The czar of all things Beliefnet, one Steve Waldman, has donned his reporter hat once again in order to pound out a timeline describing who did what in the negotiations that produced the Democratic Party’s proposed platform statement on abortion.
You can read it here and I urge you to do so, especially journalists and commentators who will be covering that issue in the days ahead.
But before you read that story — an expanded version of a Waldman piece for The Wall Street Journal — I would like to flash back more than a decade to one of the most provocative pieces I have ever read on this hottest of hot-button topics. It was written by political scientist George McKenna of the City University of New York and ran in The Atlantic Monthly. The title was rather cryptic, “On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position.” His goal was to chart a moderate position on abortion, similar to the stance that Lincoln originally took on slavery. In other words, the goal is to say that abortion is the law of the land, but immoral.
What would that sound like? At one point, McKenna writes this policy statement for a politician who is trying to be both pro-life and pro-choice. This is long, but you’ll see why I have included it when we return to Waldman’s piece at Beliefnet:
With the reader’s indulgence … I will play that politician, making the following campaign statement:
“According to the Supreme Court, the right to choose abortion is legally protected. That does not change the fact that abortion is morally wrong. It violates the very first of the inalienable rights guaranteed in the Declaration of Independence — the right to life. Even many who would protect and extend the right to choose abortion admit that abortion is wrong, and that killing 1.5 million unborn children a year is, in the understated words of one, ‘a bad thing.’ Yet, illogically, they denounce all attempts to restrain it or even to speak out against it. In this campaign I will speak out against it. I will say what is in all our hearts: that abortion is an evil that needs to be restricted and discouraged. If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread and place it where the public can rest in the belief that it is becoming increasingly rare. I take very seriously the imperative, often expressed by abortion supporters, that abortion should be rare. Therefore, if I am elected, I will seek to end all public subsidies for abortion, for abortion advocacy, and for experiments on aborted children. I will support all reasonable abortion restrictions that pass muster with the Supreme Court, and I will encourage those who provide alternatives to abortion. Above all, I mean to treat it as a wrong. I will use the forum provided by my office to speak out against abortion and related practices, such as euthanasia, that violate or undermine the most fundamental of the rights enshrined in this nation’s founding charter.”
The position on abortion I have sketched — permit, restrict, discourage — is unequivocally pro-life even as it is effectively pro-choice. It does not say “I am personally opposed to abortion”; it says abortion is evil. Yet in its own way it is pro-choice. First, it does not demand an immediate end to abortion. To extend Lincoln’s oncological trope: it concludes that all those who oppose abortion can do right now is to contain the cancer, keep it from metastasizing. It thus acknowledges the present legal status of “choice” even as it urges Americans to choose life. Second, by supporting the quest for alternatives to abortion, it widens the range of choices available to women in crisis pregnancies.
Now, read Waldman’s report entitled “The Real Story of the Democrats’ Abortion Plank & What It Reveals About Obama.” What you will discover is that the debates within the Democratic Party began with the awareness that there was no way to make a single change in the nation’s current legal regime on abortion. The pro-lifers didn’t even try.
But here is the part that was most interesting to me as a reporter (OK, and I admit, as a pro-life Democrat) who has covered this issue for several decades.
The party’s goal? To find language that would appeal to pro-life liberals, yet not offend Hillary Clinton supporters too much. Thus, key fact No. 1:
The Obama campaign made a crucial decision — not to have the abortion rights and antiabortion forces meet. “It was a cordial harmonious process in which neither side talked directly to each other,” said Michael Yaki, the platform director who worked on crafting the abortion plank. During July he held about a dozen face-to-face meetings with groups in a conference room at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington but always made sure that pro-life and pro-choice sides were not scheduled back-to-back lest they bump into each other.
Fact No. 2, as I mentioned earlier:
At no point did the pro-lifers push hard for legal restrictions on abortions, including partial birth abortions. But they did push for clear language casting the Democratic Party as supporting a reduction in the number of abortions and not merely a reduction in the “need” for abortion. … (E)mphasizing a reduction in the need was backwards — making it sound like the real goal was stopping unintended pregnancies and abortions were a side effect.
Politically, the Obama campaign’s faith outreach coordinators, Joshua Dubois and Mark Linton argued that having some sort of abortion reduction agenda would help win religious voters — especially moderate evangelicals and Catholics — in swing battleground states.
But the pro-choice forces adamantly insisted that the word “need” remain.
So there is interesting fact No. 3, the key to the whole story. The proposed platform language does not commit the party to trying to decrease the number of abortions in America. That would imply that there is something wrong with abortion — the crucial element of what McKenna called a “Lincolnian approach” to the issue. After all, if something is wrong, it would be proper to restrict it and to try to decrease its impact on a society.
Now, both sides get to claim victory. And both sides will now watch, carefully, to see if Sen. Barack Obama dares to use moral language on this issue.
Waldman’s piece is must reading, because this debate is not over. No way.
Meanwhile, it would be very interesting to see a parallel piece on the behind-the-scenes debates within Sen. John McCain’s camp on his somewhat tense affirmations of an anti-abortion position (and other life issues). Methinks journalists would find interesting facts in that timeline, too.