recent all too frequent misapplication of the word "war" in lieu of debate or another more suitable term. Misuse of the word war is a sign of lazy thinking as well as an unwillingness to adequately address the subject to which the word is misapplied.
Will J. Richardson - 8/27/2003
Dear Mr. G,
If you will read the United States Supreme Court's Opinion on the 2000 election you will discover that the Court decided the matter on Federal Constitutional grounds. The Florida parental notification opinion was decided on the basis of the Florida Constitution's Right to Privacy which is express in the Declaration of Rights, the first Article of the Florida Constitution.
The United States Supreme Court does not presume to instruct the Florida Courts on how to construe their own Constitution.
Tim Furnish - 8/24/2003
Conservatives have "won" the abortion war? How, by reducing the numbers of abortion to only 1.3 million a year? By their so-far-unsuccessful attempts to eliminate the 5,000 or so partial-birth abortions done each year (most of those on Down's Syndrome children)? This is a Pyrrhic victory, at best.
Pierre Troublion - 8/22/2003
The "war" metaphors, "war on drugs", "war on terrorism", etc. are out of control. This is evident here too, whatever the merits or demerits of the book itself. Attempts to draw historical parallels and make historical analyses get tied in knots.
So, debates over abortion are like debates over slavery, ultimately unreconcilable, as Lincoln pointed out to Douglas. Good observation, long obvious, which bears repeating nevertheless.
But, should we now talk about the "Slavery War, 1830-1860", to students who, if they have heard of the Appomattox handshake at all have trouble placing it in the correct century ? I'd like HNN or somebody to publicize the names of the editors or other clowns who pick such sensationalistic and ahistorical titles.
Joey G - 8/21/2003
>The United States Supreme Court does not construe State Constitutions except when there is no existing precedent.
Such as a vote recount, which has never occured in any state before November 2000.
Paddy Swiney - 8/21/2003
Mr. Salatan's book sounds intriguing, and Mr. Kutler's review enlightening. But I would suggest Mr. Kutler's metaphor is incorrect--the abortion issue is far more similar to the slavery issue before the Civil War. Pitted against innate American reluctance to interfere with legally acquired private property was the absolute belief that slavery was not permissible in a country dedicated to liberty. Some radical abolitionists even maintained that slaves were fully human and the United States could not sustain, much less endorse the captivity of human beings who could possibly be eligible for citizenship in the United States. The clash of property rights v.s. the nature of the slave (fully human?) is parallel to the abortion debate. Just as it was easy for non-slave territories to ignore the issue until political compromises and media attention forced it on them, so it is easy to ignore the humanity of the unborn fetus. Roe v.s Wade was based on obsolete assumptions of "viabiliity" when it was written.
How can Mr. Semler conclude that conservatives have won the abortion war. Abortions occur daily, on demand in the United States.
Will J. Richardson - 8/20/2003
Dear Mr. Kutler,
Because the Florida Supreme Court struck down the parental notification law on the State Constitution right of privacy, there is no appeal to the United States Supreme Court. The United States Supreme Court does not construe State Constitutions except when there is no existing precedent.
If the United States Supreme Court (or Federal Appellate Court for that matter)is unsure of how the Florida Constitution or a statute should be applied or construed, the Federal Court certifies the question to the Florida Supreme Court and accepts the Florida Supreme Court's answer as dispositive and binding.
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