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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Pro-Life Pragmatists and Ideologues

Both TNR’s Noam Scheiber and Political Animal’s Kevin Drum called attention today to a New York Times report that Carol Tobias of the National Right to Life Foundation had firmly rejected Hillary Clinton’s invitation to find “common ground” in an effort to reduce unwanted pregnancies. Noam suggested Tobias’ position reflected an unwillingness to admit that the Right to Life movement is only interested in celibacy-based approaches to reducing unwanted pregnancies, while Kevin’s take is that it reflected the Right’s determination to keep the culture wars alive instead of actually getting something done. They’re both probably at least half-right, but there’s something a little more basic going on here. While Clinton talked about sex education and abstinence training, the main thrust of her proposal was to encourage birth control, including “emergency” contraception, i.e., the morning-after pill. The Right-to-Life Movement dare not go there, for two reasons: (1) many anti-abortionists oppose “artificial” (anything other than the ol’ rhythm method) contraception; and (2) even those anti-abortionists who support birth control–or who view it as vastly less horrifying than abortion–often embrace a very narrow definition of “contraception.”This second point is familiar to habitues of abortion politics, but perhaps not to everybody else. Part of the full-human-life-begins-at-conception point of view is typically that “conception” occurs at the moment when an ovum is fertilized. Anything that deliberately interferes with live birth after that instant is an “abortion.” Thus, most really hard-core right-to-lifers believe that birth control methods (including not only morning-after pills but IUDs) that in part or in full rely on preventing implantation of the fertilized ovum in the uterine wall are not “contraceptives,” but “abortifacients” that are morally indistinguishable from a late-term abortion or, for that matter, infanticide. Never mind that this kind of “abortion” occurs naturally in a very high percentage of proto-pregnancies; ideology is ideology.Now: of the 40-45 percent of Americans who routinely identify themselves as “pro-life,” how many do you think share this rather eccentric view of the line between “contraception” and “abortion?” Not that many, I imagine. And that’s why Clinton’s proposal, if it is repeated often by other pro-choice Americans, really could drive a big wedge between pro-life pragmatists and ideologues. Indeed, it’s a classic example of how to completely revolutionize the politics of a cultural issue without abandoning progressive principles: it simultaneously refutes the conservative-fed perception that Democrats enthusiastically celebrate every single abortion, regardless of the circumstances, and exposes the extremism of those on the other side who pretend to just worry about a small category of repulsive-sounding procedures. And for that reason, Hillary Clinton has just given us all a textbook case of what it really means to “seize the center”: it does not mean “moving to the right,” it means moving to higher and stronger ground.

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