Steven Waldman

Steven Waldman

Obama’s Squandered Opportunity On Abortion — And How He Could Turn It Around

Earlier today I listened in on a phone press conference with leading pro-life religious liberals called by Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. (Click here to listen to the call.) They were praising the new draft Democratic Party abortion plank which advocates government policies to reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. (Click here to read the new plank and the 2004 platform). Wallis called it a “real step forward,” while Rev. Joel Hunter called it “a historic and courageous step.”
What am I missing? It seems to me that, on balance, if you’re pro-life this platform is about the same as the 2004 platform — slightly better in some ways and, actually, slightly worse in other ways.
Where it’s better: the draft platform endorses policies, such as better sex education and health care, that would “help reduce the number of unintended pregnancies and thereby reduce the need for abortions.” And, religious progressives were particularly pleased that the platform stated: “The Democratic Party also strongly supports a woman’s decision to have a child,” as well as policies — such as “caring adoption programs” — that make such a choice practical.
Where it’s worse: the platform actually drops the language from the 2004 platform that abortion “should be safe, legal, and rare.” That breakthrough formulation, popularized by Bill Clinton, reiterated support for legal abortion but rhetorically endorsed the idea that society would be better off with fewer abortions. By contrast, the 2008 platform emphasizes the goal of reducing unintended pregnancies and the “need” for abortions. It’s a subtle but important difference that preserves what pro-choice activists wanted: absolute neutrality on the question of whether society is better off with fewer abortions.
Some of the religious leaders are hoping that Obama personally will go farther than the platform did. “Key is what Obama says at Saddleback,” says Rev. Tony Campolo, a leading religious progressive and a member of the Democratic Platform committee, referring to Obama’s public interview with Rev. Rick Warren this weekend. “What we are waiting to hear is that he sees this as a moral issue.” In other words, we’re supposed to look at the draft platform plank as Act One of a two act play.
Indeed, I can envision a way in which the Democratic Party could make real headway with pro-life voters, despite Obama’s very pro-choice voting record. At Saddleback, Obama could make a strong statement that he thinks there should be fewer abortions in America and – here’s the new part – the Democratic Party will be better at reducing the number of abortions than Republicans.
This may sound far fetched but it might actually be true under certain conditions. The Republicans have focused on legal restrictions – but mostly what they propose is either substantively sweeping but unpopular, or popular but substantively marginal. They support a Constitutional amendment to ban all abortion, which certainly would reduce the number of abortions in theory, but hasn’t come close to passage in decades. They support banning partial birth abortion which could be passed but affects less than 1% of abortions. And they have an ideological aversion to certain additional steps — such as encouragin birth control and more government-financed health care for women — that could help reduce the number of abortions.
Studies show that many women have abortions because of economic reasons so it’s plausible that abortion frequency could be reduced through an agenda that focused on preventing unintended pregnancies (through family planning and birth control) , improving health care and wages for low income women, and encouraging adoption. Jim Wallis hailed the “Juno option”: some teens who get pregnant should neither get an abortion nor get married but rather should carry the baby to term and then give it up for adoption.
So Obama could address pro-life voters directly and say something like this:

The Republican party uses you every four years to get elected. But they don’t deliver on their goal of substantially reducing the number of abortions. They prefer symbolism to results — demonizing Democrats to saving babies. It’s time for a new approach. This new approach will make it less likely women would get pregnant. For those who do get pregnant, it will make it easier for them to have the baby. And for those who can’t or dont want to raise the child, it will make it easier for them to find adoptive parents.
Let me be clear. I’m not retreating one inch from my commitment to the legal right to choose. It is because abortion is such a profound moral dilemma that it must be made a woman in consultation with her clergy person, her doctor and, yes, hopefully the father of the child. It is her decision. What we can do as a society is to make sure the deck isn’t so stacked against her that she feels pressured to have an abortions.
If we take this approach, I believe we can cut the number of abortions in America in half — and I will commit to making this a major goal of my presidency. It’s time to break out of the old approach on abortion that uses this as a political football. It’s time to try a new way that protects a woman’s right to choose — but helps society dramatically reduce the number of abortion.

Obama has mostly adopted the value-neutral language of the pro-choice community. On a few occasions – mostly when addressing Christian audiences – he’s changed his rhetoric, talking about abortion reduction as a goal unto itself. If he wants to win over moderate evangelicals he’s going to need to enthusiastically embrace the abortion reduction language here on out. Politically, this means telling the pro-choice community: I’m with you on legal restrictions, but you need to accept that I’m going to campaign against abortion.
Would this approach actually win over all pro-life voters? No. Some will never vote for a pro-choice politician. And the Obama campaign has so far done a terrible job at responding to the single most important abortion charge against him, that he opposed the “born alive” legislation in Illinois that would have protected the lives of fetuses or babies that survived abortions.
But there are a large number of voters — moderate evangelicals and centrist Catholic — who support the Democratic Party position on almost every other issue. They are itching to vote based on Iraq, the economy and health care. Each time they sidle up to Obama they trip over the charge that he’s a pro-choice radical. The Obama campaign has not come close to showing him to be anything other than that. It’s not too late, but the platform plank was one opportunity squandered. The next big opportunity is his speech at Saddleback Church. If he doesn’t significantly improve on the platform language and cast himself as a champion of an energetic, plausible, specific pro-choice abortion reduction agenda, he’s not likely to do much better than John Kerry in winning evangelicals or Catholics.

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posted August 12, 2008 at 11:50 pm

Thank you Steve for another insightful article. You touched on something important here: the divide between “pro-choice” and “pro-life” views of law. It’s important to remember that, at least from a Catholic perspective, “criminalization”/”legal right to life” stem not from a desire to punish women but from a defense of “natural law”. In other words, a state cannot be just if it tolerates any abortion, because laws must reflect the absolute reality that abortion is always amoral. Hence, the effectiveness of “criminalization” holds relatively little weight in the crafting of laws, because morality is a timeless concept that remains regardless of human actions.
So while I hope Obama signals a willingness to enact legislation that will assist pregnant women, I doubt that this message will resonate with many Christians unless he commits to some legal restrictions. He should acknowledge that while many Americans support some degree of legal abortion, relatively few support truly unrestricted access. Perhaps a gesture towards the majority view of Americans concerning abortion law would signal that his party is serious about creating law _and_ policy that reflects the concerns of many Americans. This would truly turbocharge his outreach to pro-lifers and anyone who supports some restrictions on abortion.

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posted August 13, 2008 at 12:34 am


posted August 13, 2008 at 7:33 am

“In other words, a state cannot be just if it tolerates any abortion, because laws must reflect the absolute reality that abortion is always amoral.”
Tell that to a friend of mine who had a tubal pregnancy. The operation to remove the fertilized ovum/developing child was necessary to preserve her health. You have to wonder if such an operation would have been legal under the extremist pro-life laws that some wish to have passed, such as the Human Life Amendment.
For far too long the conservative pro-lifers have advocated for laws that would ban abortions for anyone who could not afford to fly to Canada to get one. Now that some more liberal voices are suggesting that we make our nation more pro-life by enabling women (rather than forcing women) to carry their child to term and obtain health-care for it after birth, I find it rather odd that so many conservatives are finding fault.
I have to wonder…does their definition of pro-life end when it begins requiring some additional tax dollars to implement the programs? How much is an unborn child worth to these folks?

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posted August 13, 2008 at 11:28 am

ds0490: You mischaracterize the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and life issues.
If you really want to know (that is, if you are not just trying to score cheap rhetorical points) how much prolifers care about unborn children, go visit a crisis pregnancy center and see the support that is offered to the pregnant woman and her baby before and after the birth of the child.
Also, tubal pregnancy operations to remove the fallopian tube containing the embryo are not prohibited by the Catholic Church.
From EWTN: The most common dysfunctions that may set a mother’s life against that of her unborn child’s are the ectopic pregnancy, carcinoma of the uterine cervix, and cancer of the ovary. Occasionally, cancer of the vulva or vagina may indicate surgical intervention.
In such cases, under the principle of the “double effect,” attending physicians must do everything in their power to save both the mother and the child. If the physicians decide that, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy, the mother’s life can only be saved by the removal of the Fallopian tube (and with it, the unborn baby), or by removal of some other tissue essential for the preborn baby’s life, the baby will of course die. But this would not be categorized as an abortion. This is all the difference between deliberate murder (abortion) and unintentional natural death.

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posted August 13, 2008 at 1:18 pm

“Also, tubal pregnancy operations to remove the fallopian tube containing the embryo are not prohibited by the Catholic Church.”
Well thank God for that. I have to wonder how long it will be before the Congress makes the finding that such pregnancies never happen. After all, in banning “partial birth abortion” they made the definitive statement that such a procedure is never necessary to save the life of a woman.
Personally, I would rather have a doctor make the decision on what is necessary for the life and health of my family members, not the Congress nor the Holy See.

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posted August 13, 2008 at 1:41 pm

Personally, I would rather have a doctor make the decision on what is necessary for the life and health of my family members, not the Congress nor the Holy See.
I don’t think anybody would agree with that. The question is determining what procedures are necessary for your health and what procedures are necessary for your convenience especially when they involve violence and death of another being. Congress represents people and if enough people are concerned that a procedure is murder not medicine than Congress has the duty to make laws to limit that procedure.
As for the Church — it is made up of people who also have the right to speak and teach about morality to the 1 billion or so members of their flock. Catholics are citizens too and have the right to advocate their deepest-held beliefs. If you don’t believe Catholics have the right to be heard, there are a number of like-minded countries you can go to escape us — China being one of them.
After all, in banning “partial birth abortion” they made the definitive statement that such a procedure is never necessary to save the life of a woman.
A baby that is partially born, as the procedure is known poses no health risk to anyone. There is no reason to stick a fork in the skull of a baby as it is leaving the body of a woman.
Even Planned Parenthood’s Guttmacher Institute acknowledges that fewer than 1 percent of the abortions it performs are truly to preserve the life and health of a woman.

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posted August 13, 2008 at 7:25 pm

It is really sad that anybody is having to praise that change to the Democratic platform. It’s akin to praising a toddler for sitting on the potty even though he already peed his pants.
Gosh, Democratic party! You’ve finally come to recognize that it’s okay if once in a while, some woman makes a choice that’s NOT abortion! What a big boy you are!
In the mean time they managed to insert wording about how abortion is a “need” — which it is not — and they took out the “rare” — indicating that they really have no interest whatsoever in reducing abortions. They’re only throwing a bone to the prochoicers among them that they’ll try not to pitch a tantrum if some woman actually squirts out a live baby once in a while. Which, back to our toddler analogy, has him dropping a BM in his clean drawers the moment he’s off the pot.
The Democratic party has a long way to go before they even make it all the way to being a prochoice party, much less being friendly to women who love children.

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posted August 13, 2008 at 11:31 pm

imo, abortion should be determined by the woman considering it.
Not the state or federal government and certainly not by any religious group! While i disagree of the use of abortion purely for birth control methods, it is still and should always be left up to the woman making the decision. She’s the one who has to live with the decision, physically, mentally and spiritually, it is her burden to bare. the thought of religious groups seeking to tell women or anyone what they can or can’t do, is utterly ridiculous. you don’t want an abortion, don’t have one but don’t stick your self righteous nose into other peoples business!

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posted August 14, 2008 at 11:53 am

I think this is a thoughtful thought provoking article. i pray that loving caring people who agree with the Democratic party on everything but abortion can find a place in the Democratic party so they don’t have to side with the corporate sponsored party that stands for nothing this country was founded on and that its people value just so they are not supporting infanticide

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posted August 15, 2008 at 1:05 pm

I’m hoping that Rick will challenge Obama on his belief that many roads lead to God, not necessarily just through Jesus Christ. I can’t believe that Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis and Rick Warren are overlooking this aspect of Obama’s belief — it would be better if Obama would NOT claim to be a Christian at all, than to distort the very tenets of Christianity:
“Chicago Sun-Times columnist Cathleen Falsani, who interviewed Obama in 2004 for her book, “The God Factor: Inside the Spiritual Lives of Public People “and asked him specific questions about his religious beliefs.
“I’m rooted in the Christian tradition,” said Obama, who has declared himself a Christian. But then he adds something that most Christians will see as universalism: “I believe there are many paths to the same place, and that is a belief that there is a higher power, a belief that we are connected as a people.”
Falsani correctly brings up John 14:6 (and how many journalists would know such a verse, much less ask a question based on it?) in which Jesus says of Himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That sounds pretty exclusive, but Obama says it depends on how this verse is heard. According to Falsani, Obama thinks that “all people of faith — Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, everyone — know the same God.” (her words)
If that is so, Jesus wasted his time coming to Earth and he certainly did not have to suffer the pain of rejection and crucifixion if there are ways to God other than through Himself.
Here’s Obama telling Falsani, “The difficult thing about any religion, including Christianity, is that at some level there is a call to evangelize and proselytize. There’s the belief, certainly in some quarters, that if people haven’t embraced Jesus Christ as their personal savior, they’re going to hell.” Falsani adds, “Obama doesn’t believe he, or anyone else, will go to hell. But he’s not sure he’ll be going to heaven, either.”
Here’s Obama again: “I don’t presume to have knowledge of what happens after I die. When I tuck in my daughters at night and I feel like I’ve been a good father to them, and I see that I am transferring values that I got from my mother and that they’re kind people and that they’re honest people, and they’re curious people, that’s a little piece of heaven.”
Any first-year seminary student could deconstruct such “works salvation” and wishful thinking. Obama either hasn’t read the Bible, or if he has, doesn’t believe it if he embraces such thin theological gruel.
Obama can call himself anything he likes, but there is a clear requirement for one to qualify as a Christian and Obama doesn’t meet that requirement. One cannot deny central tenets of the Christian faith, including the deity and uniqueness of Christ as the sole mediator between God and Man and be a Christian. Such people do have a label applied to them in Scripture. They are called a “false prophet.”
I hope some national journalist or commentator with knowledge of such things asks Obama about this and doesn’t let him get away with re-writing Scripture to suit his political ends.”

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posted August 15, 2008 at 1:09 pm

Something is wrong with the link to the phone call — it won’t work at all. Can you fix it, as I’d really like to hear what some of those involved had to say, especially my former hero, Tony Campolo. Thanks.

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posted August 29, 2008 at 10:40 am

Most of us are old enough and have been around long enough to be aware
and not so naive as to be fooled by manipulation of voters by politicians who believe that we, the voters, are uninterested, uneducated or just plain dupeable. It distressed me greatly to see very prominent ministers being used by the Democratic party to make their plank of abortion smell better.
While I am sure these minister’s intentions were good and forward looking, they must be aware that the Democratic will never change it pro-choice position, therefore, I believe these men were used and
some (especially young people) will led down the wrong path by their associations with the Democratic party.

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