The charge has worked. Although the country is fairly evenly split on the abortion question, the Republicans’ inability to make their case in respectful tones has cost them dearly. In 2012, they lost unmarried women by 36 (!) points.
Yet there is a very simple, straightforward strategy for seizing the high ground on abortion in a way that transcends the normal divisions and commands wide popular support: Focus on the horror of late-term abortion — and get it banned.
Last year’s Kermit Gosnell trial was a seminal moment. The country was shown a baby butcher at work, and national sentiment was nearly unanimous. Abortion-rights advocates ran away from Gosnell. But they can’t hide from the issue.
And the issue, as most succinctly defined by the late liberal Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, is infanticide. Describing one form of late-term abortion known as partial-birth, Moynihan said: “I had once remarked that the procedure was too close to infanticide. And now we have testimony that it is not just too close to infanticide, it is infanticide.” How else to describe crushing the infant’s skull in mid-delivery before the head leaves the birth canal?
Conservatives need to accept that no such consensus exists regarding early abortions. Unlike late-term abortions where there are clearly two human beings involved, there is no such agreement regarding, say, a six-week-old embryo. There remains profound disagreement as to whether at this early stage the fetus has acquired personhood or, to put it more theologically, ensoulment.
This doesn’t mean that abortion opponents should give up. But regarding early abortions, the objective should be persuasion — creating some future majority — rather than legislative coercion in the absence of a current majority.
Not so regarding a third- or late-second-trimester abortion. Here we are dealing with a child that could potentially live on its own — if not killed first. And killing it, for any reason other than to save the mother’s life, is an abomination. Outlawing that — state by state and nationally — should be the focus of any Republican’s position on abortion.
A test case for this kind of policy-oriented political strategy is the governor’s race in Texas: Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate, has a complicated personal history. Stop talking about it. (Her capacity for veracity is a legitimate issue, but for God’s sake why go into her parenting choices? That’s a snare and a distraction.) Talk policy — specifically, the issue that brought Davis to national prominence.
What was her 11-hour filibuster about? Blocking a state law whose major feature was outlawing abortions beyond 20 weeks. Make that the battlefield. Make Davis explain why she chose not just to support late-term abortion but to make it her great cause.
Stay away from the minefield of gender politics. Challenge the other side on substance. And watch them lose.