The New Abortion Rhetoric Leaves a Bad Taste in the Mouths of Pro-Choice Activists
This year, just like last year and the year before that, a small handful of picketers outside the premises will hoist grisly photographs of aborted fetuses. NARAL's website calls the event an "evening of utter decadence all supporting a woman's right to choose."
It's the first Chocolate for Choice in the wake of Bush's narrow but decisive reelection, a victory that wasn't about the economy, stupid, and may or may not have had anything to do with a hazy concept the exit pollsters called "moral values." And it's the first Chocolate for Choice to confront a Democratic Party that's in turmoil over how and whether to woo back socially moderate voters.
The debate within the pro-choice community about how to talk about abortion has never been more conflicted. Much of this anxious introspection has come on the heels of Hillary Clinton's January 24 speech to the Family Planning Advocates of New York. After opening the speech by saying that she was looking for "common ground" with those who oppose abortion, she declared, "I believe we can all recognize that abortion in many ways represents a sad, even tragic, choice to many, many women." While the speech went on to address a wide array of reproductive health issues--preventing teen pregnancy, increasing coverage for prescription contraceptives, and making the emergency contraceptive Plan B available over the counter--it was her conciliatory language on abortion that dropped like a bomb.
In the following weeks, conservative commentators like Andrew Sullivan (writing in the New Republic) fell all over themselves praising Clinton's "superb speech on the politics and morality of abortion." In Sullivan's hands, Clinton's recognition of the "many women" for whom abortion represents "a sad, even tragic, choice," was twisted and wrung until it meant: "(a) the right to legal abortion should remain, and (b) abortion is always and everywhere a moral tragedy." It's unclear how Sullivan made the leap from a painful decision for a large but unspecified number of women to "always and everywhere a moral tragedy," but there it is. Should those who support reproductive freedom worry about this kind of rhetorical slippage--or is Hillary Clinton actually making a shrewd political move by changing her language without compromising on policy?
There is some cause, outside Clinton's loaded speech, to believe that the Democratic Party is rethinking its dogmatic support for abortion rights. There's the ascension of Harry Reid, a Mormon opponent of legalized abortion, to the position of Senate minority leader. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, which recruits Democratic candidates to run against vulnerable Republicans, has signaled its support for two anti-choice candidates in the upcoming 2006 race against Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Lincoln Chafee. And although Howard Dean, a pro-choice doctor, eventually beat out all his opponents in the race for Democratic National Committee Chair, Washington State Democratic Party Chair Paul Berendt noted that anti-choice candidate Tim Roemer "had the support of [House Minority Leader] Nancy Pelosi, which many of us thought was strange."
Despite the indications that Clinton's comments correspond to a real, if subtle, shift in political winds, there is no shortage of choice advocates willing to argue that the speech represented no significant change in her thinking. Ramona Oliver, communications director for EMILY's List, a group that helps elect pro-choice women Democrats, told me "Hillary Clinton's speech was nothing new. A lot of the issues she talked about, like teen pregnancy, contraceptive equity--these are issues she's championed throughout her career. A lot of people who interpret that speech as a move to the middle didn't actually read the speech or they want to perpetuate that anti-choice agenda. She's not backing down in any way."
And when I asked Karen Cooper, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, to respond to Clinton's comments, she chose her words carefully: "I don't think anybody, at least not in my organization, certainly not me personally, has denied the importance of women making that decision [to have an abortion]. It's the anti-choice people who insist that women take choice lightly, that they use it as birth control." But she also wouldn't fully endorse Clinton's use of the terms "sad" and "tragic": "I think the range of emotions after abortion can go from relief to sadness, but I don't think that has anything to do with whether a woman should be able to make that decision for herself."
Hillary Clinton did, however, make the decision to address the subjective, sometimes negative reactions of women who have had abortions, and she did this as a means of reaching out to abortion opponents. Putting aside the usefulness or appropriateness of her strategy, the very fact that she broached the topic distances her from the mainstream pro-choice movement--the language you'd hear at NARAL's Chocolate for Choice, for example. Clinton's "sad, even tragic" language sounds nothing like what we've come to expect from supporters of choice. Instead of talking about rights or the 14th Amendment guarantee of privacy on which Roe v. Wade was based, the new rhetoric makes an emotional appeal, concerning itself with women's psychology (acknowledging the risk of emotional turmoil) rather than their physical well being (stressing the threat of dirty coat hangers). Emphasizing sadness and tragedy may not represent a change in policy, but it is an unmistakable change in tone.
And it's not just politicians who are discovering a new passion for ambivalence. In a much-discussed article in the winter issue of the pro-choice Catholic quarterly Conscience, Executive Editor Frances Kissling made the case that "the pro-choice movement will be far more trusted if it openly acknowledges that the abortion decision involves weighing multiple values and that one of those values is fetal life." Sarah Blustain's less scholarly article in the liberal magazine American Prospect in December admitted her distaste for the "stridency" of the pro-choice movement. She, like Hillary Clinton, emphasized anecdotal evidence that "abortion is a right that ends in sorrow, not celebration." Even the excellent Mike Leigh film Vera Drake, which is set in the "back-alley" era before abortion was legal in Britain, approaches the issue with anguish.
The jury's still out on whether a more reluctant embrace of the moral necessity of legal abortion will play in the political arena. Bill Clinton's famous hope that abortion be "safe, legal, and rare" was ingenious because even supporters of reproductive freedom could happily sign off on reducing the incidence of an expensive, invasive medical procedure while increasing access to contraception. But Hillary Clinton's "sad, even tragic" description takes what was--in her husband's formulation--neutral territory, and turns it into an emotional minefield.
Chocolate for Choice may look crass in this new political context, and in some sense, it is. The attempt to appeal to women's apparently insatiable appetite for cocoa butter sets my teeth on edge. But I say let them eat cake. Chocolate for Choice is a fundraiser, and raising money is almost always a little bit crass. Not even Hillary Clinton could fail to acknowledge that.