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Exit polls and anecdotal evidence make it clear that large numbers of voters opposed John Kerry and favored George W. Bush because of their stances on abortion.  In this diary, I'm going to delve into the connections between abortion and moral attitudes.  I may get some flak for some of what I'm going to say, because opinions tend to be fixed and extreme on this issue.  But I believe in seeking middle ground.  As long as the vast chasm between the pro-life and pro-choice camps continues to be a major factor in American politics, it will be dangerous for Democrats.

Many liberals heard Kerry address abortion in the second debate and were gratified.  He said he was personally opposed to it, but believed that he couldn't impose his belief on others, and that the decision had to be between a woman and her doctor.  That's the standard pro-choice line.  It does represent a moral attitude, but mainly it's the morality of being nonjudgmental.  Abortion itself is clearly not a major moral issue for someone like Kerry.  He may think it's bad, but he doesn't think it's all that bad.  If he did, he wouldn't be content to view it as just a choice.

On the other hand, if you believe that abortion -- even the destruction of a microscopic embryo consisting of a few cells -- is murder, or at least the killing of a potential person, you can't not see it as a major moral issue.  I know this attitude is alien to many progressives, but it's crucial to understand it if you want to understand people with pro-life views.  

For those who are convinced that abortion is murder, or at least a morally significant act of killing, traditional "choice" rhetoric rings hollow.  "I'm personally opposed to it, but it should be a choice for others" are the words of someone who views abortion as distasteful or unpleasant, but not actually evil.  This is why the choice argument represents a "frame" that will never work for many people.  Hardcore pro-lifers view the killing of an embryo or fetus as equivalent to gunning a child down on the street, and they view the institutionalization of abortion as morally equivalent to the institutionalization of slavery -- a system that treats human beings as sub-human, mere property to be disposed of as their owner sees fit.  Others do not take such a strong view, but still believe that something morally bad is happening when a fetus is destroyed, even if they're not sure it's murder per se.

Bill Clinton addressed abortion in a different way from John Kerry.  He said he wanted it to be "safe, legal, and rare."  This was an example of Clinton's extraordinary attunement to the sensibilities of middle America.  The distinction between Clinton's rhetoric and Kerry's may seem meaningless to committed pro-choicers, but it is quite significant.  Clinton implied that abortion was actually bad: thus he felt it should be rare.  He also felt it should be legal, but this did not imply a hands-off, nonjudgmental attitude like Kerry's.  Rather it was -- or at least it could be read as -- a pragmatic approach to a difficult societal issue, built upon the understanding that outlawing abortion is not necessarily the best way to reduce it.  

Kerry's support for choice represented a refusal to morally judge abortion.  Clinton's support for keeping it "safe, legal, and rare" represented a moral judgement against it, combined with a practical approach to reducing it.  Kerry's support for choice was his moral statement: he believed that leaving the choice up to women was the greatest moral imperative, more significant than any moral harm that might come from abortion itself.  Clinton separated the moral and legal issues: he was legally in favor of abortion rights, but morally opposed to abortion, and implied that he would work to reduce its occurrence.

I believe that many people with pro-life views were more receptive to Clinton than Kerry, because of the difference between the apparent moral frameworks behind each man's rhetoric on abortion.  Of course Clinton's position was still unacceptable to plenty of pro-lifers, for whom nothing short of outlawing all abortion will ever suffice.  But he telegraphed to many people on the fence (for example, the vast number of Catholics who are liberal on lots of issues except abortion) that he understood their moral concern about abortion itself, and would seek to reduce it in some fashion (e.g., through education, contraception, and improving the lives of women), rather than simply declaring it a valid choice and washing his hands of the morality of it.

And while many liberal Dems do not share the view that abortion is morally problematic, it's essential that we recognize what this week's election told us.  A majority of Americans do view abortion as morally negative in some way -- even many who support keeping it legal.  Political rhetoric that refers to it only as a private, value-neutral choice may resonate with liberals, but it doesn't speak to most people across the country.  Such rhetoric may be sufficient for Democratic candidates in safely blue states.  But our candidates for national office need to recognize the cultural realities that exist in other parts of the nation.  A discussion of abortion that follows the Clinton model more closely than the Kerry model will be more likely to put a Democrat back in the White House.

Originally posted to Geheimbundler on Fri Nov 05, 2004 at 10:04 AM PST.

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Comment Preferences

  •  That's it exactly (none)
    I really think there is an opportunity here to drive a wedge between the religious and the corporate right by proposing progressive legislation designed to reduce the number of abortions- by promoting health care and wage equality for single women so that they aren't forced to consider abortions for economic reasons- and we pay for these programs by taxing corporations and/or the very rich.  This was in large part the thing that brought Catholics around to Clinton- solving moral issues through social methods.

    At the same time, I think we need to introduce new legislation based around privacy- the right of privacy that is at the heart of Roe.  We need to neutralize the abortion argument by making the social changes necessary to reduce it and redirect it to the privacy that exists between patients and doctors, clients and lawyers, and people from their government.  

    •  Privacy (none)
      My point is that talking about it only in terms of privacy won't work.  That was Kerry's approach.  It didn't connect with a majority of voters.
      •  I understand that (none)
        My post was first and foremost in terms of reducing abortions through economic programs- safe, legal, and rare, just like you said. Privacy is still very important- my point was that we need to separate the privacy argument from the issue of abortion, and not rely on it as a justification.
  •  Generally good (none)
    There is no doubt that clinton's framing of the abortion issue was very smart. I think it captured how Clinton and Kerry and I (and probably Geheimbundler) all feel abotu abortion.

    It is important at this point to directly link abortion rates to the real causes: lack of hope for those in poverty, male objectification of women as sex objects, lack of self-respect among young women, poor prenatal care and education, societal disdain for young preganant unmarried women, a culture that promotes rapid career attainment as a goal more worthy than motherhood and most of all, a culture that shows a lack of respect for life across the board with warmongering, the death penalty and a food industry that has reduced animals to a product.

    And no, I am not a vegetarian, but rather a meat eater who acknowledges the (unwilling) sacrifice of his food.

    Let's stop worrying about who will lead us in 2008 and instead work on who we'll be 2005.

    by pHunbalanced on Fri Nov 05, 2004 at 10:14:38 AM PST

  •  You are 100% correct (none)
    Before the election, I made several posts expressing the wish that Kerry would say something very strong about the need to reduce the abortion rate.   He could have mentioned the well publicized article by Glenn Stassen showing that the rate had fallen under Clinton, but had most likely risen under Bush.  

    Kerry should have hammered Bush on this.   He should have made the link between Bush's poverty-raising social and economic policies and the risk that more women would perceive themselves as being forced by circumstance to opt for pregnancy termination.

    Kerry absolutely should have said that he, as a Catholic, felt that abortion was an objective moral wrong, though he could understand why desperate women might choose it anyway.   He should absolutely have said the best way to reduce abortion was not to make overturning Roe a litmus test for Supreme Court appointments, but rather through progressive economic and social policies that reduce unwanted pregnancies and expand opportunity and resources for women and children.   He should have answered by defining himself as someone who wanted to help women meet the challenges and pressures, as against the self-righteous moralizers of the far right.

    But he should have made it clear that he sees abortion as a tragic indictment of society's failure to love and support women effectively, not simply as a personal choice having no major moral significance.

    Four more years of peace and prosperity---not

    by stunster on Fri Nov 05, 2004 at 10:35:28 AM PST

  •  Excellent diary (none)
    This kind of consensus seeking on abortion is drastically overdue.  In our passion to keep abortion legal, pro-choicers have played into the hands of the right by refusing to acknowledge the real moral problems that many Americans have with the issue.

    Clinton went far to neutralize this by acknowledging the fact of the argument before simply taking sides.  He was able to make it into less of an issue this way, but I think it's best served by making it more of an issue, one that's really worth hammering out common ground on.

    If abortion is tantamount to slavery, for instance, isn't forcing a woman to carry an unwanted child just as much slavery?  If slavery is morally repugnant for the child, it's morally repugnant for the woman, and just because she's naughtily had sex for reasons other than procreation doesn't justify sentencing her to slavery.  We need to understand the pro-life viewpoint in order to address it, but we also need to articulate our viewpoint in similarly moral terms that they might understand.

    Personally I'd like to see a Democrat sponsor a bill that packages together a bunch of initiatives designed to lower the abortion rate: better adoption and foster care services, aggressive abstinence-included (but not only) sex ed, subsidized birth control and economic/social help for teen moms.  We could call it the "Cherishing our Children" or "Reasons to Live" bill or something equally Orwellian.  I think it would be difficult for the most reactionary Congressmen to vote against "Cherishing our Children," don't you?

    (my first post, btw -- be gentle?)

    •  Good points (none)
      We agree on the need for seeking consensus.  For 30 years, most Dems have simply clung to Roe v. Wade and refused to discuss the issue.

      But a judicial mandate is thin ice on which to build policy on a major issue like this.  The civil rights revolution started with Brown v. Board of Ed., but it was only truly ratified by the civil rights legislation of the '60s.

      We can't resolve this issue as long as half of the country feels that the status quo was imposed by unelected judges (just like we all felt after Bush v. Gore).

      A legislative solution of the kind you're proposing -- perhaps co-sponsored by a Dem and a Republican -- could help to move things forward.

      (I also think your moral argument about unwanted pregnancy bearing some resemblance to slavery is important and worth considering.)

  •  This is the problem (none)
    Feelings on abortion (as on many things) aren't generally black and white, they're a spectrum.

    Are there people who are just concerned that abortion is a moral wrong? Of course. But that's not the heart of the movement. And the more they push the dialogue to their side, the more we lose. Now some pharmacists have no problems with refusing to dispense birth control pills because they're 'abortofacients'.

    A lot of the same people who bray against abortion bray against any sex except that which is in the context of marriage and designed for procreation. This isn't just about abortion.

    The problem is, those of us in the reality-based community see the problem: opposition to abortion and opposition to comprehensive sex-ed including info on birth control are at cross purposes. The faith-based community dismisses the existance of hormones.

    I'd be happy to see less abortions. However, not unless we are very clear about what we are fighting. We are not just fighting pro-lifers, we're fighting anti-sexers. They have another agenda. I would like to see less abortions, but I want big-time sex ed for kids, because I think waiting for marriage to have sex is absolutely insane. And I absolutely assume that my daughters are going to have sex as teenagers, and want them protected and aware, so they don't have to have an abortion.

    "If there's a child on the south side of Chicago who can't read, that matters to me, even if it's not my child."--Barack Obama

    by ChurchofBruce on Mon Nov 08, 2004 at 08:14:22 AM PST

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