Douthat on Roe v. Wade
This piece by Ross Douthat in the Week in Review section of last Sunday’s New York Times is the best thing I have seen about the politics of abortion in the aftermath of the election. Douthat puts paid to the idea that prolifers cost the Republicans the election and should now be hushed or banished by the party. Just as it is unreasonable to assume that all the Catholics who voted for Obama were prochoice, it is also unreasonable to assume that McCain would have won if only he had been less prolife.
John McCain probably mentioned earmarks about a thousand times more often than he let the word “abortion” slip his lips. The Republican ticket’s weak attempts to play the culture-war card — a Bill Ayers here, a Joe the Plumber there — had nothing whatsoever to do with Roe v. Wade. And why should abortion opponents, of all conservative factions, take the blame for the financial meltdown, or the bungled occupation of Iraq, or the handling of Hurricane Katrina?
Douthat’s main point, though, is about the continuing importance of Roe v. Wade. Many people, including some prominent prolifers, have lately argued that the prolife movement should get over its opposition to Roe and instead seek legislative compromises that could reduce the number of abortions. Now, the call for compromise is always welcome. Those who believe that any political compromise on this issue is a form of moral impurity or even treachery have a problem not just with the country’s abortion laws but with the essential dynamics of democracy: a movement that is too good for gradualism is too good for the United States. But one problem with Roe, at least as it has been understood by the lower courts and in the Supreme Court’s later rulings, is precisely that it prevents any serious compromise, either at the state or federal level.
So the question isn’t whether the anti-abortion movement can change, adapt and compromise. It’s already done that. The question is whether it can afford to compromise on the national issue that keeps serious pro-lifers in the Republican fold, and requires an abortion litmus test for Republican presidential nominees — namely, the composition of the courts. And here the pro-life movement is essentially trapped — not by its own inflexibility, but by the inflexibility of the Supreme Court’s abortion jurisprudence.In theory, there are many middle grounds imaginable in America’s abortion wars, from bans that make exceptions for rape and fetal deformities to legal systems modeled on the French system, in which abortion is available but discouraged in the first 10 weeks and sharply restricted thereafter.The public is amenable to compromise: majorities support keeping abortion legal in some cases, but polling by CBS News and The Times during the presidential campaign showed that more Americans supported new restrictions on abortion than said it should be available on demand. And while some pro-lifers would reject any bargain, many more would be delighted to strike a deal that extends legal protection to more of the unborn, even if it stopped short of achieving the movement’s ultimate goals.But no such compromise is possible so long as Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey remain on the books. These decisions are monuments to pro-choice absolutism, and for pro-lifers to accept them means accepting that no serious legal restrictions on abortion will ever be possible — no matter what the polls say, and no matter how many hearts and minds pro-lifers change.
It is not irrational for a prolifer to believe that Roe will never be overturned, and that the prolife movement should therefore concentrate on changing the country’s culture rather than its laws. In fact, it is quite reasonable to assume that if Roe is to be reversed, it won’t be soon. But it is not reasonable to pretend that the only thing keeping the movement from legal and political compromise is its own intransigence.