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Abortion Sleight of Hand

Political smoke and mirrors dominate the issue

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Last month, as abortion supporters and protestors marched on the Capitol, I was reminded of a hypothetical situation a Republican campaign consultant once posed to me over a beer. Suppose the most liberal members of the US Supreme Court traveled in one car to a judicial symposium and along the way, they perished in a fiery wreck. Suppose that this happened under a Republican president, who immediately sought to replace them with pro-life judges committed to reversing Roe v. Wade. Assume that this president somehow got them through the inevitable Senate filibusters by Democrats, and that before the next election, the court overturned Roe. What would happen?It would be a disaster for the Republican Party, he said, and they know it.

To win federal elections, Republicans must get at least 40 percent of the female vote -- some say 45 -- and the Christian right, which isn't always dependable, has to show up to vote in large numbers. If one of these two things doesn't happen, Republicans lose.

If the Supreme Court overturned Roe, those usually apolitical soccer moms would be marching in the streets. And the Christian right? Without the abortion issue to motivate them, they're not really political creatures. They wouldn't show up to vote in large enough numbers to put the Republicans in power until their pro-life majority on the Supreme Court was once again threatened, and that could take decades. Instead, they'd turn their attention away from federal elections and begin pressuring state legislatures in conservative states to outlaw abortion, which, without Roe, would be a state-by-state decision.

It's the same sort of disaster that would befall the Democrats if true equality were achieved and huge numbers of minority voters moved into the middle class. As pollster John Zogby pointed out, most competitive Congressional races in the 2002 elections were decided by a few thousand votes. This country is so evenly divided between the two parties that if just one group of voters became sluggish about voting because they believed the perceived injustice most important to them had been overcome and they no longer needed the leaders of the party they usually vote for, that party would be crippled for years to come.

My discussion with the consultant came to mind recently when the White House announced it planned to push a partial-birth abortion ban and other pro-life legislation through Congress. What most of the national media hadn't reported is that although the Republicans control the Senate by one vote, they can't pass this legislation without help from the Democrats because at least three staunchly pro-choice Republican Senators would vote against it. So why, I wondered, weren't pro-choice groups publicly pressuring the 11 Democrat Senators who voted for a partial-birth abortion ban twice in the last five years to reverse their votes? (The ban passed with their help, but Clinton vetoed it both times.)

I posed this question to representatives of the pro-choice NARAL and David Garrow, a pro-choice-leaning legal historian at Emory University and author of Liberty and Sexuality, folks who I assumed would be fairly freaked out by Bush's plans. They weren't.

Garrow said that he and others in the know expect Republicans to do what they did the last two times they put up partial-birth legislation -- write the language of the bill so it's nearly identical to flawed partial-birth laws that have been struck down by the courts in states like Nebraska, essentially setting the legislation up for a judicial fall even before it's passed. That's why, a woman with NARAL explained to me, her organization has little interest in wasting its political capital harassing otherwise pro-choice Democrat senators who will vote for the ban. "Sure, we'll talk to them," one NARAL rep told me off the record. "But we'll take that law to court the day they pass it and it will be overturned."

Then why, I asked her, did they bother to mobilize pro-choice supporters to march in the streets last month like abortion was coming to an end? "Well, if the other side's marching. . ." she said.

It's not that a majority of Senate Republicans with staunchly conservative pro-life records aren't actually pro-life. It's that they and politically savvy Bush administration members are too smart to put up legislation that could be used against them in the next election, but they have to mollify the Christian right with abortion ban attempts that will ensure they show up to vote. And the other five right-to-life bills? If the Bush administration can count, they know that most of the Senators who voted for the partial-birth abortion ban -- an issue polls say the majority of the public supports -- have otherwise solid pro-choice records and will likely be able to vote the legislation down.

But if any of that legislation should happen to pass, well, Bush appears to have plans for that, too. The scheduled date the White House plans to push it through? Sometime in March, the exact timeframe when bombs will likely be falling on Iraq, and the soccer moms will be too busy duct-taping their homes to pay much attention to which legislation makes it through the Senate -- and which legislation doesn't.

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