Sunday, December 7, 2008

What Does the "Pro-Life" Movement Want? Don't Ask Ross Douthat.

The New York Times today published an astoundingly uninformed, naive defense of the current "pro-life" movement, by Ross Douthat, a senior editor at The Atlantic.  See: Abortion Politics Didn’t Doom the G.O.P.:

An iron law of recent American politics dictates that any Republican setback at the polls will be quickly pinned on the pro-life movement.... [W]hy should abortion opponents, of all conservative factions, take the blame for the financial meltdown, or the bungled occupation of Iraq, or the handling of Hurricane Katrina?

But never mind. Pro-choice Republicans, in particular, know exactly whom to blame for their party’s showing.

Douthat tries to paint the anti-choice movement as reasonable and compromise-seeking:

Compromise, rather than absolutism, has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now. Since the early 1990s, advocates have focused on pushing largely modest state-level restrictions, from parental notification laws to waiting periods to bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion.

Douthat completely ignores the fact, openly acknowledged by anti-choice advocates, that the movement sees these restrictions as mere steps on the way to ultimately banning abortion completely.  They have not settled into compromise; indeed, they are ready to pounce with all-out bans as soon as they feel their opportunity has arrived (the two recent attempts to pass abortion bans in South Dakota are evidence of this).

Douthat then goes on to cite polls that he claims demonstrate the public's desire for more restrictions than the Supreme Court would permit under Planned Parenthood v. Casey

The public is amenable to compromise: majorities support keeping abortion legal in some cases, but polling by CBS News and The Times during the presidential campaign showed that more Americans supported new restrictions on abortion than said it should be available on demand. And while some pro-lifers would reject any bargain, many more would be delighted to strike a deal that extends legal protection to more of the unborn, even if it stopped short of achieving the movement’s ultimate goals.

He pretends as though Casey is to blame for this state of affairs, making me wonder whether he has ever read Planned Parenthood v. Casey or understands how many restrictions states already can and do enforce against women seeking abortions:

But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible — no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.

It's well known that the public supports some restrictions on abortion and that most will disagree with a polling question that asks whether they support "abortion on demand."  That tells us nothing about whether the public prefers more restrictions than Casey currently permits.  Under Casey itself, the Court upheld mandatory waiting periods, government messages discouraging women from seeking abortion, and parental involvement requirements.  Since then, states have imposed even more intrusive measures, and the Supreme Court has upheld the first-ever federal ban on certain abortion methods.  There isn't a whole lot further to go short of banning abortion entirely.  And the public is certainly not ready to go that far.  When South Dakota, one of the most "pro-life" states in the country, placed just such a ban on its ballot in 2006 and again this year, voters rejected it (this despite the fact that the 2008 version contained limited exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies).

As for Douthat's concluding words, they're just gibberish.  If you can make sense of what it means for "pro-lifers" to "compromise" on abortion and not be "absolutists," while still fulfilling the "movement's very purpose," let me know:

But so long as the Supreme Court remains closely divided, and a post-Roe world remains in reach, the movement’s basic political task must remain the same. Not because pro-lifers are absolutists who reject compromise, but because any real compromise will always depend on overturning Roe. Giving up on this goal would mean giving up the movement’s very purpose, while gaining nothing in return.

It's disappointing that the New York Times would devote op-ed space to a contributer who has neither thought through nor honestly articulated the "pro-life" agenda.  A much more insightful piece on these same issues can by found in Denise Ross's, What's the Matter with South Dakota?, in The New Republic.

Abortion Bans, Anti-Choice Movement, Politics, Public Opinion | Permalink

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