Unlike Mitt Romney, Rep. Paul Ryan has opposed abortion in cases of rape… (Carolyn Kaster / AP )
Can you accuse someone of having “extreme” views on abortion without implicitly endorsing a middle-of-the-road position yourself? Strictly speaking, yes. If I am an extremist on the right side of the spectrum -- the Todd Akin/Paul Ryan position of no abortions even in cases of rape or incest -- I can accurately observe that someone at the left end of the spectrum -- abortion should be legal in every circumstance, even late in pregnancy -- is also an extremist.
Yet there is something intellectually dishonest about bewailing extremism in the other camp -- in the hopes of appealing to “moderates” -- when you espouse an equally extreme position on the other side. For example, a few years ago the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops launched “The Second Look Project,” a media campaign designed to induce Americans to rethink their views on abortion by dispelling myths about what the Supreme Court did in its Roe v. Wade decision.
“Recent polls showing support for Roe v. Wade describe Roe as the decision which legalized abortion in the first three months of pregnancy,” Cathy Ruse of the bishops conference said. “Roe created an unlimited right to abortion and most people think an unlimited right to abortion is wrong.” Ruse was basically correct, because of a loophole in Roe -- carried over into the Supreme Court’s 1992 Planned Parenthood v. Casey decision -- allowing late abortions to protect a woman’s mental health, an elastic justification.
But here’s the problem. The bishops aren’t among those Americans who think only second- and third-trimester abortions are offensive. They have a much more purist position akin to Akin’s -- though they are willing to reluctantly accept “passage of a constitutional amendment that will protect unborn children's right to life to the maximum degree possible.” As I wrote at the time: “Tactically, the church might emphasize the offensiveness of late-term abortions because that is a way to get Americans to take a ‘second look’ at abortion in general. But the church can’t acknowledge that some abortions are worse than others without undercutting its teaching that life begins at conception.”
I think the same problem exists in reverse. In a column in the New York Times on Sunday, Ross Douthat warned Democrats who have been exulting in Todd Akin’s embarrassment that they “have a tendency to forget that the public doesn’t necessarily agree with them. Only 22 percent of Americans would ban abortion in cases of rape or incest, according to Gallup. But that’s an exceptional number for exceptional circumstances. The broader polling shows a country persistently divided, with women roughly as likely to take the anti-abortion view as men.... The polling also shows plenty of cases where public opinion cuts strongly against the pro-choice side. Large majorities support bans on second- and third-trimester abortion, on sex-selective abortion and on the controversial ‘partial birth’ procedure.”
Not all Democrats who consider themselves pro-choice accept “partial birth” or other late abortions. Some support restrictions like waiting periods and parental notification for minors seeking an abortion. But there certainly exist in the Democratic fold what might be called pro-choice fundamentalists who would bridle at the third leg of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s assertion that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.” For someone who holds that absolutist position, it’s logically awkward to attack Akin or Ryan for opposing abortion in the case of rape, because the implication is that abortion may be less justified in other circumstances. As with the bishops, a pro-choice extremist is not in a good position to valorize moderation.
My modest suggestion is that anyone -- bishop, politician or newspaper columnist -- who wants to score points on the extremism of someone else’s abortion position state at the outset where along the spectrum he is located.
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