Yesterday in Houston thousands of people marched to protest the opening of Planned Parenthood’s new health clinic. These kinds of protests have been staged for more than a generation across the country. Rallies have been held to influence political candidates. Billions of dollars have been raised and spent on the abortion-lobbying industry. Fierce and often ridiculous campaigns have been raised to influence the Supreme Court nomination process. After all this, the state of abortion law in the US remains more or less where it was in the mid-‘70’s.
The abortion issue has become a monumental political distraction. It has been cynically manipulated by politicians on both sides of the aisle, a perfect issue to stir up volunteers and cash without any accountability for results. That can change.
It is a common misperception, fed by the politicians who depend on it, that the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade bars any state or federal abortion limits. An abortion restriction that only applied after the fetus was “viable,” and included reasonable provisions for rape, incest, and protection of the life of the mother, would almost certainly be upheld. These kinds of restrictions are common in Europe and abortion is a far-less consuming political issue there.
Imagine if the Texas legislature passed a law this session that banned abortion after the twentieth week of pregnancy, except in cases of rape, incest, fetal deformity, or to protect the life of the mother. Given the Supreme Court’s decision in a recent Nebraska case on partial-birth abortion there is very little possibility that the Court would strike down a law crafted this carefully. It could stand. The era of “abortion on demand” would be over.
What would be the effect? Out in the “reality-based community” where real people are living their lives, the effect would be modest. A small percentage of abortions performed today would be illegal under this rule. However, in the political world, the impact would be monumental.
For starters, the law, even so broadly crafted, might not pass, not even in Texas. The effort to pass the law would in itself expose the fragility of the pro-life movement. For all the noise, it has been surprising to see how narrow the true, pro-life political base has become. South Dakota, one of the country’s most socially conservative states, twice in the last decade has failed to pass an initiative banning abortion. An effort to pass real legislation that would place genuine, reasonable curbs on abortion rights would expose the fact that there is almost no support for extreme pro-life positions outside church or the Republican National Committee.
The fight over such a bill would also flush some of the fundamentalist-pandering out of the GOP. If faced with an opportunity to sign their names to enforceable abortion curbs that would actually affect their wives and daughters, politicians would be forced to show their true stripes and pay at election time. We might find out which Republican politicians are genuine fundamentalists and which ones have been decked out in the cross and flag for cynical reasons.
If states began to address abortion directly in their legislatures, passing limits that met with both popular and Constitutional approval, the bottom would drop out of the multi-million dollar abortion political machine on both sides. Imagine how boring Supreme Court nominating hearings would be – as boring as they should be.
There is value in such a law by its own merits. No matter how you approach it, abortion is a complex, morally ambiguous issue. It is a logical challenge for a reasonable person to accept either that abortion of a just-implanted fetus is murder, or that abortion of a fetus at thirty weeks is not. A law of this type could achieve consensus on the extremes, while preserving the individual burden to resolve the most vexing cases.
There are solutions to our most troubling political problems if we have the courage and imagination to embrace them. The benefits to our politics and to the future of the Republican Party could be enormous.
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