At this moment, the abortion issue is a powerful arrow in the GOP quiver. That it remains in the quiver is a perplexing strategic error. More than a month ago, the Gallup Poll sent out a press release headlined, “Americans Approve of Most Obama Actions to Date.” Still in his honeymoon, the new president received high marks for his stance on such widely disparate issues as ethics reform, fuel efficiency standards, and naming special envoys to foreign hot spots. The major exception: Obama’s revoking of the prohibition on sending taxpayer money to overseas family planning groups that perform abortions. Only 35 percent supported this policy, with 59 percent opposed.
Although the Gallup findings received considerable press coverage, you would never know it from listening to Republican congressional leaders and spokesmen. They have been speaking out almost exclusively about economic and spending issues on which Obama and his fellow Democrats enjoy an enormous advantage over Republicans in popular credibility.
I would be the last to say that the loyal opposition should refrain from taking up an issue on which it starts out with a strategic disadvantage. As an optimist about democratic decision-making, I believe public opinion is more likely to be right at the end of a debate than at its beginning. Clearly, if a debate never starts, the side that starts ahead will probably win by default.
But what sense does it make to give the President a pass on abortion, a high-profile issue where he is the one starting at a huge disadvantage? True, there was a time when Democrats thought outspoken promotion of universal legalized abortion would bring them political gains. That time is long past, as is shown by the fact that Democratic candidates in most states seldom bring up the subject. When they do address it in a wider context than among hard-core abortion advocates, it is usually to claim their devotion to reducing the number of abortions taking place. Like Bill Clinton before him, Barack Obama is no stranger to this strategy.
Yet Obama is as unblinking an advocate as the national abortion culture has ever had. As a legislator in Illinois and a senator in Washington, he voted repeatedly against legislation to protect the unborn against the most gruesome late-term abortions, and even against providing any protection for babies who survive these procedures “by mistake.”
His appointments to critical posts have been consistent with this voting record. Take Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s appointee to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, which in effect sets legal policy for the entire administration. An ACLU-trained attorney who once was legal director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, Johnsen is celebrated in the abortion culture for her bizarre 1989 brief in the Webster case (in which the U. S. Supreme Court in a 5-4 vote upheld a Missouri law restricting the use of state funds for abortion). Because a pregnant woman “is constantly aware for nine months that her body is not her own: the state has conscripted her body for its own ends,” Johnsen argued, any denial of taxpayer money to the would-be abortion client violates the Thirteenth Amendment, which prohibits slavery. Naturally, given a worldview in which pregnancy amounts to slavery, Johnsen opposes any impediment to abortion, including 24-hour waiting periods, parental consent for minors, and laws restricting partial-birth abortion.
Now comes the appointment of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas as secretary of Health and Human Services. As a Kansas legislator and governor, Sebelius has fought any restriction on immediate access to abortion, including “reflection periods” for women considering their options in a crisis pregnancy. She has vetoed legislation to crack down on shocking conditions in certain abortion clinics, including one in which fetal remains were stored in the same refrigerator as food. In 2007, she held a reception in the gubernatorial mansion for abortionist George Tiller, who is currently under indictment for 19 counts of performing illegal late-term abortions. Thanks to the Associated Press’ invoking of the Kansas Open Records Act, photographs of the event reveal the presence of another Sebelius honoree, Nebraska partial-birth abortion specialist LeRoy Carhart.
Yet in a statement endorsing the Sebelius nomination, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, a strong and reliable advocate of the pro-life cause, expressed concern only about her commitment to national health care reform, saying nothing about her record on abortion. It was of a piece with the reply to Obama’s speech to the joint session of Congress by a staunchly pro-life leader, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, in which he attacked Obama’s support for volcano monitoring but said nothing of his support for virtually unlimited abortion. Of Republican congressional leaders, unless I have missed something only Republican Conference chairman Mike Pence, the third-ranking House leader, has said a word in criticism of Obama’s various pro-abortion policy moves.
None of this calls into question the pro-life commitment of Republican leaders. Almost without exception, members of the House and Senate leadership have voted pro-life, and I have no reason to doubt that they will continue to do so as long as they remain in Congress.
My concern is that their re-elect chances will dim because of a painful lack of strategic vision. The party should not leave Obama’s least popular issue out of its strategy sessions and its most visible rebuttals. At a time when American families have lost about a third of their wealth in just a few months, how many voters will look kindly on a resumption of funding for foreign abortionists? Voters are also unlikely to find much use in an opposition party that can’t find the courage to oppose.
Marjorie Dannenfelser is President of the Susan B. Anthony List.
This article first appeared at Townhall.com on March 24, 2009