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Mark Shields: Politics Behind the Abortion Debate

The government's role in social morality continues to evolve

Of all the arguments in support of legalized abortion made by lawmakers, the one that bothers me the most is, “While I’m personally opposed to abortion, I cannot vote to impose my views on others ...”

Mark Shields
Mark Shields

This represents the ultimate privatization of beliefs. Thank goodness 19th-century abolitionists didn’t use this logic to explain their unwillingness to vote to outlaw slavery.

Every day, liberals, in whose ranks I count myself, urge legislators to vote to impose our views and beliefs on others when it involves enacting a progressive tax system, guaranteeing gay rights, protecting the environment, or through the federal government, providing health care to millions of Americans who don’t have it.

Some now argue that government can involve itself in social morality — such as ending racial segregation — but butt out when it comes to personal moral decisions. This leads to the kind of convoluted liberalism that, as the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit author, has observed, holds that “government should no longer ban topless dancing, but should ensure that the dancer works in a smoke-free environment.”

The separation of church and state has never meant the total divorce of religion from American public life. Generations of timid politicians ducked and dodged the abject immorality of ratifying this nation’s policy of legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination until forced to do so by the organized religious community. The heroic witness of clergy and laity — Protestant, Jewish and Catholic — led to racial justice being eventually “imposed on” a lot of “others.”

In casting their public causes in moral terms, people of faith are simply honoring a great American tradition. The American leader who used the language of the Gospel of Saint Mark to tell us that “a house divided against itself cannot stand” was Republican Abraham Lincoln. It was Democrat Franklin Roosevelt who announced proudly that “the money-changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization.”

As Washington Democrats scramble around the clock to patch together a fragile majority on Capitol Hill to pass President Barack Obama’s health-care reform, abortion remains — as it has been for nearly four decades — the most enduringly divisive national issue. What Democratic leaders don’t seem to understand are the major changes during the last generation in voters’ attitudes on abortion.

When asked in 1995 by the Gallup Poll, “Would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life on abortion?” 56 percent of Americans self-identified as “pro-choice” and just 33 percent called themselves “pro-life.” By 2009, those numbers had flipped: 51 percent said they were “pro-life,” while 42 percent answered “pro-choice” — a swing in 14 years of 32 percent!

“Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances or illegal in all circumstances?” Fifteen years ago when Gallup asked that question, while a majority (52 percent) answered “legal only under certain circumstances,” the most pro-choice position — “legal under any circumstances” — got nearly three times as much support (33 percent) as did the “illegal in all circumstances” (13 percent). In the most recent Gallup, the unfettered abortion-rights position had slipped to 21 percent support, just ahead of the outlawing abortion position at 18 percent.

So Democrats in general and liberals in particular ought to reflect upon the new political reality that only a small minority of Americans support what has become the party’s absolute orthodoxy on the issue: abortion on demand. That is, termination of pregnancy at any stage for whatever reason. At the same time, polls continue to find strong, majority support for a waiting period and parental consent before an abortion.

The argument is not whether all abortions should be illegal. There is no possibility of that happening in the foreseeable future. But there is a serious public debate to be held on whether abortions, as is now the rule, should always be lawful.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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