Both parties irrationally make abortion a litmus test

Both parties irrationally make abortion a litmus test
© Getty Images

Social Security used to the third rail of American politics. Today it's abortion, which has become the political litmus test: You must be pro-choice to advance as a Democrat, pro-life to be a top Republican.

Unlike Social Security or heath care, it's not a priority issue with voters. The clout of the activist advocates in both parties, however, was recently on display.

Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE, the current front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, reversed his decades-old position and now says he opposes the Hyde Amendment, which precludes poor women from getting federal Medicaid assistance for an abortion.

ADVERTISEMENT

President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE, brushing aside the counsel of his science and health advisers, decided to terminate government research and assistance in the use of fetal tissues, which holds promise in developing therapies to treat serious diseases.

Both choices were a result of political pressure. Biden's opponents saw the Hyde Amendment as the opening to cut into the former Vice President's standing.

No one believes that for Trump, who claimed to be pro-choice for years, this is matter of conviction. He knows his new posture is an element of his popularity among Republicans.

This is pervasive. On the question of selecting Supreme Court Justices, few candidates say affirmative action or disabilities rights or political gerrymandering is a litmus test. But most Republicans insist a judge must be anti-abortion and most Democrats that a jurist has to be unconditionally pro-choice.

On this emotional matter, I am uncomfortably pro-choice. This is an intensely personal decision that — under almost all circumstances — should be made by a woman and her doctor.

I'm uncomfortable, cognizant of the sincerity of some opponents that this is about life. Also, one of our children was born with a birth defect, another was adopted. That makes you think about the matter.

ADVERTISEMENT

But I remember years ago — before the 1973 Roe v Wade decision, granting a conditional constitutional right to abortion — discussing it with my father, a pediatrician and pretty conservative Republican. He believed children unwanted shouldn't be brought into this world. He saw the consequences.

And the Hyde Amendment has it upside down. It's poor, struggling women, many single, who most need the right to abortion.

Yet rather than stress ways to minimize abortions, through better birth control education, adoptions, or counseling options, too many politicians use it as a rallying cry. Right wingers obscenely flash pictures of fetuses and label legal abortion providers criminals.

Democrats like New York senator and presidential candidate Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandLobbying world 2020 Presidential Candidates Krystal Ball: Yang campaign a 'triumph of substance over the theatre' MORE flatly declare they "don’t think there is room in our party" for anyone who's not down-the-line pro-choice.

Think about that.

A Democratic congressional candidate or party official, who favors Medicare for all, wants to slash the Pentagon budget to spend more on poverty programs, is a champion of gay rights but supports limited restrictions on abortions is unwelcome?

Would she read out of the party Louisiana's anti-abortion Gov. John Bel Edwards, who — reversing conservative Republican policies — has expanded Medicaid for the state's large numbers of poor people and is fighting for more education spending?

Conversely, a tax cutting, regulation repealing, spending slashing, libertarian leaning Republican who thinks government shouldn't dictate a decision between a woman and her doctor, would have a low ceiling in most GOP circles.

Then there's the anti-abortion zealots who passionately defend "the life of an unborn child," and then forget about the needs of poor children — or, as former Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Barney Frank charged, seem to think "life begins at conception and ends at birth."

The issue energizes activists and raises money on both sides. Yet, for all this intensity, public sentiments about abortion have changed little since Roe v Wade. What strikes people as reasonable limits, which unfortunately includes the Hyde Amendment, are supported — as is the basic Roe decision. When one side gains the upper hand it usually overreaches.

That's what Republicans in a number of state legislatures are doing now from making any doctor who performs an abortion a criminal to measures like "heartbeat bills," which ban any procedures after a fetal heartbeat might be detected as early as six to weeks into a pregnancy.

These are tantamount to overturning Roe, and there will be a backlash.

Albert R. Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter-century he wrote a column on politics for the Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter @alhuntdc.