Obama and the politics of abortion

The reaction to the president’s speech at Notre Dame shows how much the debate about abortion has shifted in the United States.

Helen Searls

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President Barack Obama’s long anticipated, and much debated, commencement address at Notre Dame University last Sunday was hailed as a triumph of civility and diplomacy. But was his speech really the miracle that so many claimed it to be – or did it simply reflect the changing character of the abortion debate in the US?

Praise came from all quarters. Conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan found the president to be ‘deeply Christian’ (1). The Washington Post’s more liberal writer, EJ Dione, admired the president’s balance, claiming that he gave ‘what may have been both the most radical and the most conservative speech of his presidency’ (2). Bill Press in the Huffington Post felt moved to make a biblical reference: ‘It wasn’t exactly the miracle of the wedding feast of Cana. President Obama did not change water into wine. But he almost did. Instead, Obama changed what protesters had tried to make an ugly scene about abortion into a triumphant message about faith-based politics.’

The president’s speech is widely credited as unveiling a new way to talk about the divisive issue of abortion. His quiet but compelling plea for a new civil tone to the abortion debate stood in sharp contrast to the shrill character of the controversy surrounding his very invitation to the Catholic campus. In his speech, Obama actively sought out common ground with his opponents. He called for both sides to ‘work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions’. And he dwelt on this theme. ‘Let’s reduce unintended pregnancies. Let’s make adoption more available. Let’s provide care and support for women who do carry their children to term.’ He also made a plea for ‘open hearts, open minds’ and ‘fair-minded words’.

Obama’s reason and calmness were a change to how the debate has been conducted of old. Americans have grown accustomed to a very different approach, as illustrated by the rows and accusations of recent weeks.


An example of the overheated US abortion debate:
Lawrence O’Donnell debates Pat Buchanan on MSNBC

Less attention has been paid to how the abortion debate itself has changed in recent years. Obama’s ability to transcend the debate had less to do with his miraculous powers of reconciliation, and more to do with the fact that the old battle lines have shifted in recent years.

For 40 years, a woman’s right to end an unwanted pregnancy has been actively contested. Attitudes to abortion have long been a key test (along with gun control and, more recently, gay marriage) that defines the differences between conservatives and progressives. It is one of those cultural issues that divides and defines the political tribes in the American nation, a long-standing fixture in the culture wars between left and right.

But in recent years, the two sides of the debate have changed. While the the anti-abortion/pro-life camp still waves pictures of the tiny feet of aborted fetuses at all their demonstrations, and individuals like Randall Terry are still at the helm of the movement, these facts disguise how isolated and stagnated the movement has become. It is not the same as it was 20 years ago.

Some mistakenly think that the anti-abortion movement is gaining strength. In the past month, for example, much has been made in the media of a recent Gallup poll where, for the first time in many years, a majority of responders – 51 per cent – described themselves as ‘pro-life’. But a closer look at the poll shows that other factors are at play. While only 42 per cent of responders described themselves as ‘pro-choice’, a much larger percentage – 77 per cent – agreed abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

A CNN poll taken about the same time found that 68 per cent of respondents did not want to see the overturning of the defining Supreme Court judgement legalising abortion, Roe vs Wade. Individuals might prefer to describe themselves as pro-life rather than pro-choice, but a willingness to approve abortions at least some of the time suggests a changing understanding of what pro-life means (4).

In fact, the detail of the Gallup poll is much more interesting than the percentages that made the headlines. Gallup said shifting opinions on abortion in the past year lay almost entirely with Republicans or independents who lean Republican, with outright opposition to abortion amongst those groups rising over the past year from 60 per cent to 70 per cent.

What this suggests is that, over the past 12 months, anti-abortion opinions have become more important to conservatives, but not to the wider population. And with less than a quarter of the population now defining themselves as Republicans, it is clear that what we are seeing is a shift of views within a dwindling political tribe rather than a wider shift of views across society as a whole.

Clearly, opposition to abortion has become more important to some conservatives following the across-the-board defeat of the Republicans at the polls last November. Republicans are currently struggling with a major identity crisis. They lack any clear or coherent political leadership. Their ideas and their alternatives were deemed irrelevant by much of the electorate. In the light of the economic and financial crisis, when the free market and small government is widely regarded as a failure, the party has chosen to elevate the old cultural conservative issues as way to hang on to a distinctive and defining outlook.

But this shift affects only a small section of society. Most people are not looking to define themselves against the Obama mainstream. For the vast majority of Americans, the abortion issue has no special or new appeal.

In recent years, the pro-choice camp has also shifted. If the polls on abortion tell us anything, they tell us that for the past couple of decades the majority of Americans have been comfortable with the existing abortion legislation. Some think abortions are too common and only a small section would agree with an absolute right of women to choose to have an abortion, but there is a general acceptance that some abortions are necessary.

But the political leaders of the left have found it very hard to make a forthright pro-choice case. President Obama is not the first pro-choice president to talk about abortion in rather circumspect terms. President Bill Clinton defended abortion on the basis that it should be ‘safe, legal and rare’. In the same grain, Obama wants to see ‘a reduction in the need for abortion’.

There is nothing wrong with these sentiments in themselves. Most women hope that they will never need to have an abortion. But when the only public defence of abortion is so meek, it affects how the debate itself is framed. With so few making the clear case for a woman’s right to abortion on demand, being pro-choice becomes little more than a cultural identifier that defines you as ‘not one of those crazy religious fundamentalists’. It has become less of a social question of women’s rights and more of a private matter of lifestyle preference.

It is against this backdrop that we have to measure Obama’s speech. His speech was a success because abortion as an issue is less contested than it was in the past. It remains a defining issue for certain political tribes, but beyond that is it not the burning issue that it once was. Obama’s speech merely reflected how most Americans see the issue today. In fact, he did not really talk about abortion – he talked about talking about abortion. In today’s political climate, that was more than enough to win widespread praise.

Just by speaking reasonably with a bit of humility, he satisfied most of the pro-choice crowd while drawing a line in the sand against the shrill fanatics. And since being anti-fundamentalist is almost as good as being pro-choice, no one from his own side needed him to go further. Of course, he did not win over any hardcore abortion opponents, but increasingly they do not really matter. Republicans will continue to talk amongst themselves about the issue and the rest of America will remain pretty much untouched by their debates. It is not really that difficult to appear to be above the fray when much of the punch has gone out of the fight.

Helen Searls is executive producer at Feature Story News in Washington, DC.

(1) See The audacity of humility, Andrew Sullivan

(2) See the Washington Post

(3) See the Huffington Post

(4) See the Chicago Tribune

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