Barack Obama’s Saddleback Misspeak and Drew Westen’s Lessons on Abortion Talk

Barack Obama’s Saddleback Misspeak and Drew Westen’s Lessons on Abortion Talk

Amie Newman

Drew Westen gives Barack Obama and other pro-choice politicians pointers on how to talk about abortion but is he repeating anti-choice messaging in an effort to find "common ground"?

Drew Westen, on Huffington Post today, writes about Barack Obama’s answer to the million-dollar "when does life begin" question at the Saddleback Forum. 

His post is prefaced on the idea that Obama could have answered the question in a way that acknowledges how nuanced and sensitive the dialogue around this issue is but that he didn’t quite get there with his "it’s above my pay grade" answer. 

I can admit that Obama’s answer did not inspire waves of confidence in my own mind, nor did I think it was a politically powerful response. 

But is there no one who has the guts – commentator, writer – to ask why in the world we are asking our presidential candidates to define for us when life begins?! Why not ask what life means to them? Does it mean enough to stop an unjustified war or just enough for political leverage? 

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Instead, we’ve got men on a stage who are supposed to define for me, and all women, what they believe happens inside women’s bodies and how our private, medical decisions should be opened up for the entire country to play a role in.

That said, our politicians will certainly not engage in that kind of talk in the near future. Westen argues that lefties have more difficulty crafting clear, simple and effective responses to these kinds of questions not because progressive ideas are "too sophisticated" but because the discussion is "not sophisticated enough." 

Westen would rather have heard Obama speak to those "in the middle" voters – the ones who believe abortion should be legal but with more restrictions than are currently in place – in a way that acknowledges where they are at and start the conversation from there: 

Most Americans actually disagree with John McCain on abortion, as they do on most of the issues that separate him and his Democratic rival. Polls show that only 30% of Americans believe all abortions should be illegal, and few support a return to the pre-Roe era. The majority — including the majority of evangelical Christians, who made up Warren’s audience — think we should find some kind of "middle ground" on abortion. The reason is that most Americans are ambivalent about abortion. Virtually no one — left, right, or center — is comfortable with late term abortions except when the mother’s life or health is in danger. The idea of aborting an 8-month-old fetus for convenience (something no one would really do, but it makes a great bogey man to push Democrats down slippery slopes) is deeply disturbing to the vast majority of Americans in a way that aborting a 10-week-old fetus is not.

But where I fall off the train is where we engage in a discussion about this as if there truly is any argument here? No one supports abortions in the eighth month of pregnancy unless it is to save the life or preserve the health of the mother. And these abortions are simply not done otherwise as is legal under Roe v. Wade. There are two providers in the entire country – two male doctors who will perform these procedures. Believe me, convenience is never a part of the discussion.

Secondly, and where Westen predictably slips up, is in phrasing these abortions as "late term abortions." Late term abortions are abortions that occur in the second trimester, before viability. These abortions are legal in all circumstances before the fetus can live outside of the mother’s womb. Again, women do not take these abortions lightly, they are not widely accessible by any stretch, nor are they affordable for many women. But they are not the same as so-called "partial birth abortions" and we need to be clear about this. 

If Westen wants to engage in true discussion about these issues he must acknowlege that "common ground" does not mean sacrificing basic facts and truth. Westen’s idea for what Obama should have said includes this line:

And we all agree that abortion shouldn’t be used as a form of birth control and shouldn’t be an option late in pregnancy except when the mother’s life or health is in danger. 

But why are we even bringing up the myth that anyone believes that abortion "should be" an option late in pregnancy except in those circumstances? Reinforcing anti-choice messages and referring to ideas that were created with an anti-choice frame does not do the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement any benefit.

For the most part, the Westen piece is good and emphasizes some excellent points about Obama’s – and any politicians – discussion of these issues. There is a fear factor in discussing abortion and other reproductive health issues in a nuanced and emotional way. In an effort to stay away from some of the more emotional and difficult elements of the issue, we tend to speak around the issue – making responses and discussions sound more complex and distanced.

Repeating anti-choice terminology and phrasing in order to reach common ground voters, however, will not help our issues gain traction long-term. 

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