Abortion is the GOP’s Third Rail

Be-careful-of-what-you-wish-for has always been the Republican policy regarding reproductive rights. On the one hand, they won the allegiance of social conservatives by attacking abortion. On the other hand, they are prevented from outlawing it because the Supreme Court has ruled that the right to privacy includes a woman’s right to chose.

But as Pres. George W. Bush names new justices to the Supreme Court, the Republicans will run out of excuses. The religious right will wonder if Republican leaders are truly opposed to reproductive rights. The religious right has a good reason to wonder. Overturning Roe V. Wade, the court case establishing a woman’s right to choose, appears not to be an obvious objective of Republican policy.

Abolishing a women’s right to privacy over reproductive decisions would be a radical victory for the counter-Enlightenment in the United States. A reversal of Roe will mark a capitulation to the religious right that for moderate Republicans will be the deal breaker. Secular, libertarian and corporate Republicans have cast a gimlet-eye on Karl Rove for years. They believe his strategy is overly reliant on the religious conservatives making it impossible for a moderate to run for president. Overturning Roe will confirm the fears of GOP moderates.

As Republican defections sap GOP strength, a post-Roe U.S.A. would energize Democrats. They will enjoy a burst of popular support that could sweep them into the White House in 2008. The scenario is tailor-made for Democratic Senator Hillary Clinton. She can ride the white horse all the way to the presidency.

The Republicans avoid this political quagmire by using the Supreme Court as a shield. Roe v. Wade stops the guardians of “traditional morality” from actually implementing their rhetoric. Elizabeth Drew, a prominent commentator, notes that Bush signed legislation banning partial-birth procedures for terminating pregnancies and signed the Laci Peterson Act making the murder of a pregnant woman also the murder of a fetus, thereby implying that the fetus is a real person. The president has appointed pro-life judges. After all has been said and done, the president has nibbled around the edges, but leaving the main course — women’s reproductive rights—intact. The foes of these rights are getting impatient.

With John Roberts nominated to the high court and William Rehnquist presumably near the end of his tenure, Bush has the opportunity to fundamentally alter the court, but it remains unclear if he will. If Bush doesn’t abolish women’s reproductive rights, he could face a revolt from within his party.

The biggest weapon at the disposal of the counter-Enlightenment forces is the threat of a third-party candidacy. Is this option politically suicidal, a surefire guarantee to a Democratic presidential victory?

In 1992, Ross Perot ran for president because the Republicans had abandoned their historic commitment to a balanced budget. The votes he siphoned off helped elect Bill Clinton. But the lessons of Perot’s third-party candidacy are open to interpretation.

In the summer of 1992, Perot was polling roughly equal to George Herbert Walker Bush, the incumbent, and Bill Clinton. This was a remarkable achievement for a third-party candidate, but rather than building on this strength Perot inexplicably withdrew from the race. On October 1, he reentered the campaign but never regained his popularity. Nonetheless, he got 19 percent of the vote, which presumably would have gone to George H.W. Bush. However, it can be argued that leaving and then reentering the race caused Bush’s defeat. Perot looked like a flake.

Among Perot’s assets was his evident conservatism; he clearly wasn’t going to radically change the United States. But he was protesting the existing state of politics — a truly popular cause. His other appeal was his folksy presentation. Perot was a plain speaker full of colorful aphorisms. Washington, Perot explained with great vigor, “has become a town filled with sound bites, shell games, handlers, media stuntmen who posture, create images, talk, shoot off Roman candles, but don’t ever accomplish anything. We need deeds, not words, in this city.”

A folksy demeanor and colorful images that pit the people against the cunning insiders who run the government are qualities easily found among religious fundamentalists. They are not uniquely Ross Perot’s traits. This rhetoric is common in Southern and Midwestern politics.

Presumably a conservative fundamentalist could believe he or she had the same popular appeal as Ross Perot. This candidate would not see him or herself as a spoiler running just so the Democrats could win, but would believe victory is possible.

A third-party revolt can not be dismissed by calling it suicidal. If the president and his chief advisor Karl Rove see a seriosu dissension in GOP ranks, they might risk the disapproval of their party’s moderates and make appointments reversing the court’s findings in Roe. In that case, the nomination of Roberts and a successor to Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist could mean the end of reproductive rights. Supporters of women’s rights have every reason to be worried.

On the other hand, if Roe remains settled law, then the ideological ardor of its foes may cool. People may be willing to compromise. They may be eager for solutions rather than arguing over principles.

Senator Clinton is well positioned for this eventuality. She remains a steadfast supporter of women’s reproductive rights and of the Roe decision. She makes a compelling case that a mix of sex education, increased availability of contraceptives—combined with good advice about sexual abstinence—will reduce the number of abortions. And, she adds, isn’t that what we all want?

There are no crystal balls that will tell us if the Republicans are shedding their ambivalence about women’s reproductive rights, but history suggests that intense ideological battles often fade away as the public adjusts to reality. Wouldn’t it be nice if by the 2008 presidential election, we could talk about good ideas instead of punishing pregnant women?