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The Abortion Debate In Conservative Politics

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38th Annual March For Life Winds Through Washington Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Abortion's Shades of Gray

Abortion remains at the political forefront of the American conservative movement, but its complexities make it a very difficult issue to pin down for conservatives, and therefore political stances vary widely from candidate to candidate.

Prominent pro-life conservatives often find themselves mixed up in the debate over abortion, and some are criticized by other pro-lifers for even the slightest tolerance.

In February 2000, for example, Douglas Johnson, the National Right To Life Committee's legislative director, issued a public letter to pro-life voters, which he titled "How John McCain Threatens the Pro-Life Cause." Although the letter was a thinly-veiled endorsement for George W. Bush, Johnson attacked McCain soundly for an interview he gave to the San Francisco Chronicle in 1999, in which McCain said he would not repeal Roe v. Wade because it "would then force X number of women in America to [undergo] illegal and dangerous operations."

This type of infighting among conservatives is often seen by outsiders as weakening to the movement. It is important to remember, however, that being pro-life doesn't necessarily mean being conservative, despite what many social conservatives may say. In fact, in the same letter in which he attacks McCain, Johnson levels the following statement at Al Gore, who was running on the 2000 Democratic ticket for the same office:

"...Al Gore had an 84 [percent] pro-life voting record as a member of the House of Representatives (1977-84), but he embraced the entire pro-abortion agenda once he reached the Senate and began to run for president."

Al Gore is most assuredly not a conservative.

For many political conservatives, the issue of abortion is not so cut and dry. Pregnancies resulting from rape and incest, as well as the cases in which the health and welfare of the mother is in danger, make the issue dicy. In McCain's case, for example, he believes abortion is understandable and even acceptable in these cases.

Other gray areas include what the justices in the Roe v. Wade decision called "the viability" of a fetus. In the ruling, the majority stated that abortions are legal until the fetus is "viable," meaning it is able to live outside the womb. For many, "viability" is as debatable as the overall subject of abortion. “Viability” is open to interpretation and perhaps the most frustrating "gray area" in the debate.

Abortion in Black and White

Conservative politicians who are pro-life generally believe:
  • An unborn child is human
  • Life begins at conception
  • Abortions and abortion clinics are unsafe
  • Legislation needs to be enacted granting equal rights to unborn children
  • Violence inside and outside abortion clinics is wrong
  • A child conceived out of rape or incest should not be aborted
  • Abortions and by extension, abortion clinics, should not be funded by the US government
Conservative politicians who are pro-choice generally believe:
  • A fetus is not a human being until it is born
  • Abortion is as safe a procedure as child-birth, when done in the proper environment by medical doctors
  • Every child deserves to be wanted
  • Most people don't want to have an abortion, but it is sometimes necessary
  • A woman has the right to choose what's best for her body
  • Abortions should be kept legal because of rape, incest and potentially life-threatening medical conditions for the mother
  • If abortion is criminalized, more "back alley" abortions will occur and endanger women's lives
  • Pro-choice organizations like Planned Parenthood focus on preventing unwanted pregnancies and therefore deserve funding

Where It Stands

As the 2008 presidential campaign kicks into high gear, don’t be surprised if self-proclaimed Republican conservatives start jockeying for the pro-life vote. Because conservatives organize so well and so quickly (and in many cases have money), candidates want to appease them and vie for their approval. Often this translates to backbiting and negativity as they work to disseminate their message.

Most Republican candidates today are aware of how powerful the pro-life Christian Right has become within the party and few are willing to voice their political views if they are in any way pro-choice.

Take, for example, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who in his run for president has done his best to steer clear of the Christian Right. Nevertheless, in the moments when he has come before conservatives, he’s done his best to avoid the subject of abortion.

One thing upon which all conservatives agree is that abortion is an emotional issue and will no doubt be debated for decades to come.
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