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Pro-Choice Intensity Puts Politicians to the Test : Abortion: The issue is a conflict of values--faith vs. reason--so profound it could force realignment of the U.S. political parties.

October 29, 1989|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion

WASHINGTON — The pro-choice movement lost a vote and won a victory in the House of Representatives last week. Supporters of abortion rights fell far short of the 290 votes needed to override President George Bush's veto of a bill authorizing government-funded abortions for poor women who are victims of rape or incest.

By losing the vote, they gained an issue. With a stroke of his pen, Bush cut off Medicaid funding for these women. It is a position he will never be able to explain. It defies common sense. It will be his Willie Horton.

While pro-choice forces failed to muster the two-thirds majority necessary to override the President's veto, they did have enough votes to pass the bill for the first time in eight years. Medicaid funding for victims of rape and incest passed the House in a dramatic 216-206 vote earlier this month.

"No matter what happens, the pro-choice movement is going to win," Rep. Les AuCoin (D-Ore.) predicted before the override vote. "If we get momentum beyond 216, it will be another benchmark in the dramatic forward march of the pro-choice forces and will set the stage for a knockdown, drag-out campaign next year." The vote to override was 231.

Anti-abortion forces have been on the defensive ever since they prevailed in the Supreme Court's Webster decision in July. That decision is turning out to be the costliest victory since the United States won the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

In Webster, the Supreme Court invited states to limit and restrict abortion rights. Millions of pro-choice voters were outraged--and energized. Politicians are now responding to the mere threat of retaliation by supporters of abortion rights. A Louisiana Republican who switched to the pro-choice side said, "There's been no time that public awareness of this matter has been as high as it is now since I've been in public office."

The abortion issue is shifting the tectonic plates of U.S. politics. Many issues are capable of swinging votes--peace, prosperity, corruption. But abortion is different. It belongs to the small category of issues that can change voter loyalties. Issues of this nature--like race, religion and class--involve more than public opinion. They involve conflicts of values, "us" versus "them." Conflicts of values give rise to partisanship. To be a partisan, after all, means to take sides.

The greatest conflict of values in U.S. history was sectional--North versus South. That resulted in the Civil War. And it solidified voter loyalties that endure today, more than a century later.

The civil-rights issue realigned voter loyalties in our own era. The Democratic Party rescued blacks from segregation in the 1960s, and black voters rewarded the Democrats with their solid support. At the same time, the Democrats gave up a huge number of white voters, Northerners as well as Southerners, who could not remain in a party committed to protecting black interests.

The abortion issue, too, involves a basic conflict of values. Polls show that the best-educated Americans are the most pro-choice. The most religious Americans--whether Protestant, Catholic or Jewish--are the most anti-abortion. It's the oldest conflict in the books--faith versus reason.

Moreover, there is no mystery about which political party is on which side. The Democratic Party is explicitly committed to protecting abortion rights. And the Republicans have had a plank in their platform since 1980 calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortions.

This does not mean, of course, that all Democrats are pro-choice and all Republicans are anti-abortion. It means right-to-life Democrats and pro-choice Republicans are out of step with their respective parties. So far, the Democrats have been the big losers. Anti-abortion Democrats have been unhappy with the status quo since 1973--when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe vs. Wade decision establishing abortion rights. Since 1980, those Democrats have been welcomed into the GOP--and many have gone.

Now, as a result of the Webster decision, pro-choice voters feel threatened. Many are beginning to feel out of place in a GOP dominated by fundamentalist religious values. Religion is to the Republican Party as race used to be to the Democrats: Whenever the issue comes up, it tears the party apart.

Under Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Democratic coalition included blacks, Jews, liberals and Southern white racists. The party could hold only as long as it kept a historic silence on civil rights. But the Supreme Court forced the race issue on the national agenda in 1954. After that, the Democrats were doomed to divide.

Under Ronald Reagan, the Republican coalition included religious fundamentalists, white ethnic Catholics, upper-middle-class suburbanites and yuppies. They could hold together only as long as they didn't have to talk about abortion. Now the Supreme Court has forced the issue on the national agenda. And the Republicans are doomed to divide.

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