For a generation, abortion has been the central front in the culture wars, the issue on which the two parties most clearly divide. The GOP party platform cleaves to the most rigorous of pro-life positions, supporting a constitutional amendment and legislation that would guarantee full rights, including Fourteenth Amendment protections, to the unborn. There’s no mention of exceptions for rape, incest, or the health of the mother. The only softness in the GOP position is a shying away from declaring an intention to prosecute women who have abortions. Prosecution seems to be reserved for abortion providers. As for the Democratic party platform, it stands “proudly for a woman’s right to choose, consistent with Roe v. Wade, and regardless of her ability to pay.”
But party platforms hardly tell the whole stories. Back in 1996, recognizing that the GOP position was too hostile to abortion for the majority of the electorate, Ralph Reed (then executive director of the Christian Coalition) tried to broker a step-down from the position for Bob Dole and ended up roundly attacked by other religious right leaders for his pains. But in 2000 just such a move was made by George W. Bush, whereby he made clear his sense that the American people were “not yet ready” for the Republican full monty on abortion even as he supported it. The platform position thus became aspirational rather than programmatic, so to speak.
The Democratic position actually affords more wiggle room, at least for as long as Roe remains the law of the land. Thus, Barack Obama’s recent statement, in an interview with Relevant magazine, indicating that he believes late term abortions can be banned so long as there is an exception for the health of the mother (with “mental distress” not counting) can be seen as consistent with Roe and thus with his party’s platform. Nonetheless, this kind of defection from pro-choice orthodoxy has not surprisingly raised hackles on the left.
So how will abortion play out as the presidential campaign goes forward? Platform fights do not seem in the cards. Obama already has the flexibility he needs, and there’s ample precedent for John McCain to dance away from the inflexibility he doesn’t. The real question has to do with the voting strength and inclination of those for whom the candidate’s position abortion, one way or the other, makes a difference. As of now, the anxiety seems to be entirely in the Republican camp. Thus, even as they send signals to McCain not to mess with the GOP platform, the big concern is to make sure that pro-life votes do not hearken to Obama’s spiritual siren song. Brody noted yesterday the onset of a Christian Defense Coalition attack on Obama as a radical pro-choicer, complete with a portrait of a black Uncle Sam declaring, “I want you to pay for abortions.” That, of course, is in the Democratic platform. But Obama can always take a leaf out of President Bush’s book, and say the country isn’t yet ready for it.