The death of pro-choice Republicans

And what it means for the future of the GOP

The new party line.
(Image credit: Illustrated CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters/Corbis)

The GOP once prided itself on being the big-tent party on abortion that — unlike Democratic fanatics — didn't have a litmus test on its candidates.

Those days are long gone. Today, the GOP is growing so shrill on the issue, it risks riling its base and creating a Manichean conflict that it cannot control — just as happened on immigration.

Every GOP presidential aspirant is trying to outdo the others in brandishing his or her pro-life bona fides. At the GOP presidential debate Thursday night, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) declared that he believes future generations will "call us barbarians for murdering millions of babies." Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee proclaimed that he'd invoke the 14th Amendment to offer equal protection to fetuses. Even former New York Gov. George Pataki, the most moderate of the lot, insisted that he'd ban abortions after 20 weeks. They all promised to defund Planned Parenthood given revelations that it was selling aborted fetuses. Former Hewlett Packard CEO Carly Fiorina even pledged to shut down the government if necessary to do so.

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Planned Parenthood might well deserve what it gets. But this is a remarkable shift for a party that until 1976 didn't even mention abortion in its platform — and then only to acknowledge that the GOP was deeply divided between the pro-choice and pro-life camps. Four years later, however, the issue was summarily settled when the platform called for a constitutional amendment protecting "the right to life for unborn children." By 1992, the party's official platform included a call to appoint judges who opposed abortion. And a decade later it mentioned abortion 19 times in nine sections, even referring to it as an "atrocity." Now the GOP has reached a point that someone like Sen. John McCain, who is personally pro-life but believes it would be presumptuous to impose his position on women, couldn't come within hailing distance of the GOP nomination. There is no place in today's GOP for a pro-choice Republican.

What happened? For one thing, the GOP is desperately seeking a victory in the culture war. Gay marriage and abortion were the two main fronts in this war. And with the gay marriage battle now irreversibly lost, it is vital for the GOP to advance on abortion if for no other reason than just to keep its spirits up. Moreover, this is one issue on which pro-life conservatives see an opportunity to seize the moral high ground from the secular left by forcing it to oppose the rights of the ultimate disenfranchised victims: unborn children. The moment seems especially ripe to press this cause, given that millennials, having grown up with ultrasound pictures of themselves on their refrigerators, seem more receptive than any previous generation to a pro-life message.

But there is a real danger that the GOP is seriously overplaying its hand.

For starters, as my Reason colleague Elizabeth Nolan Brown has noted, the pro-life uptick in public opinion might already be a thing of the past. A Gallup poll released last month found that the pro-choice position is, once again, leading among Americans, with almost 50 percent identifying with that label — as opposed to 44 percent with the pro-life stance. What's more, young people's embrace of the pro-choice label, at 53 percent, is back to where it was in the early 2000s after dipping to the 40s in the middle of the decade.

This is not unusual. Support for abortion has been going up and down for decades. Georgetown University's Clyde Wilcox pointed out some years ago that this support was at a record high in the early 1970s after Roe vs. Wade but then dropped in the 1980s — only to rebound at the end of the decade, and then decline again in the 1990s. Subsequently, it picked up in the early 2000s and reversed some years later, until now, when it is up again.

There has never been any sea change in public opinion with support for one side or the other plunging precipitously or soaring mightily. Opinion has tended to remain pretty solidly in the middle with a few-point swing on either side.

And there is a reason for this: Abortion is a difficult issue that does not admit a simple right or wrong answer. Indeed, Wilcox maintains, surveys show that with some polarization in the pro-life direction, people make remarkably nuanced moral judgments based not just on the stage of a pregnancy but also on circumstances. For example, respondents are much more willing to allow abortion for teenagers than married career women and poor, single moms than married couples.

If this is true, then the GOP leadership's overheated anti-abortion rhetoric might well end up painting the party in a corner from which it will have a hard time extricating itself. This is exactly what has happened on immigration. The insistence of folks like Rush Limbaugh that every undocumented worker is an affront to the rule of law and national sovereignty unworthy of "amnesty" has made it impossible for the party to make any reasonable compromise. Every time it tries to do so, its base revolts, forcing the GOP to back off.

Something similar might happen on abortion. In the wake of the Planned Parenthood scandal, the conservative commentariat is going to such extreme lengths to portray the organization as extremist that it won't leave its own party much room to maneuver.

David Daleiden, the man who produced the Planned Parenthood videos, told National Review that the purpose of his exercise was — as the headline noted — to "end the tyranny of euphemisms" and show "buyer and end users haggling over the price of living children and negotiating the ways they will be killed in order to do experiments that they want."

"Living children"? "Killing"? Seriously? Such terms used to be reserved for late-term abortions, even in the pro-life camp. But the majority of fetuses in Daleiden's footage were 12 weeks or under, with some in the first month of the second trimester. Deploying such lacerating terminology is meant to create an equivalence between early-term fetuses and live children. This implies that every abortion at any time regardless of circumstances is murder.

This is not a position that is in sync with the intuitions of the vast majority of people. Indeed, even those who self-identify as pro-life have a hard time with a blanket ban unless there are exceptions for rape, incest, and mother's health. When the GOP tried to impose a 20-week abortion ban with an exception for rape only if the victim filed a police report, pro-life female GOP leaders such as Reps. Rene Ellmers (R-N.C.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) revolted, forcing the bill's authors to back off.

But the new terminology will make such compromises untenable. Why? Because if all abortions are murder, then isn't the rape exception tantamount to "killing babies" for the sins of men? Yet if "babies" are allowed to be "killed" for their fathers' transgressions, then by what moral standard can we force mothers who slip up to give birth except as a punishment for their turpitude?

What all of this shows is that in its obsession for moral clarity, the GOP is trying to shoehorn an enormously complex issue into a black-and-white framework. This will embolden its anti-abortion religious extremists while undercutting the party's ability to deliver on its inflated expectations, just like on immigration. It would be better for the party's political health to return to its big-tent days, when it admitted disagreement and conflict on abortion. That was perfectly reasonable.

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