The Politics of Abortion

Pro-life groups, led by Virginia’s Governor Bob McDonnell, scored an important victory in the state legislature yesterday. By a vote of 20-19, the Senate in the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law restricting the use of state Medicaid funds for abortions, except in cases of rape, incest or to protect the life of the mother. The bipartisan measure was passed with the votes of three Democratic senators as well as all 17 Republican members of the Commonwealth’s Senate.

The new law is important in at least two regards. First, the vote was bipartisan. Many voters do not consider abortion the most important or decisive issue in how they vote. It is critical that the pro-life movement consciously make efforts to transcend partisanship because voters may elect their representatives for a variety of reasons, but once in the legislature, there must be an incentive for Democrats to vote in favor of pro-life causes. Additionally, and really more importantly, we pro-lifers must believe that our concern for life really does transcend other, partisan categories, that it is a foundational concern no matter who wins any given election, that the promotion and protection of life is something that strikes deeply, very deeply, more deeply than the cultural zeitgeist or the political winds.

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The second reason the measure is important is that it points the way towards the next logical step in the pro-life cause. The year-long health care debate did not only change the law, it changes the political discourse. If anything is clear, to all sides, from the recent debate, it is that abortion is not just another medical procedure. It is also clear that the Democrats, yes the Democrats, just spent a year arguing that their proposals do not and should not permit federal funding of abortion. But, if the feds should not pay for abortion with tax dollars, why should the states? It is still public money, collected from all citizens, and many of those citizens view the procedure as morally abhorrent. It strains the bounds of logic for Democrats to now argue that state monies should be used for abortion. McDonnell and the senators in Virginia simply demanded that the logic of the recent health care debate regarding abortion be applied at the state level too. Pro-lifers who live in states where Medicaid currently pays for abortion should take their cue from Virginia and seek to end state subsidies for abortion through Medicaid.

The Virginia path contrasts sharply with the political strategy announced by groups like the Family Research Council (FRC), the Susan B. Anthony fund, and Gary Bauer’s Campaign for Working Families PAC. The FRC, for example, has announced a $500,000 campaign against pro-life Democrats who supported the health care bill. These pro-life Democrats were convinced, as I was convinced, that the bill did not include federal funding for abortion. But, even if you do not think the restrictions were sufficiently airtight, punishing long-time pro-life Democrats over this one provision is bad strategy for the pro-life movement. It makes it appear partisan. And, it guarantees that if the Democrats maintain their congressional majority, the leadership will have no one in their own ranks to make the pro-life cause.

I have mentioned before an incident from last autumn that showed me how important it is to have pro-life voices within the caucuses of both parties. I attended a Comedy Night at the Democratic Club, and there was Congressman Bart Stupak having dinner at a table with a dozen or so colleagues including House Democratic Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn and Democratic Caucus Chairman John Larson. Both of these leaders are pro-choice, but both of them consider Stupak a friend as well as a colleague. They may disagree with Stupak’s pro-life position, but they must also listen to it. Stupak is retiring, but if there are no pro-life Democrats to make the case within that party’s caucus, there are a variety of ways that the pro-life movement will suffer.

The pro-life movement had a difficult time taking "Yes" for an answer during the health care debate. Now, they need to realize that the health care debate opened opportunities to advance the pro-life cause that did not esixt before. But, if they embark on a strategy of vilifying longtime supporters because those members read the bill differently, they will only succeed in missing the opportunity to continue changing the nation’s political discourse about the sanctity of human life. In Richmond yesterday, those changes brought about a positive change in the law. What will the Family Research Council achieve with its spending spree, even if it works? More Republicans. That is a perfectly fine objective in the political realm, but it is not and cannot be the principal concern of the pro-life movement.

Michael Sean Winters

 

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8 years ago
Wait, wait.  THREE Democrats voted for the measure.  In VIRGINIA?  You couldn't muster enough votes in the Senate to pass Stupak, and the majority of the Democratic house caucus considered voting for Stupak as something akin to cutting off your nose to spite your face.  YET, you're asking me to believe that it is the DEMOCRATS who are advancing the pro-life cause more successfully because, I assume, less aggressively?  Because they have dinner with pro-choice Democrats at a club?  What are you smoking?  I agree that the rancor from some family issues groups on the right rankles, but if you think the pro-life message is more effective coming from the left, you are truly living a pipe dream.  What a laugh...
David Nickol
8 years ago
Tom Maher:
 
It's rather curious you thing that Virginia's new law is ''old news.'' But setting that aside, since you used MSW's piece to attack the Democrats, you seem to have missed MSW's point when he said, ''It is critical that the pro-life movement consciously make efforts to transcend partisanship because voters may elect their representatives for a variety of reasons, but once in the legislature, there must be an incentive for Democrats to vote in favor of pro-life causes.'' One very important critique of the pro-life movement is that it is often more interested in electing Republicans than in advancing the pro-life cause. (Why did Massachusetts for Life support Scott Brown, who is pro-choice?) Consequently it seems strange of you to use a plea against partisanship as an occasion to attack the Democrats.
 
It seems to me difficult to beat up the Democrats on the issue of state-funded Medicaid abortions, since of the 17 states that fund abortions (other than those permitted by the Hyde Amendment), 13 do so because of court orders, not because of Democratic legislatures. 
David Nickol
8 years ago
Jeff,
 
Much as I would like to interpret the term "pro-life" to be broader than anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell research, and anti-euthanasia, that doesn't seem to me to describe the "pro-life" movement I see. The only authentic "pro-life" approach, in my opinion, is the consistent ethic of life (or seamless garment) approach. 
 
As a matter of fact, before I wrote my message, I refreshed my memory by reading a description, with diagrams, of partial birth abortion. It is certainly disturbing and grisly, but what abortion technique isn't? And if abortion could be made peaceful and tranquil, like a Lamaze birth, it would still be opposed by "pro-lifers." 
 
So I really don't see how banning partial birth abortion qualifies as a "pro-life" victory except insofar as it makes people disturbed when they think about *any* abortion technique (which may have been the whole point, it seems to me).
 
Execution by lethal injection may be more humane than electrocution or hanging, but I do not see substituting lethal injection for electrocution or hanging as a pro-life victory. So I don't see a ban on partial-birth abortion as a pro-life victory either. 
8 years ago
I am a proponent of the consistent ethic of life, so your attempt to divide the pro-life movement won't work against me.
 
Partial-birth abortion is a species of late-term abortion procedures only available to be used at a certain time against a developed fetus, thus it is more ''grisly'' than an ordinary abortion procedure, which you should realize upon your review.  Thus, to ban this procedure, is to prevent its use against certain fetuses, and to prevent abortions, which, I think, any reasonable person would conclude is ''pro-life'' however broadly defined the term.  What confuses me is your argument that this is not the case.  Is banning a procedure used in a specific time against specific fetuses somehow anti-life?  Or is your argument simply that it is a politically meaningless gesture? If that is your argument, then again I think your playing fast and loose with terminology to fit your ideological leanings.  Any consensus on reducing abortions in this country is good for this country and is pro-life.  I would hope people can put aside partisanship & see that for what it is.  Unfortunately, you, Mr. Bindner & Mr. Winters are more intent on attacking the Republican Party as per se evil, no matter what it says, does, or thinks.
Tom Maher
8 years ago
The real analysis of the Virgina change of law is the Democratic party has a big exposure on the issue of abortion.

What would have happen to the pitvol three Democratic votes had they not voted for the funding retriction? Yes, indeed, their ability to be re-elected would be in jeopardy.

I know boys and girls, it's so unfair. On one issue, one time, one wrong vote could end a politician's career. No second chance. No appeal. So harsh. So real-life. So not like high school. And like the taking of a life, so final.

Look at Bart Stupak switching his vote just one time after eighteen years in congress. You would think he would catch a break. But no, his constituents turned on him like a Bengal tiger. He became unelectable in moments after his switched vote. The same with Senator Ben Nelson on his switched vote. When push came to shove both Democrates caved in.

The problem is that these pro-life folks just have no sense of humor. They are so not into trusting politicians. And they are not the weasely, deal making type. You know like I'll trade you two babies for one maternity clinic. Deal making just does not work with this issue. These folks are not wishy-washy or half-hearted. And they want unconditionally the whole boardwalk on their terms.

So you really have to be ga ga for the Democratic party to think the Democrates have an opening with the pro-life folks. Democrates not in overwhelmingly Democratic district are in trouble with these folks. Even then, the Martha Coakley, the super abortion on demand candidate, was solidly defeated with the help of pro-life folks overwheminly voting for Scott Brown the Republican for the "Kennedy" senate seat in the very Democratic state of Massachusetts this January.

Abortion is an increasingly losing issue for the Democrates. Opposition to abortion is here to stay and should not be underestimated.
8 years ago
"But the fact remains that it prevents no abortions and saves no lives."
 
You assume that this statement is factually correct because there are alternative means.  I counter-argue that such statement is not as self-evidently true as you assert.  I accept that some fetuses may be destroyed late term through other procedures; I never said that banning this procedure would end all abortions at this stage.  I argued that it is good for the pro-life movement that some consensus had been reached on this procedure.  It is indeed amazing to me that someone who counts himself "pro-life" stands against banning a procedure, but then counters to those who say banning the procedure is good for human life are not, ipso facto, pro-life.
8 years ago
I should add, Mr. Nickol, that we are perhaps not agreeing because you are making a ideological argument, whereas I am not making an ideological argument, but rather an argument that says consensus is pro-life, however small the gesture.
David Nickol
8 years ago
Jeff Landry says, "I should add, Mr. Nickol, that we are perhaps not agreeing because you are making a ideological argument, whereas I am not making an ideological argument, but rather an argument that says consensus is pro-life, however small the gesture."
 
I think the argument can be made from both the pro-life and pro-choice side that that a ban on partial-birth abortions is not a pro-life victory. To be sure, it was a pro-life *political* victory, in that the ban was wanted largely by those who were pro-life and unwanted by those who were pro-choice. But I don't see how banning one abortion technique can be a pro-life victory when it doesn't save any lives. If there were a chance of banning *all* abortion techniques, one by one, until none were permitted, then it could in hindsight be seen as a victory. But I don't see any chance of that happening.
 
I don't see that there is any way of either of us proving the other wrong. My sense of things makes me feel one way, and your sense of things makes you feel another way. But I do think it is a fact that the ban on partial birth abortion saves no lives, and indeed, one of the reasons the Supreme Court upheld the ban was because it did not impose an "undue burden" because there were always alternative techniques that could be used. 
 
 
Stephen Braunlich
8 years ago
It needs to be said that this language was repeatedly kept out before hand because a Catholic Democrat sitting in the Governor's Mansion did not want it in.  He now heads the DNC.
Tom Maher
8 years ago
Virginia's new law to restrict abortion funding by the state is not surprising. More than 70% of the public nation-wide for decades have been against governemnt/taxpayyer funding of abortion. This is old news.

Of course pro-life support funding restriction but so do a majority of people who are either indifferent to abortions or approve of abortions. Most taxpayers just do not want to pay for abortions.

So politically restricting govenment funding for abortions is a very solid choice nationwide.

The real story here is how few Democrats support this overwheming majority opinion, The Democratic party majority militantly favors unresitricted government funding of abortions - abortion on demand. There is little or no room in the Democratic party for anyone who is not militantly in favor of abortion on demand.
David Nickol
8 years ago
So politically restricting govenment funding for abortions is a very solid choice nationwide.
 
Just to underscore a point I have already partially made, only Hawaii, Maryland, New York, and Washington voluntarily use state funds to pay for Medicaid abortions. Thirteen other states fund them as a result of court orders. I suppose since Maryland and Hawaii are at opposite ends of the country, there could, in a sense, be a nationwide campaign to restrict government funding of abortion. But it would take place in only four states.
James Lindsay
8 years ago
The pro-life message is much more effective from the Left, since on the left, we use it to take action - not pander to voters with promises on overturning Roe judicially that can never be kept. We also take economic actions to reduce abortion - like providing health care to families who would otherwise abort a child that they could not take to the doctor after it is born. Putting in and then increasing the Child Tax Credit are also Democratic accomplishments - ones that I expect to be fillibustered by Republicans in the coming national tax debate.

This is not to say that I am at home in the Democratic Party on this issue. I am an Independent Green of Virginia, which is linked to the Independence Party of America. We don't use the abortion issue to win votes on either side.
8 years ago
"not pander to voters with promises on overturning Roe judicially that can never be kept."
- So passing the Partial Birth Abortion ban, promptly upheld by the justices nominated by Pres. Bush is political pandering rather than action?  Why can't Roe ever be overturned?  
 
"Putting in and then increasing the Child Tax Credit are also Democratic accomplishments - ones that I expect to be fillibustered by Republicans in the coming national tax debate."
-Wrong again on the facts, Mr. Bindner.  One of Congressman Ryan's proposals endorsed by the Republican caucus is expanding this tax credit.
 
"We also take economic actions to reduce abortion - like providing health care to families who would otherwise abort a child that they could not take to the doctor after it is born."
- This is an unprovable straw man assertion.  You are using it to imply that by not supporting the President's health care bill, which, let's assume, disallows federal funds to support abortions, is akin to encouraging abortion.  
 
If these are the kinds of arguments your whatever-whatever-whatever associated with the whatever-whatever party makes, its no wonder you've never won an election.
David Nickol
8 years ago
I am not sure how a ban on partial-birth abortion is "pro-life," when all it means is that an alternative abortion technique must be used. A ban on partial-birth abortions saves no lives. 
8 years ago
Uh, then you misunderstand both the meaning of "pro-life" and the technique used and outlawed.
 
Typical liberal trick, however, re-define the term out of meaning to fit your view.
David Nickol
8 years ago
Jeff Landry:
 
Unless I am misunderstanding you, you seem to believe that the partial-birth-abortion ban prevents some abortions. However, it does not. Here is a paragraph from the Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of the ban:
 
*****
The conclusion that the Act does not impose an undue burden is supported by other considerations. Alternatives are available to the prohibited procedure. As we have noted, the Act does not proscribe D&E. One District Court found D&E to have extremely low rates of medical complications. Planned Parenthood, supra, at 1000. Another indicated D&E was “generally the safest method of abortion during the second trimester.” Carhart, 331 F. Supp. 2d, at 1031; see also Nat. Abortion Federation, supra, at 467–468 (explaining that “[e]xperts testifying for both sides” agreed D&E was safe). In addition the Act’s prohibition only applies to the delivery of “a living fetus.” 18 U. S. C. §1531(b)(1)(A) (2000 ed., Supp. IV). If the intact D&E procedure is truly necessary in some circumstances, it appears likely an injection that kills the fetus is an alternative under the Act that allows the doctor to perform the procedure.
*****
 
The reason banning partial-birth abortion creates no ''undue burden'' is that there are always alternatives to partial-birth abortion, as Justice Kennedy noted in the majority opinion. The most common one is D&E, in which the fetus is dismembered inside the womb and taken out piece by piece. I think a case can be made that this is more grisly than partial-birth abortion. Also, Kennedy notes that if the partial-birth-abortion technique really is necessary, the fetus can be killed first in the womb and then extracted in exactly the same manner as in a partial-birth abortion. 
 
So my point is that a ban on partial-birth abortions is not ''pro-life'' because it does not reduce the number of abortions. It is never the case that a doctor must now say to a woman, ''I am sorry, but partial birth abortion is now against the law, and consequently you must carry your baby to term and give birth.'' The doctor must instead say, ''Okay, you can have an abortion, but we'll either have to use D&E and dismember the baby in the womb, or we'll have to give the baby a lethal injection first and then perform what would be called a partial birth abortion if we did it when the baby was still alive.''
 
In other words, the ban on partial-birth abortion is not ''pro-life.'' Why? Because it saves no lives and prevents no abortions. It prohibits one abortion technique, but it prevents no abortions, because other techniques remain permissible and will be used. It does not matter whether I am a liberal or a conservative. It is just a fact that the ban on partial-birth abortions prevents no abortions and saves no lives. It merely requires that a different abortion technique be used in place of the partial-birth-abortion technique.
 
It can certainly be argued that the ban is a good thing even though it prevents no abortions and saves no lives. But the fact remains that it prevents no abortions and saves no lives.
William Kurtz
8 years ago
"There must be an incentive for Democrats to vote in favor of pro-life causes."
Exactly. The problem is that professional pro-lifers will often abandon Democrats who have gone against the majority of their party in favor of Republicans who "bid higher," so to speak. By contrast, the National Rifle Association goes out of its way to find friendly incumbent Democrats to support, regardless of how much more fealty their challengers promise.
Question: which lobby gets its way more often?
Also, for Tom Maher's comment on pro-lifers "wanting unconditionally the whole boardwalk on their terms" and not being willing to "trade you two babies for one maternity clinic"?
1. Unless it's a pro-choice Republican, with emphasis on the Republican.
2. No, but they were willing to trade two Supreme Court justices for a still-to-be-determined number of dead and crippled soldiers and dead Iraqis.
Tom Maher
8 years ago
Pro-life movement's intransigence is its strength and reason for the great political progress it it has made over the last thirty-five years.

Thirty-five years ago the presidential election of 1976 demonstrated the ballot box strength of the pro-life movement. Jimmy Carter, the Democratic candidate a born-again, evangelical Christian ran on a pro-life Democrat platform and won with the help of pro-life voters. Jerry Ford, a high-church WASP was openly pro-choice and lost. The pro-life vote even in its earliest, disorganized days was the deciding margin of victory in a close race.

Republicans learned this lesson the hard way - not having pro-life support is to lose a significant block of voters. They have not nade that mistake since. This block voting effect is now working against the Democrats at the ballot box level. No need to make deals. Replace pro-abortion candidates one by one at the balllot box, as happened very successfully with the Republican party. Leverage the entire Republican party agasint abortion not the incidental rare Democrat office holders who may vote pro-life sometimes.
William Kurtz
8 years ago
There's one problem with Tom Maher's approach. There are a lot of voters who don't base their vote on abortion. When they become disaffected with Republicans, and vote them out, where does that leave pro-lifers? Out in the cold.
And by the way, it seems odd to analyze the 1976 election and not even mention Watergate.
James Lindsay
8 years ago
If you look at the pro-life organization amici on the partial birth case, it is easy to conclude that the whole reason for the law was to give new justices Alito and Roberts the opportunity to overturn Roe v. Wade or say that the partial birth abortion law should fall because Roe was wrongly decided. They didn't use that basis (although Scalia and Thomas did). They went with Kennedy on a Commerce Clause/congressional authority justification which is now the law. I wrote an amici which was not submitted to the court but was shopped to both sides saying that Congress had the authority to say, under the 14th Amendment, when life begins - but that they had to say so explicitly. Kennedy seemed to call PBA a form of infanticide, meaning that once you see a live fetus outside the womb, it is covered under the plain language of the 14th Amendment regarding protection at birth. He could have gone on to say that Congress could designate protection earlier than birth under the amendment, not in regulating abortion but in granting full legal personhood. The pro-choicers did not want to touch that argument, since it would have given Congress ideas. The lifers don't want a legislative solution - they want to overturn Roe and return to the bad old days where abortion was regulated as a medical procedure rather than as a homicide (if the maximum penalty is less than for shooting a dog - you ain't protecting life, you are regulating doctors).

Ryan's bill has no chance, since he throws future retirees to the wolves of wall street. I agree with him on raising the child tax credit - however my bet is that the GOP will be willing to throw low wage income earners under the bus in order to keep tax cuts for the rich under the FY2011 Tax Bill, which will be debated shortly. I hope I am wrong, but the fact that any permanent reform had preserving tax cuts for the rich had a precondition does not make me sanguine on Republican bipartisanship on this issue.

If Right-to-Lifers are willing to endorse a $500/month/child refundable tax credit and tell their legislators and their party that this is non-negotiable, I will always welcome the help - since I often feel like a voice in the wilderness proposing this - which I have done for what seems like (and probably is) more than a decade.

Tom Maher
8 years ago
The key Democratic supposedly pro-life supporters in Congress, Senator Ben Nelson and Representative Bart Stupak proved ineffective and unreliable. - Not characteristic that pro-life folks are likely to be attracted to.

Nelson and Stupak knew that additional language was needed and offered such language but were totally unable to get that language in the test of the final law. Rather than influencing their fellow Democrates they were their language was repeatedly rejected. Ho wmuch influence do pro-ife Democrates have on other Democrats? None. This demonstracte pro-life Democrates ineffective.

Both then caved in and voted with the party to enact a law they had shortly before knew was inadequate in protection life. ("Cave in" is measured here by their own constituant's strong disapproval to their switched vote.) This demonstrates pro-life Democrates are personally unreliable in their own vote when under party pressure. It really is the case that when the Republican party is not in power, pro-life interests have no where to trun. The Democratic party overall is militanly pro-abortion.

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