When it comes to forwarding the conservative agenda, conservatives are almost unilaterally united. No matter what kind of conservative they are, they are typically in favor of decreasing the size of government, lowering taxes, promoting small business and bolstering our national defense.
On the issue of abortion, though, the political conversation among conservatives is as divided as it is anywhere else.
What is it about the abortion issue that keeps conservatives off balance and sometimes off the playing field? What makes the abortion issue such a powder-keg? Why can't conservatives nail down a universal stance and stick with it?
Current StatusIn political terms, abortion is called a "wedge issue," and it is often used as a political tool to sway a particular group of voters who only vote one way: pro-life or pro-choice. Republican voters who elect candidates on this issue alone are often called “one-issue conservatives.” Their impact on local, state and national elections, however, can be profound because they tend to organize their followers carefully and copiously.
The 2008 presidential election appears to be no different. On Nov. 14, 2007, former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson won the coveted endorsement of the National Right To Life Committee. The organization gave Thompson its backing to help him gain an edge over Republican front-runner Rudy Giuliani. Support from NRTLC is often worn as a badge of honor by the candidate receiving it, and this endorsement alone has helped more than one candidate get elected – the most notable and recent candidate being President George W. Bush.
Many social or religious conservatives use the abortion issue as a measuring stick to determine the level of “conservative-ness” of any particular candidate. For these types of conservatives, an absolute pro-life stance (an unwillingness to approve of abortion under any circumstances) bolsters a candidate’s conservative credentials more than a conditional pro-life stance (approving abortion only in cases of rape, incest or when the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother).
Abortion remains legal in the US today, thanks to a landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling known as Roe v. Wade which upheld a woman’s right to choose when and under what circumstances she decides to have her pregnancy aborted.
BackgroundThe abortion debate has broiled for decades, but the benchmark moment came in 1973, when the US Supreme Court handed down its decision in favor of Norma L. McCorvey ("Jane Roe" in the lawsuit), who claimed she had a right to an abortion. The defendant in the case was Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade, who represented law enforcement. Although she has since denied the claim, McCorvey said she wanted to abort her pregnancy because it was the result of a rape.
On Jan. 22, 1973 the Supreme Court voted 7 to 2 to uphold McCorvey's lawsuit. The ruling, known as Roe v. Wade, essentially dismantled Texas abortion laws along with similar laws across the US. These laws, the Supreme Court said, were unconstitutional because they violated a person's absolute right to privacy.
Abortion-rights activists heralded the decision as a major victory for their movement.
For many pro-life activists, Roe v. Wade marked a defining moment in their lives. For them, the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold abortion gave birth to the modern-day social conservative political movement. From that moment, the priority for “wedge-issue” conservatives became getting absolute pro-life Justices on the Supreme Court bench so Roe v. Wade could be overturned.
To achieve that goal, social conservatives focused their energies on backing strong pro-life Republican candidates for president because US presidents are the ones who nominated and appoint Supreme Court justices. Maintaining the Oval Office is critical because Supreme Court justices are appointed for life and openings are rare. Thus, no one can predict when an opening on the bench will occur, and even when it does, there is no guarantee the new judge will pan out for conservatives.
For example, in the years before Roe v. Wade, Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren to the bench in 1953, fully expecting him to reflect the conservative values Eisenhower espoused. Instead, Warren's decisions were among the most liberal the high court has ever seen. Eisenhower bitterly regretted his decision. To make matters worse, Warren rose to the rank of Chief Justice and remained on the bench until 1969, when he was replaced by Richard Nixon's nominee, Warren Burger.
Burger, a strong conservative, carried out the social conservative agenda on other issues like gay rights. But when Roe v. Wade came before the court, Burger unexpectedly sided with the majority. Social conservatives have been trying to overturn it ever since.