Obama's Squandered Opportunity on Abortion -- and How He Could Turn It Around
Earlier today I listened in on a phone press conference with leading pro-life religious liberals called by Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. (Click here to listen to the call.) They were praising the new draft Democratic Party abortion plank which advocates government policies to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. (Click here to read the new plank and the 2004 platform). Wallis called it a "real step forward," while Rev. Joel Hunter called it "a historic and courageous step."
What am I missing? It seems to me that, on balance, if you're pro-life this platform is about the same as the 2004 platform – slightly better in some ways and, actually, slightly worse in other ways.
Where it's better: the draft platform endorses policies, such as better sex education and health care, that would "help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby reduce the need for abortions." And, religious progressives were particularly pleased that the platform stated: "The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman's decision to have a child," as well as policies – such as "caring adoption programs" – that make such a choice practical.
Where it's worse: the platform actually drops the language from the 2004 platform that abortion "should be safe, legal, and rare." That breakthrough formulation, popularized by Bill Clinton, reiterated support for legal abortion but rhetorically endorsed the idea that society would be better off with fewer abortions. By contrast, the 2008 platform emphasizes the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies and the "need" for abortions. It's a subtle but important difference that preserves what pro-choice activists wanted: absolute neutrality on the question of whether society is better off with fewer abortions.
Some of the religious leaders are hoping that Obama personally will go farther than the platform did. "Key is what Obama says at Saddleback," says Rev. Tony Campolo, a leading religious progressive and a member of the Democratic Platform committee, referring to Obama's public interview with Rev. Rick Warren this weekend. "What we are waiting to hear is that he sees this as a moral issue." In other words, we're supposed to look at the draft platform plank as Act One of a two act play.
Indeed, I can envision a way in which the Democratic Party could make real headway with pro-life voters, despite Obama's very pro-choice voting record. At Saddleback, Obama could make a strong statement that he thinks there should be fewer abortions in America and - here's the new part - the Democratic Party will be better at reducing the number of abortions than Republicans.
This may sound far fetched but it might actually be true under certain conditions. The Republicans have focused on legal restrictions - but mostly what they propose is either substantively sweeping but unpopular, or popular but substantively marginal. They support a Constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, which certainly would reduce the number of abortions in theory, but hasn't come close to passage in decades. They support banning partial birth abortion which could be passed but affects less than 1% of abortions. And they have an ideological aversion to certain additional steps – such as encouragin birth control and more government-financed health care for women – that could help reduce the number of abortions.
Studies show that many women have abortions because of economic reasons so it's plausible that abortion frequency could be reduced through an agenda that focused on preventing unintended pregnancies (through family planning and birth control) , improving health care and wages for low income women, and encouraging adoption. Jim Wallis hailed the "Juno option": some teens who get pregnant should neither get an abortion nor get married but rather should carry the baby to term and then give it up for adoption.
So Obama could address pro-life voters directly and say something like this:
The Republican party uses you every four years to get elected. But they don't deliver on their goal of substantially reducing the number of abortions. They prefer symbolism to results – demonizing Democrats to saving babies. It's time for a new approach. This new approach will make it less likely women would get pregnant. For those who do get pregnant, it will make it easier for them to have the baby. And for those who can't or dont want to raise the child, it will make it easier for them to find adoptive parents.
Let me be clear. I'm not retreating one inch from my commitment to the legal right to choose. It is because abortion is such a profound moral dilemma that it must be made a woman in consultation with her clergy person, her doctor and, yes, hopefully the father of the child. It is her decision. What we can do as a society is to make sure the deck isn't so stacked against her that she feels pressured to have an abortions.
If we take this approach, I believe we can cut the number of abortions in America in half – and I will commit to making this a major goal of my presidency. It's time to break out of the old approach on abortion that uses this as a political football. It's time to try a new way that protects a woman's right to choose – but helps society dramatically reduce the number of abortion.
Obama has mostly adopted the value-neutral language of the pro-choice community. On a few occasions - mostly when addressing Christian audiences - he's changed his rhetoric, talking about abortion reduction as a goal unto itself. If he wants to win over moderate evangelicals he's going to need to enthusiastically embrace the abortion reduction language here on out. Politically, this means telling the pro-choice community: I'm with you on legal restrictions, but you need to accept that I'm going to campaign against abortion.
Would this approach actually win over all pro-life voters? No. Some will never vote for a pro-choice politician. And the Obama campaign has so far done a terrible job at responding to the single most important abortion charge against him, that he opposed the "born alive" legislation in Illinois that would have protected the lives of fetuses or babies that survived abortions.
But there are a large number of voters – moderate evangelicals and centrist Catholic – who support the Democratic Party position on almost every other issue. They are itching to vote based on Iraq, the economy and health care. Each time they sidle up to Obama they trip over the charge that he's a pro-choice radical. The Obama campaign has not come close to showing him to be anything other than that. It's not too late, but the platform plank was one opportunity squandered. The next big opportunity is his speech at Saddleback Church. If he doesn't significantly improve on the platform language and cast himself as a champion of an energetic, plausible, specific pro-choice abortion reduction agenda, he's not likely to do much better than John Kerry in winning evangelicals or Catholics.
This article is cross-posted from Steve Waldman's blog at Beliefnet.