On Abortion, Absolutists Will Always Lose

Abortion has been a campaign issue for decades. Rape is a more recent, and more troubling, point of political discussion. But understanding the connection between the two is essential to evaluating the controversies percolating in Senate races in Missouri and Indiana and what they entail for national politics.

In a debate last week against his Democratic opponent, Republican Senate candidate Richard Mourdock of Indiana said that “even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.” Mourdock opposes abortion even in cases of rape and incest, which is a logical position to hold if you believe a fertilized egg is fully human. In that case, there can be no distinction between abortion and murder.

Mourdock is not the first opponent of abortion rights to have this view. (It is held by the Republican vice presidential nominee, Paul Ryan, as well.) But context matters in politics, and Mourdock’s statement followed both a flurry of anti-abortion legislation in the states and the assertion by Republican Senate candidate Todd Akin of Missouri that women don’t get pregnant from “legitimate rape.”

Mourdock and Akin are exponents of an anti-abortion movement that grew strikingly assertive after the Republican electoral success of 2010, promoting “personhood” amendments on state ballots and in Congress and placing restrictions on abortion rights in more than 40 states. Three dozen states now require pre-abortion counseling, often with the goal of dissuading patients. Texas requires women to receive an ultrasound and requires doctors to tell patients that abortion is linked to breast cancer, a claim scientists dispute.

Rape Distinctions

Anti-abortion legislators in the House of Representatives recently entered into the political lexicon the notion of “forcible rape,” a corollary to Akin’s “legitimate rape.” The unstated implication of such language is that some rapes are not forced but invited -- the victim either welcomed or somehow deserved what she got. By implementing a total ban on abortion, even in cases of rape, incest or where the life of the mother is endangered, Mourdock, Akin and their ideological brethren would enshrine that logic while ensuring that no woman could escape rape’s ultimate consequence. This is a radical departure from the ungainly but otherwise stable consensus that has marked abortion politics for decades -- in which support for rape, incest and life-of-the-mother exceptions has been commonplace, even among abortion opponents.

“Consensus” may seem an odd way to describe the state of abortion politics, in which warring sides have long pitted their absolutes against each other in noisy and sometimes violent conflict. But that battle took place largely at the extremes of the two parties. Mainstream Republican presidents paid lip service to the anti-abortion crusade while appointing to the Supreme Court Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter and Anthony Kennedy -- all protectors of Roe v. Wade.

Meanwhile, Democrats gradually quieted their militant abortion-rights wing, refuting philosophical claims that a fetus has no moral value and legal claims that abortion rights have no limits. In the 1990s, Democrats struck upon the message that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare,” the last word an implicit rebuke to those claiming public morality has no purchase on this private issue.

The disappearance of the “safe, legal and rare” formulation from the Democratic platform this year now seems like a troubling omen. With anti-abortion militants increasingly dominating the Republican Party, Democrats appear tempted to retreat from the muddled middle and hunker down on their own fringe. That would be a moral miscalculation and a political blunder. It is precisely the ambivalent middle of the debate that most deserves reinforcing.

Judicial Compromise

Critics have derided Roe v. Wade as a kind of legal Frankenstein cobbled together from spare parts in the murky shadows -- penumbra, if you prefer -- of the Constitution. We won’t rise here to defend the architecture of one of the judiciary’s most inelegant compromises. But what Roe lacks in constitutional aesthetics it more than compensates for in political acumen.

The decision legalizes abortion while placing parameters on it, in particular the higher hurdle for abortions after the fetus achieves viability. By qualifying the right, the Supreme Court underscored the consensus view that abortion is a matter of serious conscience and consequence. In effect, it shaped its decision in accord with the notion that abortion should be “safe, legal and rare.”

Most Americans agree. Public opinion on the issue isn’t fixed, yet through the years the majority has never strayed from the view that abortion is an unpleasant but necessary reality, one that should be simultaneously lawful and discouraged.

The anti-abortion movement is newly animated by its growing power in the Republican Party and its victories in state capitals. In some states, abortion is now legal in theory only. In Mississippi, for one, among women who are poor and distant from the state’s sole abortion provider, it might as well be outlawed.

But like a previous generation of prohibitionists, anti- abortion absolutists risk being broken on their own hard aversion to compromise. The rhetoric emanating from Mourdock and Akin is symptomatic. As a result of their stands on abortion, the two candidates will emerge from their campaigns either defeated, as seems probable, or emboldened, in which case defeat merely awaits a later turn.

This isn’t a course that politicians who support abortion rights should emulate. Those rights will be better protected if supporters recognize and respect the validity of opposing views. Even if Roe v. Wade is eventually overturned -- and we hope it won’t be -- the anti-abortion victory will be short-lived. The political middle may appear mushy, but if provoked it will prove surprisingly powerful. There is a reason Republican presidents have preferred to let the sleeping dog lie. The militants of either side will not win this one.

Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View. Subscribe to receive a daily e-mail highlighting new View editorials, columns and op-ed articles.

Today’s highlights: the editors on using the WTO to curb China’s unfair trade; Margaret Carlson on how Hurricane Sandy affects the presidential campaign; Noah Feldman on the next U.S. president’s Supreme Court picks; Edward Glaeser on how San Francisco beat Detroit in the economic race; Jeffrey Goldberg on whether Romney is “going soft” on Iran; Ramesh Ponnuru on his hopes for a Romney presidency; A. Gary Shilling on the beneficiaries of low interest rates; Richard Vedder on those stifling the online revolution in higher education.

To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: view@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.