Abortion ‘compromise’

ABORTION ‘COMPROMISE’…. The Atlantic’s Ross Douthat had an interesting item in the New York Times yesterday on abortion politics, specifically pushing back against the notion that the Republican Party’s defeats in 2008 were the result of voter frustration with the GOP’s opposition to abortion rights.

Now, I’m not altogether sure just how common the argument is. In fact, while I can think of plenty of political observers who are urging the party to modernize its approach to culture-war issues, I don’t know of any prominent voices blaming the Republican defeats on its abortion position, making this something of a straw-man.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s go ahead and concede Douthat’s central point — the GOP had a spectacularly bad year, but it’s a mistake to say the “pro-life movement” is solely responsible.

Douthat’s other point, however, was more problematic.

Compromise, rather than absolutism, has been the watchword of anti-abortion efforts for some time now. Since the early 1990s, advocates have focused on pushing largely modest state-level restrictions, from parental notification laws to waiting periods to bans on what we see as the grisliest forms of abortion. […]

So the question isn’t whether the anti-abortion movement can change, adapt and compromise. It’s already done that.

Douthat used the word “compromise” nine times in the piece, hoping to drive home the point that the pro-life movement has been anything but inflexible over the last couple of decades.

I think he’s mistaken. Indeed, the evidence of conservative willingness to “compromise” on abortion is surprisingly thin. In 2005, for example, pro-life and pro-choice Democrats crafted the Prevention First Act, which aimed to reduce the number of abortions by taking prevention seriously, through a combination of family-planning programs, access to contraception, and teen-pregnancy prevention programs. Dems sought Republican co-sponsors. Zero — literally, not one — from either chamber endorsed the measure.

What’s more, this year, pro-life activists in South Dakota and Colorado forced strikingly inflexible anti-abortion measures onto their statewide ballots. Both lost, but it was a reminder of the movement’s “absolutism” on the issue.

Douthat’s correct that activists have fought battles over related-but-peripheral issues such as parental notification laws, waiting periods, and access to emergency contraception, but that doesn’t necessarily point to compromise. Rather, activists have pursued these alternate routes a) while continuing the fight for a ban on all abortions; and b) because they were picking the fights they thought they could win.

If the right is open to compromise on abortion, the proof is hiding well.