Saturday, November 15, 2008

Abortion and the culture war -- why they didn't mix

With not just Barack Obama's rise to the presidency but also Democrats gaining seats in both houses of Congress as the result of the last general election, the anti-abortion movement today has some serious issues -- to say the least. I can only imagine the weeping that took place when those election results were posted, and (since I myself am "pro-life") I confess to being somewhat sympathetic.

I say somewhat advisedly, because it's the movement's own fault for tying its fortunes to the Republican Party in the first place.

Anti-abortion activism really got started in the late 1970s when Moral Majority and similar groups were founded in the wake of the 1960s-born culture war and the then-ascending modern conservatism that was taking hold in the GOP. However, it was in the process sheared off from other issues surrounding the "sanctity of human life" -- things like poverty and racial justice, which don't really raise funds -- and became just one more interest group clamoring for a megaphone and the power it hoped would result.

Moreover, the conservative movement always took a faux-libertarianism to an extreme, leading to a general incompetence in governing, which originally wasn't a problem because the strategy was simple -- let the U.S. Supreme Court overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that obliterated abortion laws in virtually every state and move from there. But as years went on without any significant action frustration set in, with many "pro-life" activists questioning the party's commitment and spawning such radical groups as Operation Rescue. (That was more a function of the political process than anything else.)

Eventually, anti-abortion sympathizers were reduced to symbolic victories. The "partial-birth" abortion bill that President Bill Clinton vetoed (because it didn't contain an exception for the life or health of the mother) always was designed to generate more outrage -- such abortions were already illegal in most states, and the bill that President George W. Bush signed criminalized only about 2,500 abortions annually, a pittance compared to the over 1 million we see today.

But, as I said, conservatives were pretty indifferent to, and thus incompetent in, governing. The ill-advised and badly-prosecuted war in Iraq was the first salvo; the botched response to Hurricane Katrina added fuel to the fire; and, especially, the Jack Abramoff-fueled lobbying scandal that entrapped a number of congressional Republicans who had used their positions for the sake of power and perks, finally woke the populace enough to vote out GOP politicians -- probably most of them anti-abortion. (The situation became so serious in 2006 that Focus on the Family's James Dobson convened a number of ultimately unsuccessful "Stand for the Family" rallies in battleground states.) As a result, the anti-abortion movement today is basically on the outside looking in.

What's obvious to me in light of political reality is that the "pro-life" movement needs a new strategy. It needs to 1) Get back to focusing on the sanctity of all life; 2) Become more ideology-free and non-partisan; and 3) Insist that the politicians it supports actually know how to run a government. That may take more time that folks want to take, but anything should be more effective than the old ways.

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