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Our Thirty Years' War: the fight over abortion

Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War, William Saletan, University of California Press: 278 pp., $29.95

August 17, 2003|Stanley I. Kutler | Stanley I. Kutler is the author of several books, including "The Wars of Watergate" and "Abuse of Power: The New Nixon Tapes."

The Thirty Years' War raged in Europe from 1618 to 1648, largely the consequence of religious conflicts between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 brought temporary peace, but it proved fragile, and conflict continued on the European continent for another 150 years.

One thinks of such a protracted conflict as belonging to another time, not ours. But the abortion wars are our Thirty Years' War, rooted in the same religious and moral claims that fueled that earlier clash. With the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe vs. Wade to legalize abortion on a national scale in the United States, conflict has metastasized far beyond the boundaries of abortion and with profound consequences affecting our political and cultural discourse. And there's no treaty in sight.

Periodic Supreme Court decisions since 1973 have only inflamed the conflict. They resolved many of the subsidiary issues, such as parental consent, while narrowly retaining Roe's basic holding. Abortion remains legal, but it also remains contentious and controversial. It has become, in its purest extremes -- whether of absolute prohibition or of access to abortion on demand -- a litmus test for two contending forces, competing captains in the larger cultural war and its attendant skirmishes. Neither side will abide compromise, and neither grapples well with setbacks or reality.

William Saletan's "Bearing Right" demonstrates, however, that abortion is an enormously complicated, complex issue; the simplistic, rigid stances of the two major players only trivialize the subject and obscure other problems. The abortion rights forces apparently command a majority that believes abortion is a personal and family choice. But it is a fragile coalition, easily fragmented by subsidiary issues of public financing or parental consent. Abortion remains legal, but "pro-choice conservatives," as Saletan describes them, have largely won the struggle. They have shut down most public financing of anything relating to abortion or family planning, and they have joined with abortion opponents to support parental consent legislation. Roe stands, but significantly eroded and certainly qualified.

Debates over the legality of abortion easily ignite inbred American suspicion, even hostility, toward government. Americans are reluctant to allow governmental intrusion into their personal lives; consequently, most accept abortion as a private matter. Saletan deftly explores the labyrinth of polls and focus groups to tease out the complexity of opinion on abortion. He traces the lines between their findings and how politicians carefully use the message pollsters uncover. It is hard to imagine another issue so choreographed and manipulated.

Abortion opponents yearn for a constitutional amendment to override Roe. Yet even President Bush, their new paladin, has refused to endorse such a move, obviously sensing the public belief that government shall not deny a woman's choice on this matter. Nevertheless, abortion foes diligently have pursued a course of gutting the Supreme Court's decision. Choosing their political battlegrounds carefully, they have crafted legislation in such various states as Pennsylvania, Missouri and Louisiana to deny public funding of abortion and to provide for parental consent.

Politics involves coalition building. The smart money has been with those who have understood American ambivalence on the issue. When Republicans took power in the House of Representatives in 1994, they promptly reversed the gains that abortion rights advocates had made at the outset of the Clinton administration. With significant Democratic support, Republicans barred federal employees' health insurance for abortion, the use of military hospitals for servicewomen or military dependents serving abroad and federal funding of abortions for federal prisoners, and they eliminated a substantial amount of U.S. aid to international family planning programs.

Clinton retreated and readily acquiesced. Bob Dole, Clinton's prospective opponent in 1996, supported the conservative agenda, yet he also announced he would not support a constitutional ban on abortions. Heads I win, he said, tails you lose.

Bush has legitimated what Saletan calls the "pro-choice and pro-life" position, and Saletan believes he commands the terrain. As governor, and as a presidential candidate, Bush described the issue in terms of "family rights." The outright prohibition of abortion was reduced to mere statements of principles, basically retaining the Republican Party's antiabortion plank. Parents had to love Bush. He signed Texas legislation in 1999 prohibiting a teenager from body piercing without parental approval. Abortion, he insisted, required parental consent, just like any other surgical procedure. "I'm a pro-life person," he said, yet he quickly added that "America is not ready to ban abortions."

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