GOP and Abortion

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GOP Abortion Plank Needs New Emphasis on Compassion

– David C. Reardon, Ph.D.

Every politician hates abortion. Some support the right to abortion, of course, but they all hate the issue. It is extraordinarily divisive–perhaps the most impassioned issue of our day. Opinions are so polarized that it is nearly impossible for politicians to do what they do best: compromise. Without room for compromise, coalitions (the very fabric of the political process) are constantly at risk of unraveling.

This is the problem that continues to plague Bob Dole’s presidential campaign. Not all economic conservatives share the anti-abortion views of moral conservatives, and Dole needs the support of both. To hold this uneasy coalition together, Dole and Henry Hyde, the GOP Platform Committee chairman, have agreed to add a new statement to the party platform calling for tolerance and diversity on divisive issues like abortion.

Inclusion, however, is simply not enough for people like Ann Stone, president of Republicans for Choice. Stone is critical of the new platform language, saying, “This is trying to have it both ways, and it doesn’t work.” She and her supporters are promising a convention floor fight, or at least a high profile battle in the media.

This public relations war will weaken the Republican’s efforts to make pro-choice voters feel more comfortable with Dole. It is difficult to “agree to disagree” when there is a contingent of pro-choice Republicans shouting, “He has abandoned you!”

The new message of tolerance for differing views is simply not enough to ease the anxieties of the middle majority. What is still sorely missing in the proposed platform language is a healthy dose of compassion. If Dole really wants to gain ground with the abortion issue, he will need to show the ambivalent majority that he has a heart for women–and a plan to help them. This is not as difficult as it may appear.

The vast majority of Americans clearly dislike abortion. In the most detailed Gallup poll ever done on abortion attitudes, James Davison Hunter and Carl Bowman found that nearly 80 percent of adults believe abortion involves the destruction of a human life. But most of these people also believe abortion must be tolerated. Why? Because this “mushy middle” has divided loyalties. While the destruction of human fetuses bothers them, often very deeply, their hearts are primarily focused on the welfare of women. Abortion, they might say, is always regrettable, but it is a “necessary evil.”

For this middle majority it is not the long range goal of eliminating abortion that offends them. Most would agree that, in a better world, abortion should not exist. What most offends them is that anti-abortionists seem insensitive to the plight of women. They are appalled that anyone would dare to stand in judgment over those women and men who find themselves confronted with the agonizing decision to abort.

This dislike of judgmentalism should not be underestimated. The middle majority includes most of the twenty-five million women who have had abortions, the male partners who supported, encouraged, or pushed for their abortions, plus many times more friends and family members–the loved ones who resent anyone who would dare to condemn their beloved “Susan.”

If Dole wants to attract the respect of this middle majority, he must reflect their love and concern for those who have had abortions. To put it another way, proper balance will be achieved not by compromising statements of support for the rights of unborn children but rather by uncompromising statements of compassion and concern for women.

This pro-woman policy statement should cover seven major points, something along the following lines:

  1. We, the leaders of the Republican Party understand and sympathize with the tremendous pressures which lead women to make the painful decision to abort.
  2. We oppose any efforts to vilify those who have had abortions.
  3. We believe greater compassion and understanding are indispensable to the process of healing the personal and social pains caused by abortion.
  4. We seek to protect the rights and welfare of both women and their unborn children. Until a consensus can be developed to restore the legal status of unborn children under our constitution, we can and will protect the legitimate rights and welfare of women.
  5. We believe the most effective means toward reducing abortions in the short-term is to protect the rights and welfare of the many thousands of women who are being pressured into unwanted abortions for the convenience of others.
  6. We will seek to protect the civil right of women to full disclosure of all information which may be relevant to their decision to refuse a recommendation for abortion
  7. In far too many cities, there are abortion clinics which place the physical and mental health of women at risk in their quest for ever cheaper, and more profitable, abortions. We believe the quality of reproductive health care services can best be ensured through the application of strict liability standards which will empower women, not the government, the de facto power to regulate abortion clinic practices by recourse to the civil courts. 

This proposed strategy does not require the Republicans to weaken their party’s support for a Human Life Amendment. Instead, it outlines a more immediately practical way to reduce abortions. What is especially important about this approach is that it respects the instincts of the middle majority of Americans, who are uncomfortable with abortion but only want it stopped in a way which will expand women’s rights.

By adopting this proposal, Republicans will be helping to move our country beyond the notion that one political party represents women and the other represents unborn children. People of goodwill should be concerned about both. People of wisdom will recognize that we cannot help one without helping the other. What the middle majority wants is not more evasions, but a plan that is authentically both pro-life and pro-woman.


David C. Reardon, Ph.D., is the author of Making Abortion Rare: A Healing Strategy for a Divided Nation, Acorn Books, 1996.