A Mixed Message On Abortion

Posted: October 28, 1989

Here's some general advice about calculating the political fallout from the abortion issue: Don't make any hasty assumptions.

In New Jersey and Virginia, Republican candidates for governor are hurting badly because they have supported rigid restrictions on abortions. In Florida, the Republican governor is a staunch foe of abortion, but the legislature handily buried his proposed restrictions.

In Texas, anti-abortion Gov. William Clements has called for attempts to write new limits into state law.

In Pennsylvania, however, the politics of abortion play out very differently. Gov. Casey is a "right-to-life" Democrat, and the House of Representatives has just passed a series of very tough limits on abortion by a 143-58 margin.

The national scene is equally mixed. Polls suggest that most Americans think abortion is wrong in most cases, but believe that the decision should be left to the woman, and that government should not intrude in that decision.

Yet in presidential elections, we have never elected a pro-choice president. Ronald Reagan and George Bush both took strong anti-abortion positions, and in 1976, Jimmy Carter was the least pro-choice of all the major Democratic contenders. Indeed, for a time the anti-abortion movement considered him one of their own.

So what's going on here?

First, both Ronald Reagan and George Bush benefited by the fact that, during their runs for office, the Supreme Court was seen as a virtually impregnable fortress of "pro-abortion" law.

Voters who were pro-choice on abortion but who also leaned toward Reagan and Bush on foreign policy or economic grounds could cast their votes knowing that there was no real risk on the abortion question.

Now that the Supreme Court has thrown the issue back into the political arena, the Republican "free ride" is over. Abortion-rights supporters now see that right in jeopardy and are demanding an accounting from candidates. That's why Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia are scrambling for a safe foothold, promising not to push for restrictions in their states.

Similarly, 16 years of Roe v. Wade gave the anti-abortion forces a powerful organizing tool. Even in states with a strong reputation for liberalism, such as Minnesota, another tradition - strong citizen involvement - provided foot soldiers for the anti-abortion movement. Thus, the home of Hubert Humphrey, Eugene McCarthy and Walter Mondale also became a state where it sometimes proved politically costly to support the pro-choice side of the debate.

Perhaps most important, abortion is the kind of issue that cannot be reduced to a simple political or religious calculus. New York has had practicing Catholics in the governor's chair since 1975. Both Hugh Carey and Mario Cuomo have been resolute in fighting for state funding of abortion for poor people.

George Bush, on the other hand, comes from the Yankee stock that has traditionally been seen as the exemplar of Planned Parenthood/pro-choice politics. Yet now, either out of conviction or political necessity, he embraces the premise that a rape or incest victim who becomes pregnant must bear that child if she is too poor to pay for her own abortion.

This, in turn, leads to the most intriguing question of all: With the Supreme Court clearly willing to permit the political arena to decide key abortion questions, will it become a presidential voting issue in 1992?

Will a national pro-choice majority put this issue ahead of peace and prosperity issues in choosing the next president?

Find someone who says he knows the answer now and you've found yourself a first-class fool.

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