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Dare I Ask?

The Republican Candidates’ Abortion Problem: It's not Just about Abortion Anymore

Doctors of Conscience"I haven’t sorted out the penalties...of course there’s got to be some penalties to enforce the law, whatever they may be." So spoke George H.W. Bush, in one of the major gaffes of his first presidential run in 1988, during a debate with his opponent, Michael Dukakis. Bush, who had only recently begun to trumpet his antiabortion sentiments to dubious Republican social conservatives, was responding to a question about appropriate punishment for women who would obtain illegal abortions should Roe v Wade be overturned. The next morning, after frantic late night discussions, Bush’s handlers called the press for a "clarification." Bush meant to say doctors who performed abortions, not women who received them, should be jailed in such a situation.

Twenty years later, Mike Huckabee, running for the Republican nomination, makes no such missteps. With none of the discomfort that Bush I showed, Huckabee at his rallies gets the party line of the antiabortion movement right: if Roe is overturned, doctors who perform abortions should be punished, while the recipients of such abortions must be seen as "victims."

But Huckabee, a former Baptist preacher and the candidate of choice of evangelicals, is an exception in the clarity and consistency of his position on abortion. There is a long history of "evolution" on abortion from politicians in both parties. For example, Bill Clinton and Al Gore, both from Southern states, had mixed records of support for abortion early in their careers before they each went on to become staunch allies of the abortion rights movement. But in the campaign of 2008, it is mainly the Republican candidates who are squirming.

Mitt Romney’s notorious flip-flops on the issue--reminiscent of another hapless Massachusetts politician, Romney was for abortion before he was against it–-may ultimately be seen as a key factor that led to voter disillusion with his candidacy.

Rudy Guiliani, who is attempting the daunting task of winning a Republican nomination with a record of support for abortion and gay rights, astonished observers across the political spectrum with his nonchalance when he stated, in response to a question about his feelings were Roe to be overturned: “It’d be ok to repeal it. It would also be ok if a strict constructionist judge viewed it as precedent.”

Fred Thompson, in the early stages of his campaign, first denied and then admitted that he had worked briefly as a lobbyist for an abortion rights group. The “straight-talking” John McCain has also changed his position on abortion. Several years ago, he was on record as saying reversing Roe would not be a good idea, because of the likelihood of women resorting to illegal and dangerous abortions; today, he calls for the immediate overturning of Roe.

The abortion issues in the Democratic campaign have thus far been much more low profile. To be sure, Dennis Kucinich, who for most of his political career was against abortion, suddenly became converted to a prochoice position when he first ran for president. And in the final days of the New Hampshire primary, the Clinton campaign sent out a mailing accusing Obama of not being a sufficiently reliable prochoice vote when he served in the Illinois legislature.

But in fact, the positions of the top three Democratic candidates are nearly identical on abortion. All three spoke out against the most recent Supreme Court decision on abortion, Gonzales v Carhart, announced in April 2007--decrying the fact that for the first time the Court held that an exception to protect the health of a woman was not constitutionally necessary in abortion legislation. But since Gonzales also upheld a ban on intact Dilation and Extraction, a rarely used method of performing certain second trimester abortions-- sensationalized by opponents as “partial birth abortions”–-it is certain that antiabortion forces will target whoever becomes the Democratic nominee for his or her statement on that case.

So how big a role will abortion play in the upcoming election? An economy in recession, not to mention ongoing wars in two fronts, presumably will command far more attention than abortion. But abortion plays too central a role in American politics to disappear altogether as an issue. In particular, if Mike Huckabee is the nominee (or, more likely, the vice presidential candidate), then abortion will inevitably have a higher profile. Even if Huckabee is not on the ticket, if either McCain or Guiliani becomes the presidential nominees, he will likely choose a running mate who can energize the Religious Right segment of the party–and that means talking about abortion.

What can the Democrats do? This time around, the Democratic candidates have an excellent opportunity to do more than be defensive about their support for abortion, especially the controversy around later abortions , which account for a tiny proportion of all abortions performed in the U.S.(90% of all abortions occur within the first ten weeks of pregnancy and less than 2% occur after 20 weeks).

The record of the Bush presidency with regard to sexual and reproductive policies is so egregious, because of the relentless quest to please the Religious Right, that there is a real opening to expose the extent to which the Republican party is out of step with mainstream values of the American electorate.

If baited about "partial birth abortions," here is how a nominee might respond. "Leading medical organizations have testified that sometimes this banned method is the safest one for the woman--and I want women to have access to the safest procedure possible. But this infrequently used procedure is not the main issue here. I want to know if my opponent, should he be president, will continue to support abstinence only sex education--on which our government has wasted over a billion dollars to date, and which has repeatedly been shown to be ineffective. I want to know if my opponent, on record as opposing abortions, will continue George Bush’s policy of cutting funding for family planning programs? I want to know if my opponent agrees with the Bush policy of posting incorrect information about condom effectiveness and other reproductive health issues on government websites? I want to know if my opponent will continue with the Bush policy of making one third of all U.S. HIV/AIDS assistance funds in the developing world go to abstinence programs–-a policy decried by public health experts? And since we are talking about reproductive issues, why is my opponent on record as supporting George Bush’s veto of the expansion of S-Chip–that wonderful health care program for children?"

In short, abortion is best defended when it is discussed in the context of a larger vision of reproductive justice–one that speaks to the many different ways a compassionate government can help its citizens to achieve the family lives they wish for. And the woeful Bush record of the last seven years offers a perfect opportunity to present this vision.

Carole Joffe is a professor of sociology at the U.of California, Davis.  She is the author of Doctors of Conscience: the Struggle to provide Abortion before and after Roe v Wade (Beacon Press, 1996).  She is currently at work on a book about contemporary abortion provision.