the change of heart

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Dec 09, 2006

George McKenna is a political scientist retired from CCNY. His lengthy article Criss-Cross: Democrats, Republicans, and Abortion was published recently in the Human Life Review and deserves a careful read. Here's the premise:

Suppose this: suppose a politically savvy Rip Van Winkle in say, 1965, perceiving that a movement to legalize abortion was gaining strength in the country, were asked, "Which of the two major political parties will eventually identify with that movement?" What would he answer? I think he would mull it over in his head for awhile and then say: "the Republicans, probably."

Those born after 1975 may well find McKenna's exposition astonishing, but very few folks -- even those with long memories -- will not find some surprises therein. To continue:

Why? "Well, in the first place, [abortion] fits pretty well into the Republicans' private-property philosophy. 'Let's keep government out of a woman's most personal property.' Secondly, consider the demographics. The Republicans draw heavily from the upper-middle class WASPs, where the drive for population control has always come from. Abortion fits very well into the old eugenics mythology -- the belief that you can improve the health of the 'race' by limiting the breeding of 'undesirables.' You can still hear echoes of that in the conversations of bicoastal Republicans. It wouldn't surprise me at all if the Republican Party came out with a plank saying 'We support abortion, in certain cases, for the nation's overall health and well-being.' Finally, consider the Republicans' emphasis on the need for law and order and their conservative approach to welfare. The Republicans may not say this out loud but it slots right into their conservative ideology: abortion is good because, by holding down illegitimate births, it will cut down on crime and welfare costs."

What about the Democrats? "Well," Rip would say, "let's start again with demographics. Consider the heavy concentration of Roman Catholics in the Democratic Party. The Church hierarchy would go bananas if any prominent Catholic Democrat -- or any Democrat at all --came out in favor of abortion. The Church has consistently held that abortion is one of the gravest moral offenses because it involves the direct killing of an innocent human being. No way is a Catholic Democrat, or any Democrat who wants Catholic support (and what Democrat doesn't?), going to support abortion. It might even be smart politics for the Democrats to pick a fight with the Republicans on the abortion issue. Democrats like to boast that they protect the weak and the vulnerable. You remember Vice President Hubert Humphrey's characterization of his party as the advocate of those 'who are in the dawn of life; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; and those who are in the shadows of life, the sick, the needy and the handicapped.' All they have to do is insert 'unborn children' into that list and they can beat up Republicans every time on the abortion issue. I can hear them now: 'Let the Republicans pick on the weak and vulnerable, killing children in the womb to cut welfare costs. We Democrats are the party of compassion, the party that sticks up for the little guy, including the littlest guy of all, the child in the womb [Applause].'"

Having delivered himself of this well-considered prophecy in 1965, Rip Van Winkle goes down for his nap. When he wakes up and we tell him how the abortion issue finally sorted itself out between our two major parties, Rip says, "Huh? How could that have happened?"

How indeed. In 2006 it's easy to forget how late in the game the capitulation occurred. McKenna writes, "Even in 1976, three years after Roe v. Wade, [Massachusetts Senator Ted] Kennedy insisted that 'abortion is morally wrong. It is not a legitimate or acceptable response to any problem of society. And if our country wishes to remain true to its basic moral strength, then unwanted as well as wanted children must be unfailingly protected.'" As we've pointed out earlier, politically astute Jesuits had succeeded in making the "the inner Kennedy" pro-choice years before Roe v. Wade, but as late as the onset of the Jimmy Carter campaign he had to feign the contrary.

But McKenna doesn't mention the Jesuits. Instead he stresses the role of the U.S. bishops, especially an eerie "three year silence" on abortion (1980-1983) that, while it harmed the pro-life movement generally, gave Democrats the space to do a complete cross-over on the issue (Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson -- all anti-abortion earlier on -- were able to "migrate" to the pro-abort camp in the '80s). McKenna leaves the reason for silence in doubt -- we now know the bishops were busy about many things in those years -- but makes it clear just how damaging it was. Right, Rip?

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 1 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: rpp - Aug. 03, 2010 6:38 PM ET USA

    As a former atheist, I concur with Diogenes that atheism is indeed a system of belief. Furthermore, many atheist do engage in the the very "religious posturing" they abhor. Take, for example, the atheists demanding that anything that contradicts their religious belief be hidden from society, like "In God we Trust" on American currency.