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CFFC in the News - 2003

chicago tribune

Abortion is a Litmus Test for Candidates

22 January 2003

WASHINGTON -- In 1976, when Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois was a junior member of Congress, he was approached by a fellow Republican lawmaker who also opposed abortion, Rep. Robert Bauman of Maryland.

Bauman told Hyde that there was $50 million in the federal budget to pay for abortions for Medicaid recipients. Bauman asked him to write an amendment opposing the funding.

The Hyde Amendment's passage helped to spawn an activist movement, primarily by evangelical Christians, that flourished during the 1980s and became an increasingly important component of the Republican Party.

And abortion, once a topic discussed only in private, became one of the most stark and public dividing lines in American politics, and it remains so even 30 years after Roe v. Wade.

It has come to remake the two major political parties, with anti-abortion forces one of the most powerful blocs in the Republican Party and abortion rights advocates their counterpart in the Democratic Party.

The passage of the Hyde Amendment prompted social conservatives to think more broadly in political terms and within a few years launch efforts to unseat members of the House and Senate almost solely because they favored abortion rights.

After the Roe decision, the political allegiances of evangelical Christians, particularly in the South, began to shift. At first, many evangelicals endorsed the campaign of Jimmy Carter in 1976, who was the first major presidential candidate to speak openly about his "born-again" experience. But because Carter would not come out against abortion, they abandoned him.

The allegiance of evangelicals shifted decidedly toward Republicans with the emergence of Jerry Falwell's Moral Majority and other groups.

Anti-abortion activists targeted several Democrats running for re-election in 1980 and ended up knocking off popular incumbents such as Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana (by Dan Quayle). Those victories emboldened abortion foes to demand policy positions from the Republican Party such as its now stock anti-abortion plank in the national party platform.

Most analysts believe no Republican could support abortion rights and win the party's presidential nomination. Similarly, no Democrat could oppose abortion rights and win. Views on abortion can affect the choice of a running mate, as well as judicial nominees.

Republican presidential candidates tend to not address the subject when speaking to moderate suburban audiences, and Democrats avoid it when speaking to Catholics. No candidate has been able to bridge the philosophical differences. Far from fading over time as a political issue, the debate over abortion rights is as heated as ever.

A Gallup Poll released Monday found that more Americans, by a margin of 53 percent to 30 percent, have a positive rather than a negative reaction to Roe v. Wade. The poll also found that 24 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal under any circumstance, 14 percent believe it should be legal in most circumstances and 42 percent believe it should be legal only in a few circumstances.

Eighteen percent believe it should be illegal in all circumstances. Two percent had no opinion.

Overall, public opinion on the issue stands about where it did in 1990, the poll found, with a majority of Americans holding the view that while they find abortion objectionable, they oppose attempts to outlaw it.

Over the years, experts have called this difficult-to-categorize group the "mushy middle" or the "muddled middle." These are the potential swing voters that anti-abortion advocates would most like to pull over to their side, and they're the group the abortion-rights supporters most need to keep as allies.

They are men and women who often describe themselves as both "pro-life" and "pro-choice," marrying the two seemingly irreconcilable sides of the controversy in ambivalent compromises. "Pro-life emotionally, pro-choice politically," is how Vera Lord, an anti-abortion advocate based in Pittsburgh, describes them.

Many in this middle group believe abortion is the taking of a form of life. It's not the murder of an unborn baby, as some would argue, but the extinction of something living nonetheless. Personally, they would not accept it as an option except under extreme circumstances such as rape, incest or a threat to a woman's health.

A significant number of them don't want to see abortion practiced as a form of birth control. They believe women and men should take more responsibility for preventing unwanted pregnancies. And they have serious doubts about abortions after the first trimester has ended and the fetus starts to have recognizable eyes, arms and toes.

Still, this middle group doesn't want the government deciding this most intimate of issues: whether to bear a child. They don't want a return to the days of illegal, unsafe, back-alley abortions. And knowing how complicated the circumstances surrounding an unwanted pregnancy can be, they believe abortion should remain a legal right for women who believe it is something they need to do.

A great disappointment for the anti-abortion movement is that "we can't figure out how to reach this middle," admits Frederica Mathewes-Green, an anti-abortion activist. "It seems the mushy middle is not particularly persuaded by logic."

The logic to which she is referring is the core of the anti-abortion position: the argument that if you admit a fetus is alive and you permit it to be aborted, you are endorsing murder.

But many in this middle group tend to think of abortion differently, with different factors that deserve varying consideration under different conditions, explains Frances Kissling, president of the Washington-based Catholics for a Free Choice.

"Some say the only moral question is: Is the fetus alive and when? To us, there are other pressing moral questions as well, all of which have weight: What are our responsibilities to ourselves? To our existing children or our children yet to come? To our partners? To our communities?" Kissling said.

Other factors that go into this group's thinking include a woman's marital status, her capacity to sustain a pregnancy and care for a child, her faith, her social supports, her socioeconomic status, her physical and mental health, her age and the stage of her pregnancy, Kissling noted.

For some politicians, like Hyde, abortion is a public issue borne of a lot of private reflection. Hyde sees no gray and only grudgingly accepts the compromise that some exceptions to abortion should be granted for rape and incest. His only clear exception would be to save the life of the mother.

"It's a terribly emotional issue," Hyde said. "How do you compromise somebody else's life? God knows I wish the issue would go away because it's heated, it's difficult, it's controversial and people get very emotional about it. I don't see how you can compromise an unborn child. When people come up and criticize me, I always tell them I am glad they were born."

This article courtesy of the Chicago Tribune.