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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By Ed Kilgore
Aside from having major implications for individual rights and perhaps for the Democratic Party, the current abortion fight may also affect the future of individual politicians, one of whom I wrote about at New York:
Vice-presidents of the United States are captive to their boss’s interests and the assignments they are willing to delegate. This has been particularly true of the current vice-president, Kamala Harris. She’s in the shadow of a generally unpopular president who has at best a shaky grip on his own party (most Democrats hope those negative characterizations of Joe Biden will soon be out of date, but they remain accurate right now). And as my colleague Gabriel Debenedetti recently explained, Harris has been unlucky with the thankless jobs Biden has given her:
“Her popularity started sinking when she first visited Central America and appeared dismissive of a suggestion that she visit the border. Behind the scenes, she was worried the assignment to take on the migrant crisis was a clear political loser … Her other top priority — voting rights — was no less publicly frustrating when the administration’s preferred legislation predictably failed in the split Senate. Some close to her wonder why she didn’t muscle her way into leading more popular projects: implementation of the COVID-relief-bill spending or, later, the infrastructure package.”
But now Harris’s luck may have finally turned: She is emerging as the Biden administration’s chief champion of abortion rights at a time when they are uniquely in danger and when Democrats everywhere are seizing on the issue as a potential game changer in 2022 and beyond. It’s an issue that fits her far better than it does the president, an old-school Irish Catholic politician who until mid-2019 opposed federal funding for abortions and could not bring himself even to say the word abortion. Harris is an entirely credible and consistent advocate for reproductive rights, as the Los Angeles Times noted:
“Taking command in the battle over abortion’s future, now largely being fought in the states and as an issue in the November election, comports neatly with Harris’ political résumé, touching on her experience as the first woman elected to the second-highest post in the nation and as a former California attorney general and U.S. senator with a longstanding interest in maternal health.”
It’s also worth noting that the women most immediately and harshly affected by the anti-abortion legislation racing toward enactment in red states are people of color, Black and Asian American women like Harris. And although many other federal and state Democrats will command a portion of the bright spotlight on this topic, Harris uniquely can call on the unparalleled megaphone of the White House, which reaches all states with highly diverse abortion landscapes. Per the Times:
“’We need a leader on this. No one knows who’s the head of Planned Parenthood,’ said Montana state Sen. Diane Sands, an abortion rights activist since the 1960s and one of many Democratic lawmakers and advocates who have met with Harris in recent weeks.”
Most of all, the abortion-rights battle offers Harris something her 2020 presidential campaign lacked: a passionate constituency with national reach, as the Washington Post observes: “She faces considerable pressure to show that her political skills have improved since that effort, which collapsed before a single primary vote was cast.” Yes, she has the famously combative “KHive” Twitter army ready to throw down on her behalf at a moment’s notice, but she could use a showing of excitement in the non-virtual world of left-of-center grassroots activists too. No issue is more starkly partisan than abortion post-Dobbs; within the Democratic Party, there is no real downside to pro-choice militancy.
What would really benefit Harris politically, of course, would be evidence that the abortion issue can stop or significantly mitigate the red wave so many Democrats fearfully glimpse on the horizon of the November elections. If abortion rights turn out to be not simply an energizer for the Democratic Party’s progressive base but a wedge issue that can bring back the suburban gains and heavy youth turnout of the 2018 midterms, it could help give Harris’s prospects a significant boost.
This development for Harris couldn’t arrive at a better time. Biden’s rapidly approaching 80th birthday is very likely to revive pressure on him to retire at the end of his first term. At this point, even though Harris is the heir apparent as vice-president, it’s unclear whether she has enough political juice to head off powerful rivals for the 2024 nomination. Nothing would make her more powerful as a presidential contender than to have not just Biden’s blessing but a reputation for fighting on an issue of crucial importance to progressive politics and the people it aims to represent.