Amy Sullivan’s recent article celebrating anti-choice Colorado
SenatorGovernor-elect Bill Ritter makes some arguments that allow me to clarify some of my difficulties with “centrist” arguments about abortion. First of all, there’s this:
Early in the 2004 campaign, John Kerry caused an uproar among pro-choice supporters when he told an Iowa newspaper that he believed life begins at conception. But, at the same time, he lost pro-life support when a handful of conservative bishops suggested he be denied communion because of his history of voting against abortion restrictions. And his abortion answer during the second presidential debate didn’t make anyone happy. George W. Bush found it easy to shoot down Kerry’s version of the Mario Cuomo I’m-personally-opposed-but-can’t-do-anything-about-it-as-an-elected-official formulation, immediately replying: “I’m trying to decipher that.”
Well, there’s one person who was happy about Kerry’s squishy response: Amy Sullivan. Is she now saying that this isn’t an effective way of discussing the issue? At any rate, what’s more frustrating is the double standard at work. George Bush’s “position” on abortion–which seemed to consist of platitudes about “the culture of life,” babbling about Supreme Court decisions concerning slavery he didn’t understand, and ignoring the Republican platform’s position on abortion entirely–is considerably less coherent than Kerry’s, but somehow abortion centrists rarely find his arguments hard to decipher.
But this is a minor point. The bigger problem is, again, vagueness about what an abortion compromise should look like. Sullivan says that “Ritter has successfully taken abortion off the table. He has illustrated how people who answer to the labels “pro-life” and “pro-choice” can still reach agreement on the value of reducing abortion rates through prevention of unintended pregnancies and not by locking up doctors and women.” All well and good, but the problem is that the assiduous strawman-building of many pundits and anti-choicers aside the position that abortion should not be criminalized but policies that reduce abortion rates (such as access to contraception, rational sex education, child care, etc.) should be instituted is the pro-choice position. If the compromise to be reached with pro-lifers is simply that the pro-choicers win, fine with me. But obviously it’s more complicated than that. Here’s where the harder issues come in:
This head-on approach is different than that of many older Catholic Democratic politicians, who privately share Ritter’s views but have publicly adopted the pro-choice mantle. These Catholic Democrats aren’t worried that expressing pro-life views would cost them votes–in fact, a majority of Americans (62 percent) believe that there should be some restrictions on abortion short of outlawing it completely. But they do fear losing dollars from pro-choice donors and PACs.
A new generation of Catholic Democrats–which, in addition to Ritter, includes Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, Pennsylvania Senate candidate Bob Casey, and Representative Tim Ryan of Ohio–disdains this political tip-toeing and wants to tap into the pro-restriction voters, 56 percent of whom supported Bush in 2004. They are standing up to both their church and their party by supporting birth control and insisting on a lower abortion rate. And they are putting substance behind this position. In September, Ryan introduced legislation in the House that includes a combination of prevention measures–funding for teen pregnancy prevention programs, improved access to contraception–and support for women who want to have their babies.
OK, first of all, the boldfaced portion drives me crazy. Nobody is “bucking” the Democratic Party by attempting to lower abortion rates per se, and it’s simply dishonest to say otherwise. Sullivan should name the names of the prominent Democrats or pro-choice activists who think that obtaining abortions is inherently preferable to preventing unwanted pregnancies, or she should stop saying it. But the kicker comes in her discussion of “restrictions on abortion short of outlawing it completely.” Since Sullivan, as she often does, invokes public opinion rather than advancing the normative position herself, it’s not clear what, if any, such restrictions she supports. But it’s these kinds of regulations where the conflicts that Sullivan is trying to paper over become manifest. From a progressive standpoint, there’s a huge difference between measures that prevent unwanted pregnancy by enhancing the freedom of poor women–which we can all support–and state coercion that, while leaving abortion access essentially unfettered for women similarly situated to Amy Sullivan, has much more dire consequences for abortion access for poor women who don’t live in major urban centers. Productive discussion of abortion compromises can’t simply conflate all methods of reducing abortion rates short of bans, which ignores very important questions. On providing access to birth control, a compromise is available; when it comes to regulations that make it difficult for abortion clinics to stay open, that’s where I get off the bus. And until Sullivan makes it clear what exactly she’s advocating, it’s difficult for a conversation to proceed.