Tuesday, June 20, 2006

South Dakota and abortion

Cynthia Gorney writes in The New Yorker about South Dakota House Bill 1215, which was signed into law in March. The law, which calls for a ban on abortion, except in cases where the life of the mother is threatened, was designed specifically to challenge Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that declared that abortion must be legal in every state.

Gorney discusses her article, the law, and the future of the abortion debate in the United States in an online Q. & A. here:
It is often said that these issues are straw men, that the Republican base does not feel drastically different from the Democratic base, and that abortion is mainly an election-time lever—like gay marriage—to get evangelicals to vote. Does the national Republican Party really want this fight?

My first response is that I don’t think it’s appropriate to equate right-to-life sentiment with the movement against gay marriage. I believe that the latter is a political diversionary tactic. People care about it but not that much. The right-to-life movement is quite different. It’s made up of people who genuinely believe that millions of babies have been murdered because of a Supreme Court decision thirty-three years ago. If you really believe that to be true, then your motivation is profound. The volunteers who staff these organizations accept this premise and believe there is something so terrible about it that they have to devote their lives to it.

On the other hand, the Republican Party has numerous factions, ranging from strongly pro-choice Republicans who say that interference by government is inconsistent with social conservatism to more opportunistic Republicans to who believe that this issue is a political organizing tool. Right-to-life organizations in this country were primarily inspired by and organized by the Catholic Church for about the first ten years of the issue, from the time that states started changing their laws, in the late sixties, to around the late seventies. That’s not to say that all right-to-life people were Catholic, but the Church provided the most effective communication and organizational vehicle. In the late nineteen-seventies, there was a concerted effort to use abortion as an organizing tool to bring Christian evangelicals into the political fold. Political leaders realized that the evangelicals were an enormous constituency and that the way to persuade them to agree on issues like taxation and foreign policy was to attach social beliefs, chief among them opposition to abortion. Republicans may always have been opposed to abortion, but that’s when it became part of the Party identity in the way that we know it to be now.

I don’t profess any expertise on insider Republican politics, but I agree with the people who say that, in many ways, the overturning of Roe v. Wade would be a loss for the Republican Party. It’s much more useful to hold up the decision as a spectre. It serves their interests better. If Roe were overturned, it would change things in very unpredictable ways. There are some states where the prospect of being able to vote an abortion ban into place would bring out lots of Republicans, and others where opposition would galvanize Democrats. Again, this is part of what’s so interesting. I don’t think we really know, despite the huge stack of polls, how most people will really react when they’re not just talking theory but considering creating a law that would directly affect the life of their mothers, their sisters, their daughters.