Commentary Magazine


Topic: pro-choice

Who’s Afraid of Mitt Romney?

John Heilemann has a big-picture report on the Obama campaign’s shift from hope to fear. Rather than focusing on an affirmative reelection message, Obama’s strategy is to paint Mitt Romney as a composite of various nightmarish right-wingers in the hope that it will scare off independent voters and shore up the progressive base:

Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

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John Heilemann has a big-picture report on the Obama campaign’s shift from hope to fear. Rather than focusing on an affirmative reelection message, Obama’s strategy is to paint Mitt Romney as a composite of various nightmarish right-wingers in the hope that it will scare off independent voters and shore up the progressive base:

Though the Obamans certainly hit John McCain hard four years ago—running more negative ads than any campaign in history—what they intend to do to Romney is more savage. They will pummel him for being a vulture-vampire capitalist at Bain Capital. They will pound him for being a miserable failure as the governor of Massachusetts. They will mash him for being a water-carrier for Paul Ryan’s Social Darwinist fiscal program. They will maul him for being a combination of Jerry Falwell, Joe Arpaio, and John Galt on a range of issues that strike deep chords with the Obama coalition. “We’re gonna say, ‘Let’s be clear what he would do as president,’” Plouffe explains. “Potentially abortion will be criminalized. Women will be denied contraceptive services. He’s far right on immigration. He supports efforts to amend the Constitution to ban gay marriage.”

As I’ve written before, the problem with this is that it’s not believable. Romney was the governor of Massachusetts for four years, and held pro-choice positions until 2004. Even under President George W. Bush, who was staunchly pro-life since his teenage years, and a majority-Republican Congress, abortion remained legal. The idea that it would likely be criminalized under Romney is absurd. The same goes for denying women contraceptives. If Romney is so radical that he opposes birth control, how on earth did he get elected governor of arguably the most liberal state in the country?

Beyond Romney’s record, his personality doesn’t fit the stereotype of the extreme right-winger. He’s mild-mannered and accentless, and walks without swagger. He chooses his words carefully and rarely goes off message. The Obama campaign can compare him to fringe characters like Joe Arpaio all it wants, but the disparity is unmistakable.

The progressive media outlets will definitely pick it up, but, again, it’s hard to see Comedy Central, “SNL” and late-night talk shows buying into the Romney-the-Tea-Party-Extremist narrative. Even when these shows do take shots at Romney, they steer clear of that line. For example, here are some lyrics from Mick Jagger’s performance on “SNL” last week:

“Mr. Romney, you know, he’s a mensch. But he always plays a straight affair. Yes, Mr. Romney he’s a hard-working man, and he always says his prayers. Yeah, but there’s one little thing about him – don’t ever let him cut your hair.”

The hair cut part is a reference to the Romney high school bullying story, but take a look at the rest of the lyrics. A mensch, who plays a straight affair, is hard-working and says his prayers? That’s it? The Obama campaign has a lot of work ahead if they’re going to turn that guy into a boogeyman.

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Abortion and a Just Society

I wanted to add to the comments of Jonathan and Alana regarding the new Gallup poll showing that just 41 percent of Americans now say they are pro-choice (a new low) while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

In terms of the actual number of abortions in America, the figure had dropped from a national high of more than 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.21 million today, a low not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing the practice in Roe v. Wade. And as the Gallup survey suggests, America is becoming more, not less, pro-life. (A Gallup poll conducted in May 2009 found 51 percent of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” on the issue of abortion and 42 percent “pro-choice.” This was the first time a majority of U.S. adults identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question more than 15 years ago.)

What explains both the drop in the number of abortions and the shift in public attitudes?

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I wanted to add to the comments of Jonathan and Alana regarding the new Gallup poll showing that just 41 percent of Americans now say they are pro-choice (a new low) while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

In terms of the actual number of abortions in America, the figure had dropped from a national high of more than 1.6 million in 1990 to 1.21 million today, a low not seen since the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing the practice in Roe v. Wade. And as the Gallup survey suggests, America is becoming more, not less, pro-life. (A Gallup poll conducted in May 2009 found 51 percent of Americans calling themselves “pro-life” on the issue of abortion and 42 percent “pro-choice.” This was the first time a majority of U.S. adults identified themselves as pro-life since Gallup began asking this question more than 15 years ago.)

What explains both the drop in the number of abortions and the shift in public attitudes?

There are undoubtedly several factors at play here, but one, I suspect, is that many pro-life spokesmen changed their rhetorical tactics and began to choose their fights more carefully. Throughout much of the 1990s, the debate became colored by the clear-cut issue of partial-birth abortion, which, although not settled legislatively until 2003, helped to create greater social sympathy for a moderately pro-life position. Also contributing to the rethinking was the more widespread use of sonogram technology, which enables would-be parents to see the developing child and its human form at a very early stage. All in all, not only has the public discussion of abortion been transformed, but younger Americans seem to have moved the furthest on this issue, and this trend seems likely to continue.

But the abortion debate goes beyond practicalities to fundamental issues of justice.

In medical ethics, there is a philosophical divide between utilitarianism, the belief in the greatest good for the greatest number, and the belief in the inherent human dignity of every individual. At bottom, the utilitarian approach is an assertion of the power of the strong over the weak; it treats human beings as means rather than as ends. By contrast, the belief in human dignity is rooted in the Jewish and Christian tradition of regarding the protection of innocent lives as one of the primary purposes of a just society.

Given the increasing technological control that human beings have over their own nature, this conflict has important implications for the future. A utilitarian society will be dramatically different from, and dramatically less humane than, a society that honors the principle of human dignity. We know which one will be better for the weak.

“It was once said that the moral test of government,” remarked the great liberal champion Hubert Humphrey, “is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.” These are beautiful and evocative words, and they set a worthy standard for the state. Unborn children are at the dawn of life, and they deserve the protection of government. Incrementally, step by step, year by year, more and more people seem to agree.

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Abortion and the Failed War on Women

Recent polls have shown that the Democrats’ efforts to use social issues to help demonize Republicans and mobilize support for President Obama’s re-election are flopping. The gender gap between the parties is evaporating rather than getting wider, as liberals had hoped. It is in this context that the Gallup poll on attitudes toward abortion that Alana mentioned earlier must be understood. The problem for the president is not just that a clear majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.” As Alana and Adam Serwer have noted, a close reading of the survey shows most of those polled don’t share the opinions of many in the pro-life movement. But these findings ought to inform our understanding of attitudes about social issues in general that extend beyond the narrow choice/life dichotomy at a time when the Democrats are trying desperately to gin up fear about a Republican war on women.

The point here isn’t that most Americans take an ideological approach to this issue. As Gallup points out, since the very beginning of polling about abortion, only a minority of Americans thought it should be legal under all circumstances (currently 25 percent) with a comparable number believing it should be illegal under all circumstances (currently 20 percent). The majority of Americans are in the uncertain middle, believing it ought to be legal only under some circumstances even if many of those holding such views identify with the pro-life movement. That is why a campaign geared toward polarizing the country on social issues will not help win a general election for the candidate of either major party.

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Recent polls have shown that the Democrats’ efforts to use social issues to help demonize Republicans and mobilize support for President Obama’s re-election are flopping. The gender gap between the parties is evaporating rather than getting wider, as liberals had hoped. It is in this context that the Gallup poll on attitudes toward abortion that Alana mentioned earlier must be understood. The problem for the president is not just that a clear majority of Americans now call themselves “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice.” As Alana and Adam Serwer have noted, a close reading of the survey shows most of those polled don’t share the opinions of many in the pro-life movement. But these findings ought to inform our understanding of attitudes about social issues in general that extend beyond the narrow choice/life dichotomy at a time when the Democrats are trying desperately to gin up fear about a Republican war on women.

The point here isn’t that most Americans take an ideological approach to this issue. As Gallup points out, since the very beginning of polling about abortion, only a minority of Americans thought it should be legal under all circumstances (currently 25 percent) with a comparable number believing it should be illegal under all circumstances (currently 20 percent). The majority of Americans are in the uncertain middle, believing it ought to be legal only under some circumstances even if many of those holding such views identify with the pro-life movement. That is why a campaign geared toward polarizing the country on social issues will not help win a general election for the candidate of either major party.

Partisan loyalties are a good predictor of views on abortion. Though this issue cuts across most demographic groups, 72 percent of Republicans are pro-life, while 58 percent of Democrats are pro-choice. Just as important is the fact that independents are split, with the pro-life side having a 47-41 point advantage. Yet, while an appeal to social conservative views is essential for a GOP primary and the president needs to remind his own base that he shares their values and their fears about the right, it will be extremely difficult for a Democrat to win in November by seeking to demonize those who oppose abortion.

As Gallup notes in its analysis, this has implications for related issues such as the dispute between the administration and the Catholic Church about compelling religious institutions to pay for insurance on contraception even though its use violates the church’s religious beliefs. A country where the majority sympathizes with the pro-life movement is not fertile ground for an Obama re-election campaign whose goal is to draw bright lines between the differing camps on social issues.

Of course, politicians have always tended to pander to the extremes on abortion because that is where the votes are, as only those holding to absolute views on its legality have used it as a political litmus test. But a belief that an attempt to portray Republicans as out of touch with the country on social issues seems to be a partisan trap that will do nothing to help the president win independent voters even if they do not have extreme views on abortion or contraception.

The Democrats’ ability to change the subject from ObamaCare’s assault on the religious freedom of the church to outrage about Rush Limbaugh’s insult of Sandra Fluke fooled them into thinking the war on women theme could be a game-changing election issue. But Gallup’s polling provides an explanation why in the last few weeks the president has lost ground to Mitt Romney, especially with women. The question now is whether Democrats will get the message and start crafting a more effective economic message before they dig themselves a hole the president won’t be able to crawl out of.

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The Odd Discrepancy in Abortion Polling

The percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” has been steadily decreasing in recent years, and this year is no exception. Gallup found that just 41 percent now say they are pro-choice – a record low – while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

But as Adam Serwer points out, that isn’t the whole story. The majority of Americans, 52 percent, still say that abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” which many pro-life activists would find unacceptable. From the Gallup survey:

Gallup’s longest-running measure of abortion views, established in 1975, asks Americans if abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. Since 2001, at least half of Americans have consistently chosen the middle position, saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and the 52 percent saying this today is similar to the 50 percent in May 2011. The 25 percent currently wanting abortion to be legal in all cases and the 20 percent in favor of making it illegal in all cases are also similar to last year’s findings.

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The percentage of Americans identifying as “pro-choice” has been steadily decreasing in recent years, and this year is no exception. Gallup found that just 41 percent now say they are pro-choice – a record low – while 50 percent identify as pro-life.

But as Adam Serwer points out, that isn’t the whole story. The majority of Americans, 52 percent, still say that abortion should be legal “under certain circumstances,” which many pro-life activists would find unacceptable. From the Gallup survey:

Gallup’s longest-running measure of abortion views, established in 1975, asks Americans if abortion should be legal in all circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances. Since 2001, at least half of Americans have consistently chosen the middle position, saying abortion should be legal under certain circumstances, and the 52 percent saying this today is similar to the 50 percent in May 2011. The 25 percent currently wanting abortion to be legal in all cases and the 20 percent in favor of making it illegal in all cases are also similar to last year’s findings.

“Certain circumstances” is incredibly vague. Is it saving the life of the mother (which some pro-life activists support)? Cases of rape or incest? Allowing it during the early stages of pregnancy? Without knowing the breakdown, we can’t tell whether their views fall closer to the pro-life or the pro-choice position.

Many pro-choice activists argue that any legal restrictions on abortion are unacceptable, and that the decision should be left completely up to a woman and her doctor. If you believe life doesn’t begin until birth – or that the question of when life begins is completely subjective – then there should be no moral qualms about what happens to a fetus at any point of the pregnancy.

The fact that the majority of Americans say there should be some restrictions on abortion means they do have those moral qualms. Maybe some of them aren’t sure whether life starts at conception, but believe it does begin at some point early on in the pregnancy. Or maybe some believe life starts at conception, but that taking this life is necessary in some rare and horrible circumstances. Either way, the fact that more Americans identify as pro-life seems to be a rejection of the pro-choice movement’s nonchalant — and sometimes almost celebratory — view of abortion. The majority of Americans might support abortion in certain cases, but it’s likely to be something they grapple with morally.

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