The Frame Of The Abortion Debate Is Changing, And Democrats Will Need To Re-Frame To Regain The Advantage print email "I am a progressive, patriotic American—and I am not pro-choice. If you believe in a strong, progressive America, you are...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 06/07/2005

The Frame Of The Abortion Debate Is Changing, And Democrats Will Need To Re-Frame To Regain The Advantage

"I am a progressive, patriotic American—and I am not pro-choice. If you believe in a strong, progressive America, you are probably not ‘pro-choice’ either." --Frameshop

Of all the rotten words Republicans like to throw at Democrats, the phrase ‘baby killer’ has to be the worst.

Republicans in Congress like nothing more than to tell the American people that a ‘Holocaust’ is being committed by Liberals in this country, and that over 30 million ‘babies’ have been ‘killed’ since the passage of Roe v. Wade, roughly twenty years ago. ‘Abortion on demand,’ they call it, or worse: a ‘culture of death.’

None of this would matter—and the country might actually be solving some of its serious problems with healthcare, education, or national security—if the Democrats had long ago found a powerful way to respond to the ‘baby killer’ accusation from Republicans. Unfortunately, the only response Democrats have used is the once powerful, but now inadequate phrase: ‘I am for a woman’s right to choose.’

I actually find it surprising that the GOP took so long to come up with a good phrase to deal with the Democratic line on abortion. But come up with one they did, and they will repeat and repeat and repeat it until the Democrats figure out how to reframe the debate.

Reframing the Debate on abortion is not about spinning the facts or packaging new wine in old bottles. The real crisis brought on by the GOP 'baby killer' line is not that it has challenged Democrats to move to the center (wherever that is nowadays). The problem is much worse than just political opportunism. The 'baby killer' line has fundamentally disoriented Democrats. It has forced Democrats into a state of confusion, causing them to lose touch with what they understand to be their own views and why they are willing to fight for a better America.

As a result, if Democrats do not come up with a way to deal with the 'baby killer' accusation, then it is not just the abortion debate they will lose. Most likely, the Democratic Party itself will crumble.

So, how should Dems deal with this issue?  They should stop using the word  'choice' as a talking point on abortion, take some time to remember what they really believe, and then turn back to the problem of dealing with the GOP.  That's how it has to happen.   There are no short-cuts at this stage of the game when it comes to the debate on abortion.  To win again, Democrats must do some hard work.

Read the Ruling

I am a progressive, patriotic American—and I am not ‘pro-choice.’ If you believe in a strong, progressive America, you are probably not ‘pro-choice’ either.

The reason I say this is because my position on abortion is based on my support for the Roe v. Wade ruling written by Justice Blackmun in 1973.  And that ruling does not support a woman's right to choose in the absolute.  That,  in fact, is what the ruling argues against. 

Curiously, while most liberals believe they support the Roe v. Wade ruling, they probably argue in support of the original Jane Roe suit against the state of Texas, which identifies a woman's right to choose as the only compelling issue in the abortion issue.

For example, how many people in this country--who are willing to take to the streets in suppport or against the Roe v. Wade ruling--have actually read the Blackmun arguments?  Not very many is my guess.

I recommend reading it, not only to learn the issues, but because it is one of the most important pieces of literature in recent American history.

But just in case you don't have time to read through the whole thing, here is the crucial point from that ruling in which Justice Blackmun states what the abortion issue is all about:

"On the basis of elements such as these, appellant and some amici argue that the woman's right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses. With this we do not agree."

There we have some confusion cleared up. It wasn't the Roe v. Wade ruling that calls for a woman's absolute right to choose an abortion. That was the argument put forward in the initial suit brought by Roe against the state of Texas. Blackmun states very clear that the the court does not agree that a woman alone has the right to choose in all cricumstances. And the reason why does not have to do with when life begins, but with the 'interest' of the state:

"Appellant's arguments that Texas either has no valid interest at all in regulating the abortion decision, or no interest strong enough to support any limitation upon the woman's sole determination, are unpersuasive. The Court's decisions recognizing a right of privacy also acknowledge that some state regulation in areas protected by that right is appropriate. As noted above, a State may properly assert important interests in safeguarding health, in maintaining medical standards, and in protecting potential life."

Here Blackmun is making another important point that Democrats often get wrong. He is saying that states not only have a right to regulate abortion, but they have an obligation to do so. They have an obligation to intervene to maintain high medical standards. The state, in other words, has an interest in safeguarding the health of its citizens by maintaining medical standards. And here is where it gets tricky. Blackmun also says that the state has an interest in 'protecting potential life,' which is a difficult concept for most Democrats to engage. Most Democrats would say that the state has no right to get involved in the potential life argument. But doesn't the state have more than the right? Doesn't it also have an obligation? Of course it does. Democrats argue all the time in different situations that the state should intervene in our lives. Even when it comes to reproductive issues most Democrats would not divorce themselves completely from notions of state intervention.

Think of it this way: imagine that a woman has just found out she is pregnant and decided to have the baby. She is six weeks pregnant. On the way home from the clinic, her car is hit by a drunk driver and she miscarries.

Most Democrats in this situation would be willing to admit that the punishment for that crime should be connected to the 'potential life' of the miscarried fetus. Democrats do, in other words, believe that the state should be interested and even obligated to protect potential life. And this is the point that Blackmun continues to discuss on the ruling:

"At some point in pregnancy, these respective [state] interests become sufficiently compelling to sustain regulation of the factors that govern the abortion decision. The privacy right involved, therefore, cannot be said to be absolute. In fact, it is not clear to us that the claim asserted by some amici that one has an unlimited right to do with one's body as one pleases bears a close relationship to the right of privacy previously articulated in the Court's decisions. The Court has refused to recognize an unlimited right of this kind in the past. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U.S. 11 (1905) (vaccination); Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927) (sterilization)."

Here Blackmun brings up another important issue. Do Democrats really believe that women--or anyone--should have the unregulated right to do whatever they want with their bodies at all times, without state regulation? I don't believe this. For example, if there were no state regulations at all on our bodies, it would be legal for people to remove their internal organs and, say, sell them for gambling money. Progressives would certainly support the regulation of the removal of internal organs--not its criminalization, but its regulation. And the same is true for abortion. There is a difference between sweeping criminalization and regulation. These aren't particularly profound arguments I am offering here, but the point is clear. Only when Democrats--indeed the nation--accepts the dumbed down GOP version of the abortion debate as an either or proposition (e.g. 'life' or 'choice'), only then do we lose touch with what we really believe as progressives.

Blackmun, of course, was not led down this path, but actually used solid progressive thinking to define a very sophisticated, soundly moral and deeply American position on abortion. Blackmun concluded that abortion is really about two issues that are always in tension with each other:

"We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified and must be considered against important state interests in regulation." [Italics mine. To read the full Blackmun ruling go here.]

In Supreme Court legalese, 'important state interests' is a complicated way of saying that government most definitely has an interest in protecting the lives of its citizens. In the case of pregnancy, writes Blackmun, it sure is difficult to know when that interest comes into effect. But the interest is there.

Reading Roe v. Wade, rather than just mouthing support for it, is a challenge that all Democrats should undertake.

What Blackmun is teaching us is that Roe v. Wade is not just about a woman’s right to choose whether or not she has an abortion, but about two fundamental obligations that government has to American citizens.

The first obligation articulated by Blackmun is to not interfere with the private lives of children. This ‘right to privacy’ is a fascinating idea that emanates from what the justices call the ‘penumbra’ of the Bill of Rights. Basically, government has no right to stick its nose into the lives of citizens for unnecessary reasons. Privacy, according to Blackmun, exists in certain ‘zones’ and not in others. We do not, for example, have the right to decide how fast we want to drive—a highway is not a zone of privacy. But we do have the right to decide how we want to have a family, so reproduction is a zone of privacy.

The second obligation articulated by Blackmun is that of the state in guaranteeing that its citizens are protected. This is a tricky, tricky business when it comes to abortion because the question remains: when does a fetus become a citizen? Technically, Blackmun believes that a fetus becomes a citizen when it achieves ‘viability’—that is, when it is able to survive outside of the woman. Who has the right to decide this? Clearly, that right involves the woman at every stage of the pregnancy, but it also involves others at certain points: doctors, husbands, partners, parents, other children, and a whole range of people in a woman’s life.

And why shouldn’t it involve others? Democrats believe very strongly that it is the obligation of the state—the responsibility of government—to protect children. So, at a certain point over the course of a woman’s pregnancy, Democrats begin to take an interest in the well-being of the child as a citizen in addition to the health of the mother and the fetus.

For the GOP, the abortion debate is about sex and birth. It’s not about life, or about babies or families or anything like that. For the GOP activists so dead set on criminalizing all abortion procedures, the debate is about forcing women to have babies once those women have chosen to be sexually active.

When we take the time to read Roe v. Wade, it actually helps us to figure out not only what Democrats think and believe (as opposed to what they are currently repeating) and to understand better what Republicans think and believe (as opposed to what they say, and say, and say...).

Last Time I Checked

Does the GOP have an interest in the right to privacy? Absolutely not. They disagree with that right. They think it should not exist. The GOP believes that it is the right and the responsibility of government to make decisions about family planning for its citizens. This, by the way, is also what the government of Communist China believed.

What about the interest of the state in protecting children? Well, the GOP has no interest in this either. Think about it. Is abortion the only thing that impacts the lives of American citizens in this country? Do Republicans who believe that all abortion should be criminalized every watch the evening news?

Last time I checked, hundreds of thousands of American children were suffering from chronic asthma and other inner city diseases caused by GOP deregulation in business and the environment.

Last time I checked, hundreds of thousands of American children were suffering from malnutrition and premature obesity caused by the GOP refusal to aid poor families in this country.

Last time I checked, American children were walking into schools with guns and shooting each other, a problem caused by the GOP refusal to place tighter regulations on the sale of firearms.

Last time I checked, American children were not being provided the skills they need to compete fairly in the world because the GOP is waging a covert assault on public education in this country.

Last time I checked, the disability benefits that protect American children when working parents are injured or killed were under assault by the GOP attempt to eliminate Social Security.

Last time I checked, children born into single parent households in America were being blamed for social problems such as drug use and crime, because the GOP believes that only a nuclear family can raise a moral citizen.

Last time I checked, the homeless rate of American children was rising because the GOP believes that public housing is wrong.

Last time I checked, America’s children where experimenting more and more with dangerous forms of STD transmitting sexual behavior because the GOP believes that educating children about sex is immoral.

We could go on all day with this list, but the fact remains that the GOP does not really care much about the state’s interest in protecting children. Citizens must protect themselves. That’s what the GOP believes.

So what’s the abortion debate all about for the GOP? What do they want?

Specifically, Republicans who oppose Roe v. Wade are opposed to any form of sex that does not lead to birth. Sex that does not lead to birth is immoral for them.  Republicans believe that government should force women who have sex to have babies.  That's their logic:  having sex equals having babies.  And it's government's job to make sure that happens.   You want to have sex? Fine, but you have to have a baby as a result. Oh, and by the way: even if you're eleven years old and a repeat offender rapist forces you to have sex while holding a gun to your head that he bought at a gunshow, you still have to have a baby as a result. That's the GOP 'choice' on abortion.

But what about what happens after the baby is born? What do Republicans who oppose Roe v. Wade believe should happen to babies after government forces women to deliver? They don’t give a darn about them, that’s what. After a baby is born, according to the Republicans, the government has to butt out. Once the baby is born, Republicans believe that it is wrong for government to take an active interest. There is no compelling interest.

And so, the Republicans who oppose abortion essentially believe that the life of an American citizen is at all times a zone of privacy up to the point at which a child is conceived. At that point, privacy ends and the government steps in. Once child is born, privacy returns, government loses interest.

In a recent article on the subject, George Lakoff has argued that the attitude of the GOP does not lead to an absence of abortions so much as it leads to a rash of unwanted pregnancies. Indeed, if Roe v. Wade is overturned and the states interests in the privacy and protection of its citizens is abridged through the criminalization of all abortion, there will be a sharp and sudden rise in unwanted pregnancy. In other words, even though a woman may not want to be pregnant—either because she was raped or because she has severe health problems or because she the pregnancy resulted from inadequate sex education or access to contraception—that won’t matter. If the GOP’s post-Roe v. Wade America, women will no longer be pregnant just because they want to have a baby. They will be pregnant because the GOP will not tolerate any other outcome.

The solution to the Democrats’ problem on the issue of abortion is not to move to the middle or give up on women’s rights. None of that will help and none of it is honest.

Oh, Baby!

The solution is to stop treating the word ‘choice’ as a talking point and try the following new phrases:

PRIVACY AND PROTECTION: This can be a strong talking point. Democrats believe in privacy and protection. We believe in a woman’s right to choose, sure, but the larger issue is the right of all citizens to govern their own private matters. And we believe in protecting our children.

CHILDREN FIRST: One of the unfortunate results of making ‘woman’s right to choose’ a Democratic talking point is that it leaves the protection of children available for Republicans to claim. But Republicans actively seek to undermine the well-being of America’s children in so many ways. Saying that America must put ‘children first,’ can be an effective way of reframing the issue.

GOVERNMENT SHOULD NOT FORCE WOMEN TO HAVE BABIES: I agree with Lakoff’s suggestion to focus on the GOP’s role in increasing the number of ‘unwanted pregnancies’ in America. But I generally feel that the word ‘pregnancy’ is politically difficult. I suggest instead that Democrats talk about how GOP policies 'force women to have babies.’ When presented with the phrase ‘baby killer,’ a Democrat could respond: "Babies? This debate is about babies alright. Government should not force American women to have babies. By contrast, government should care deeply about what happens to babies once they are born. Government should guarantee that women have fair maternity leave, that all children have access to vaccines, that families have affordable childcare, that children breathe clean air, can eat healthy food and are guaranteed a safe and sound public education. Government should not force women to have babies and then just step back let every man, woman and child fend for themselves."

The key in that last exchange is a strategic use of the word ‘baby.’ Simply put, if Democrats every want to control the abortion debate again, they need to reclaim the moral authority to use the word ‘baby’ in political debate. Republicans have it because Democrats refuse to say it. It’s true that the abortion debate is about much, much more than babies. It’s about privacy and protection above all else. But unless we stand up and reclaim the word ‘baby,’ then the Republicans will keep winning.

So the next time I hear a Republican hurl the phrase ‘baby killer’ at a Democrat, I expect to hear that Democrat respond with convinction: "Babies?! This debate is about babies alright…"

© 2005 Jeffrey D. Feldman

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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