Magazine article Dissent

Electoral Politics and abortion/Responds

Magazine article Dissent

Electoral Politics and abortion/Responds

Article excerpt

MOST PROGRESSIVES would say the abortion debate is intractable because it reflects the huge gap between conservative Christian and secular humanist values. I'd like to offer another theory, one not incompatible with this one, but a supplement to it. The abortion debate is intractable at this time because the two major political parties in the United States exploit this issue to pursue electoral majorities.

Republicans use the abortion issue to forge coalitions with right-wing and fundamentalist Christian voters. Democrats use it to attract women voters. Neither party will risk modifying its rigid position for fear of alienating the constituencies that the abortion issue has helped attract. Opinion surveys over the past thirty years, however, indicate that the majority of Americans support some abortions as well as some restrictions. Most voters, that is, fall between the positions represented by those who refuse to recognize any problems with the legal status quo and those who want to change it radically. According to a national poll in 2000,

overall support for the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision seems to be softening as Americans adopt a more nuanced view of the circumstances under which abortions should he allowed . . . .Despite the increasing level of discomfort with the high court's ruling-43% of current survey respondents express support for Roe, compared with 56% in 1991-the poll shows continued opposition to a constitutional ban on abortion . . . Nearly two-thirds of respondents say abortions should be illegal after the first three months of pregnancy. While 85% support abortion when a woman's physical health is at risk, the level of support drops to 54% when only her emotional health is at stake. And 66% say they support abortion when the fetus is at risk of an abnormality.1

In short, the large majority of voters support the right to choose in the first third of pregnancy and, after that, want access restricted to some cases of hardship, though no one would get this impression from the media or current party politics.

Although the heated atmosphere surrounding abortion politics has been good for Republicans and Democrats, it has not been good for women. Abortion services have become so controversial that women without health insurance, and even many with it, find abortion services inaccessible because of the increasing number of bureaucratic and funding restrictions imposed. Women who live far from major cities face a severe shortage of service providers. Political polarization has not only made abortions inaccessible, it has pushed other important feminist goals to the sidelines: universal child care and preschool, universal health care, paid maternity and parental leave, and better public services for children and adults with special needs.

Keeping the abortion debate heated and polarized doesn't serve women's interests, but it has probably benefited mainstream feminist organizations that grew up around this issue. Rather than trying to forge a public consensus, groups such as NARAL-Pro-Choice America (originally "National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws), the Feminist Majority, the National Organization for Women, and Planned Parenthood have taken a "we won't budge" approach. Any compromise on abortion is represented as a complete loss and the retraction of a fragile right recently acquired. By equating democratic compromise with defeat, these organizations sustain the fear that women will lose all access to abortion; and they also attract more members and funds. For example, the recent ads of the Pro-Choice Public Education Project feature frightening pictures of back-alley abortion rooms, suggesting what could happen if women lose the right to choose. Other ads argue that if a woman's right to choose can be taken away (it is not even clear what this means in legal terms-for example, overturning Roe and then having no states permit abortion for any reason, or something less drastic? …

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