Monday, November 10, 2008

Why Does the One of the Most Religious Countries in the World Have One of the Most Liberal Abortion Policies in the World?

Recently I was on the campus of the Catholic University of America and walked past a display of 4,000 small flags each set about a foot apart on some green space. A sign near by stated that each flag represented one of the four thousand children aborted by their mothers in the US every day. That number is a hard number to comprehend without such an image right before one's eyes. But it also brings up an interesting paradox. The United States is clearly one of the most religious nations in the western world by almost any measure, yet our abortion policies are more liberal than almost anywhere else in the developed world. But this paradox is not a contradiction. The status quo of such liberal abortion laws benefits both of the two major political parties in the US by helping to energize their respective bases which disincentivizes both parties from taking any practical action by either reforming abortion laws or taking pragmatic steps to reduce the perceived need for abortions despite what their respective party platforms might say.

The Republican Party's behavior on abortion exemplifies the behavior of the king's first son in one of Jesus' parables of the two sons in the vineyard. When asked to go work in the vineyard, the second son ``answered and said, I go, sir: and went not.'' Outlawing abortion has a been a plank of the Republican party platform since the Supreme Court first overturned a blanket ban of abortions in Roe v. Wade. Since then, the Republican Party has controlled the presidency for twenty years, both houses of Congress for ten years, the majority of Supreme Court justices for sixteen years, and the trifecta of Congress, the White House and the Supreme Court for four years. Yet not only has Roe v. Wade not been overturned but no federal law has been passed to put any limits on abortions within the guidelines available for doing such under Roe v. Wade. Outside of policy set within the executive branch, for example whether or not abortions can be performed by US Military hospitals, there has been virtually no change with regards to US policy with regards to abortion since Roe v. Wade was decided regardless of how many branches of government that the GOP has controlled.

However much the Republican Party might fit the parable of the two sons, the Democratic Party is certainly not its counterpart. Unlike the `good son' of the parable who ``said, I will not: but afterward he repented and went,'' the Democratic has consistently said that it is categorically behind a woman's right to choose to have an abortion. Despite the refrain from many Democratic politicians that they want to make abortion safe, legal and rare, almost all of the Democratic effort on the abortion issue has focused on the legal aspect. Factions within the Democratic Party, such as Democrats For Life of American (DFLA), have consistently tried to get legislation to the table to put into place policies that would reduce the number of abortions without making it illegal but have not been able to get any traction within their own party. For that matter, they've not even been able to get any traction within the Republican Party. One would expect an internal faction that disagrees with an important plank of its own party to be marginalized but it is not so clear as to why the policies that DFLA would like to see enacted as law don't get any consideration from across the aisle.

The political advantage gained by the Democratic Party in unequivocally supporting a woman's right to choose is obvious. In the last two election cycles, South Dakota, one of the most conservative states in the union, emphatically voted down two different attempts at instituting an almost complete statewide ban on abortion. There is a very large segment of the population that supports the legality of abortion and the Democratic Party has been trying to tap into that population ever since Roe v. Wade was decided. One can speculate that the party leadership thinks this segment of support is so important that it is unwilling to entertain policies such as the 95-10 initiative put forth by DFLA as any positive action in attempting to reduce the number of abortions might be construed on the part of some pro-abortion groups as the Democratic Party getting soft on the issue.

But what is harder to explicate is why the Republican Party has not used the power that it had to attempt to limit abortions so far as it can. As an acquaintance of mine acutely observed in a casual discussion, the GOP has taken an all or nothing approach to the subject and are entirely unwilling to compromise. One would have thought that, at minimum, that the GOP would have sought out European style policies that restrict late term abortions save in exceptional circumstances such as the life of the mother so that the US was no longer the only nation in the western world that has virtually no restrictions on abortions. While exact numbers are hard to come by, the best estimates put the rate of third trimester abortions at 1.4% of all abortions meaning that a ban on late term abortions save for when the health of the mother was in question might prevent thousands of abortions every year. Or failing that, one would have expected them to at least reach out to DFLA to implement policies designed to reduce abortions even if they are not banned. But the fact of the matter is that, save for a few administrative policies dictated by the executive branch, there has been no positive action by the Republican Party. The consequence is that although the national abortion rate has fallen every year since its peak in 1992, there has been no significant difference in the reduction of abortions with regards to which party has controlled the White House, Congress or the Supreme Court.

The conclusion that I am tempted to draw from the present state of affairs is that the leadership of the GOP believes that it benefits from the status quo and, therefore, places no importance on the anti-abortion plank of the party platform. If the GOP were able to get a constitutional amendment passed that outlawed abortion or if the GOP were able to bring US abortion policies in line with those of the western world, the GOP would lose the time, energy and support of a large number of single issue voters. So long as the preachers and pastors of the religious right continue to conflate with supporting Democratic candidates with death itself, the GOP reaps very large gain from very little investment. This brings to mind the way operatives like Jack Abramoff would refer to his lobbying clients as troglodytes while taking vast sums of money from them and doing little in return. But at least with Abramoff, he was only cashing in on the hopes of his clients to make money. Today's GOP is exploiting the desire of the religious right to save the lives of innocents.

One can argue that the Republican Party has been active at the state level in the battle to prohibit abortion because US law is not only legislated at the federal level. Over three-fifths of US states have some sort of limitation on late term abortions in line with European legislation (although some of these bans are unenforceable because they are contrary to the Roe v. Wade). One of the most misunderstood facts about Roe v. Wade is that the decision does not make the practice of banning abortion unconstitutional; it makes the unconditional banning of abortion prior to the point of viability of the fetus unconstitutional. Nevertheless even where abortion is limited by law, those laws are seldom enforced and even if they were strictly enforced, relative freedom of travel in the US merely makes abortions in states where there is a ban slightly more difficult to obtain as travel to another state is required. So long as abortion without limitation is legal within the US in some state, banning abortions at the state level is effectively meaningless from the perspective of attempting to stop abortions as a whole.

The silver lining in the dark cloud of the two major parties in the US exploiting the status quo for their own benefit is that the number of abortions performed every year in the US has been in constant decline since its peak as mentioned above. While the Democratic and Republican Parties are jockeying for position, the rest of the US is slowly coming to understand that abortion is not the only option. The mood of the country seems to be changing. Whereas in the eighties, hit movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Dirty Dancing presented abortion to be the best (or even only) choice to young, unwed women, today's films aimed at youth like Knocked Up and Juno celebrate the choice of young women who find themselves pregnant and decide to carry the pregnancy to full term. So perhaps there is hope that as the new generation comes of age and enters political life that those who really believe in life will work to transform both parties. Somewhere between the extremes of abortion being legal for any reason at any time and abortion never being legal at any place for any reason, there is room for both sides to come together to work out something better than what we have now. Few, after all, would argue that abortion is a good thing. Even those who argue that abortion should be completely unrestricted concede that a world where there was no need to have an abortion would be a better place.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I think you are exactly right about the GOP. Moreover, I'd say that *both* parties are more interested at using the issue as a political football than actually changing. Given that it takes two parties to compromise, I wouldn't expect any changes any time soon.