Indicators of Generational Shift on Abortion Politics

Scott Swenson

Henry Hyde's death may be a metaphor of end times for the vitriolic anti-abortion movement, as indications from formerly rabid Kansas, and red-hot-competitive Iowa, open the door for aggressive assertion of progressive prevention policies. Are the candidates and Congress connecting the dots?

Did anyone else feel the energies shift this past week, the earth move a little — if you're watching the politics around abortion closely and you didn't, here are some highlights indicating a moment of genuine opportunity for progressive prevention policies.

Congressman Henry Hyde (R-IL) died, and that doesn't create the opportunity, long off the political scene, but is an apt metaphor for the rejection of anti-abortion politics starting to take root. Famous for the Hyde Amendment banning federal funding of abortion, Hyde is a celebrated figure in anti-abortion politics. He was a decent man with a different political viewpoint than many progressives, but he was not evil. He even acknowledged his own "youthful indiscretions", in his 40's no less, when 40 was the was the new 39.5. Why he didn't extend the same compassion and forgiveness to women, that voters extended him, defines a generation of vitriolic politics that is passing from view.

Meet the Press paid tribute playing this clip from October 4, 1998:

I think our politics has suffered not a mortal blow but a serious blow. The name calling, the negativity, the throwing of mud; the Institution of the White House, the Presidency and Congress itself; people are looking at this in horror, and we have to conduct ourselves appropriately; with some dignity and some purpose, and that's my aim. I'm not trying to stretch this out, not trying to take political advantage of it. This helps nobody. We've got to do what's best for our country and that's the bottom line.

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Hyde was speaking of the House Impeachment Hearings of President Clinton, but the words seem fitting almost a decade later as many Americans are seeking a different kind of politics, rejecting the anger of Social Cons.

Word from the Kansas GOP is abortion is now a losing issue. In Kansas? Kline, and Tiahrt, and Brownback, Oh My! Stephanie Simon of the LA Times reports:

But as the political season revs up, the executive director of the Kansas Republican Party has issued a stern warning to his fellow conservatives: Abortion is not a winning issue.

"This is not something that the Kansas GOP is going to go out and lead on," Christian Morgan said. Morgan said that he and his party remain firmly opposed to abortion. Most Republican voters in Kansas feel the same, he said.

But Morgan also believes that those voters are fed up with years of fruitless political and legal maneuvering aimed at driving abortion clinics out of business. They would much prefer to see an all-out focus on curbing illegal immigration or cutting taxes, he said.

In an e-mail rebuffing an antiabortion activist who asked for more GOP support, Morgan explained: "My job is to win elections. . . . Your agenda does not fit my agenda."

The hands-off stance frustrates Cheryl Sullenger, a leader of the antiabortion group Operation Rescue. "They're turning their back on the grass roots," she said. "All you're going to see from this is defeat."

That threat by social conservatives, to sit on their hands, was echoed by NPR's Michele Norris reporting from Iowa on Meet the Press.

Evangelicals will sit home, their ties are more to issues than to the candidates or based on the Republican label. If the nominee is someone who supports civil unions and has supported abortion rights, they will sit this one out.

But Gov. Mike Huckabee (R-AR) now leads for the first time in Iowa, in the new Des Moines Register Poll, a kinder gentler anti-abortion candidate that is starting to rally Social Cons. Can he calm the vitriol too? His reproductive health policies are pure ideology, and continue to deny women, but even a more reasoned dialog from the anti-abortion crowd would be an improvement.

On the Democratic side, the same poll shows Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) holding a slight lead over Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) and former Sen. John Edwards (D-NC), because of a shift in women voters. Obama now leads 31-26 percent with likely female caucus goers over Clinton.

Any candidate, cause or party that doesn't champion reproductive health will be in trouble with the vast majority of women voters. Anyone who doesn't use the opportunity to broaden the political center with support for an education and prevention agenda is missing an enormous opportunity.

Here's how I connect these dots, I'll be eager to hear how others see it:

  • Henry Hyde's prophetic words speak to the tactics of the vitriolic politics most closely associated with Social Cons rise to power in the generation now passing. The distraction that the impeachment process became, was a lost opportunity for progressives, but it was the zeitgeist of Social Cons and their politics of personal destruction.
  • Kansas has seen moderate GOP defections, creating Democratic success. Kansas is historically a good bellwether when predicting turning tides (against slavery 1860's; first female Senator elected in her own right 1976; and was a harbinger of the vitriol to come when Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) used door hangers with pictures of aborted fetuses to narrowly beat an ob/gyn turned Congressman for re-election in 1974, immediately post Roe).
  • In a change election, progressives have an opportunity to hear the call from a passing generation that in its most high-minded form asks us to contemplate life, but devolved over time into mean-spirited denial of human sexuality that personalized and poisoned politics.
  • Progressives not only contemplate life, but affirm it based on reason, science, and the gift from God that women are, by winning support for common sense prevention proposals that respect human sexuality and private individual and family life decisions. But that means Congressional Democrats stopping, not funding abstinence-only-until-marriage programs, and recognizing that the country is tuning out of vitriolic anti-abortion politics; seeking positive, rational leadership in a new direction.

Far from being an issue progressives should shy away from, as some argued in 2004, and Rep. Dave Obey (D-WI) continues to believe, a comprehensive reproductive health agenda that respects all people and is promoted with vision, will win with women voters, independent voters, and may cause Social Con voters to sit on their hands come November. That could be good news for progressives as moderate Republicans try to reclaim their party, and if Congressional Democrats start listening.

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