Roe v. Wade: An Anniversary Best Celebrated Quietly

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By Margaret Carlson

Please don't celebrate, pro-choice advocates. All over television today, Kate Michelman, the former head of Naral Pro-Choice America, is crowing over a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing that on the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, 70 percent of respondents don't want the landmark Supreme Court decision to be overturned. That's up from a Gallup poll in May that found that 59 percent of Americans wanted abortion to be legal in all, or most, circumstances. 

Brava, Michelman and Naral, but you are the same people who set back acceptance of abortion among the majority of Americans who want to keep it, in the Clinton configuration, safe, legal and rare. Most Americans prefer the label "pro-life" to "pro-choice." That's because Naral went too far, much like Republicans who want a fertilized egg to have the same right to life as a full, breathing human being. When a fight was raging over so-called partial-birth abortion, women's groups insisted such procedures rarely if ever, occurred.

The truth was otherwise. There were enough loopholes in Roe's trimester structure to obliterate the distinction it  made between pre- and post-viability abortions. A teenager eight months along could squeeze through the clinic door on the basis of age (too young to know better) and state of mind (denial) until doctors were aborting babies capable of living separate from the mother.

I agree with former Senator Rick Santorum on almost nothing, but he had a point, as did the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, when they called the practice infanticide.

The backlash gave us a Republican base comfortable pushing forced motherhood -- regardless of the effects on an accidental child. It made opponents fearless enough to promote “personhood” legislation across the country, essentially dictating that the human clock starts ticking at conception. They were successful in making it so difficult to get an abortion in some cases -- requiring people to drive hundreds of miles, wait days and get parental or a judge's permission in many states -- as to make Roe beside the point.

Therein is a cautionary tale for pro-choicers. Extreme thinking is what cost Republicans a few easy Senate-seat pickups. In Missouri, Representative Todd Akin lost his Senate race to a vulnerable Claire McCaskill because he embraced Representative Paul Ryan's distinction about pregnancy resulting only from illegitimate rape, as opposed to the legitimate kind (the woman is somehow in on it). A Senate candidate in Indiana riffed on that theme, contending that if a woman got pregnant after being raped, it was God's will that she carry the baby to term.

Those gloating today should look at what happens when you go too far and read between the lines of polling on the subject. Most polls -- including today's -- show that a majority of Americans call themselves "pro-life."

If the pro-choice movement wants to avoid the hubris of their pro-life foes, they should take a few simple steps. Don't talk about a right to abortion. That sounds like abortion on demand, which never polls well. Recognize that abortion is the last resort and concentrate your efforts on protecting Planned Parenthood and other family-planning programs from funding cuts. And put "safe, legal and rare" back in the Democratic platform. Whoever removed the phrase did the party no favors.

Yes, Republicans are bad on the subject, but look at how that has worked out for them. 

(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)

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-0- Jan/22/2013 17:24 GMT