Roe Gave Birth to Politics of Personal Destruction

Scott Swenson

Thirty-five years after Roe, our political landscape is more divided than ever. The tactics born in one 1974 post-Roe Senate campaign in Kansas still shape the politics of personal destruction now engulfing our politics on race and gender.

The 35th Anniversary of Roe must be about more than just one medical procedure. It must also be about understanding how the political tactics many Americans reject have their roots in the election immediately following Roe and how those tactics continue to divide us today. We cannot expect to heal our democracy until we understand what these tactics are doing to our politics.

Issues of race and gender now front and center in Election 2008 make for a painful history, complicated present, and promising future if America can realize its unifying dream. That race and gender issues are being exploited for political gain by people on the left who fight for the rights of women, people of color and differing sexual and gender identities, is beyond disappointing. It is hurtful, divisive and risks an historical moment that people of all races, genders and orientations have bled and died to create.

Our politics will never transcend the historically intersecting oppressions of race, gender and orientation by capitulating to a divisive politics born in the wake of Roe. That post-Roe politic was perfected by forces opposed to a Supreme Court ruling that dared allow women and doctors to make private medical decisions free from government intrusion.

We cannot expect to heal a nation divided with political tactics used to manipulate voters and manufacture a movement since Roe.

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The First Post-Roe Election

It was 1974, a brisk November Sunday before an historic election, the nation ready to lift itself from scandal, war and a faltering economy. As people in my heavily Catholic precinct in Topeka, Kansas, left for church, they saw hanging on their doors pictures of aborted fetuses and two words: Vote Dole! When I asked my father about it over breakfast (I was 11) he said, "It's just political dirty tricks taken to a new low."

Sen. Bob Dole was in his first term, hand-picked by President Richard Nixon to lead the Republican National Committee, thus closely linked to the debacle the administration became as a result of Watergate, inflation, and failed policies in Vietnam. Sen. Dole was in a tight, nationally watched race with two-term Congressman Dr. Bill Roy, an ob-gyn who changed parties because of the war.

Dole won with 50.9 percent of the vote, a margin of a few thousand votes out of 800,000 cast, carrying largely Catholic precincts that Roy, Catholic himself, had easily won in his Congressional races.

Flash forward to 1996, when, quite ironically, Sen. Dole was viewed suspiciously by social conservatives as he sought the GOP nomination to run against President Bill Clinton. Despite a near perfect anti-choice voting record, Dole had not made outlawing abortion a priority, and the movement his 1974 election helped spawn, turned on him.

These insights are from Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent 1996 New York Times profile of Dole, Abortion: Dole's Sword in '74 Confronts Him in '96. In it, she writes,

"It was not a major point of conviction for him," noted another longtime adviser, who like several others interviewed spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "It's just that it turned out to be a significant point of vulnerability for his opponent."

Dole discovered that point of vulnerability almost as an afterthought. But he soon turned a State Fair debate about agriculture into a discussion of how many abortions Dr. Roy performed. It was a desperate move, according to Kolbert's reporting. But anti-choice forces seized upon it and, with or without Dole's consent, continued to raise the issue, and delivered last-minute abortion literature.

Dole was never pure enough for the anti-choice forces, but his prominence in the GOP ensured that the success of his eleventh-hour abortion tactic spread like a prairie fire across the nation.

What started as a small, fairly decentralized anti-choice opposition based on genuine religious belief found power in the tactics of a desperate politician who didn't share their passion. They set about electing people who did, and perfecting the politics of personal destruction, promising to take out anyone who stood in their way. Republican politicians desperate for a Congressional majority played along, as did Dole, thinking they could control the nice religious people that made up the movement.

Democratic politicians first rallied, then cowered, compromising their own principles on issues of privacy and personal liberty, trying to appease the so-called Moral Majority, rather than articulating their own values. Democrats lost their majority in 1994 and Dole lost his best shot at the Presidency in 1996.

Instead of being controlled, the post-Roe politics of the far-right took control of the GOP. It was expanded to stigmatize people of different sexual and gender identities as well as the more than one-third of American mothers who have also had abortions. Social conservatives, employing strategies of their modern guru Karl Rove, made politics so distasteful that fewer people participated, thus making the voices of those who did speak seem even louder in the public square.

The result?

In 2008, as the first female and first African-American candidates have a genuine shot at becoming president, we are witnessing an explosion of misogyny and racism that reminds us how far we have to go — because we've allowed the post-Roe politics of personal destruction to become the way our democracy functions. Instead of celebrating the triumph of generations who fought to give women and minorities more opportunity, the progressive coalition risks turning its greatest achievement into nothing more than politics as usual.

Rather than debating ideas and principles, some liberals have adopted the divide-and-conquer mentality of the anti-choice opposition, engaging in never ending war-rooms and failing to differentiate politicians they mostly agree with from those whose ideas are truly regressive.

Thirty-five years after Roe our nation is more divided than ever — not because of the private medical procedure it legalized, but because of the politics that developed in the decision's wake. Anti-choice forces have not over-turned Roe. Of their leading candidates, Mayor Rudy Giuliani would not change Roe, Gov. Mitt Romney has been on both sides of the issue and Sen. John McCain has said, "In the short-term, or even the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to undergo illegal and dangerous operations." Only Gov. Mike Huckabee is a sure a bet for the anti-Roe crowd.

In his pre-quel to what he sees as a disastrous election for conservatism in 2008, David Frum, in Conservatism That Can Win Again, also suggests that the anti-Roe crowd relax, and take a back seat to more important issues.

In other words, even the GOP is still divided on Roe after 35 years. But at some point Roe must be recognized as settled law, while the political tactics surrounding the issue must be correctly recognized as unsettling to our democracy.

Anti-choice forces have not contributed to the political dialog or public health strategies that could prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Instead, they chose to use their divisive tactics to stigmatize, creating a culture where violence against women, doctors and clinics is applauded.

Democrats are by no means all pro-choice, but the leading candidates for President are, signaling more comity on policy, even where they employ divisive post-Roe political tactics.

If the issue of abortion is really what matters, then the discussion should be about education, contraception, prevention and medical privacy.

But it seems no candidate on either side cares to talk about the substance of reproductive health publicly, preferring to use abortion as the hot-button it is to rally their respective base voters, having adopted the post-Roe politics of personal destruction.

At a moment when more voters than ever are paying attention to this historic election, those who have fought to create a diverse nation, respectful of all genders, races and orientations, should recognize and reject the politics of division that those opposed to Roe have used to poison our civil discourse.

If that style of politics really worked, we would not be marking the 35th Anniversary of Roe as settled law, but fighting for rights in the states. If that politics worked, we would not be worried about keeping abortion legal and safe, but creating underground networks for banned contraception, and would not see gains and acceptance of gay people, or even women and minorities rising in politics to new heights, because the old order would have won. Fear of the post-Roe political tactics and the compromise of principles that grew from it, are responsible for the state of our politics today. America has never operated from a place of fear, and our politics should reject these fear-based tactics once and for all.

The only thing the post-Roe politics has proved to be is divisive. They have distracted our nation from important business, prevented social progress and politicized the judiciary.

The post-Roe politics never delivered on the promise of outlawing abortion, but used the issue to manipulate true believers for the past 35 years. President Bush has delivered two U. S. Supreme Court Justices, but after 35 years, that hardly seems like evidence that the post-Roe politics has been successful at anything but creating more polarization.

The movement keeps busy in the states, trying to define fertilized human eggs as people with rights, making access to reproductive health care harder for women, limiting sexuality education to failed abstinence-only programs, and stigmatizing gay youth. That is not evidence of a successful political movement, but of fringe ideas on the extremes of society distracting the nation's business.

Sure, politicians can win by destroying their opponents with innuendo and last minute attacks that appeal to their base, but is that really what we've been working toward as a nation — better political tactics? Or is that why more Americans have been tuning out of politics for the past generation, and why in this election — so far — more are tuning in, because they sense real change is possible.

Abortion may have been a "significant point of vulnerability" for Bob Dole to exploit in 1974, but look at what his desperate campaign tactic turned into, and what it has done to our democracy ever since.

When it comes to issues of race and gender, sexuality and reproductive health, politicians from all parts of the political spectrum would be wise to think about whether or not their desperate campaign tactics, and the personal issues they choose to exploit today, will have a similar impact 35 years from now.

True leadership can be seen in those who choose a higher path, based on principle and judgment that appeals to the best in all of us, rejecting baser instincts and impulses.

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