A funny thing happened on the way to last November’s elections. Pundits who throughout the summer had billed the elections as the first post-Webster “referendum on abortion” increasingly argued, as fall rolled around, that abortion had “faded” as a decisive issue for voters.
Some of this re-evaluation can be attributed to the media’s commendable practice of gradually correcting themselves when they go overboard. And as the elections approached, surely any analysis that failed to give proper weight to the budget controversy’s potentially decisive effect on the outcome would have been woefully inadequate.
But the suspicion runs deep that the primary reason for minimizing the importance of the abortion issue is that many in the media had come to the conclusion that anti-abortionists were going to do far better than advertised. The elections were not running according to script.
For nearly a year, a clear consensus on the abortion issue prevailed among all but a handful of those who regularly write on politics. When the Supreme Court in its July 3, 1989 Webster decision signaled that the justices would no longer instinctively reject state antiabortion legislation, the conventional wisdom held that Webster had sent a wake-up call to long dormant pro-abortion forces. Indeed, reporters misread the victories of pro-abortionists in the 1989 gubernatorial campaigns in New Jersey and Virginia to “prove” that the “sleeping pro-choice giant” had been so thoroughly aroused that no anti-abortion incumbent was safe from her wrath.
Overnight, political commentators became so enthralled with “choice” as the political Rosetta stone that they missed the genuinely salient particulars: that one of the two anti-abortion candidates (Jim Courter in New Jersey) completely “flip-flopped”—embraced what he thought was a winning “pro-choice” position—while the other (Marshall Coleman in Virginia) bungled the issue altogether by largely ignoring his opponent’s ferocious attacks in the vain hope that the abortion issue would go away. Surely the more likely message of these campaigns was that rank hypocrisy never sells and that hiding one’s anti-abortion credentials guarantees that such a candidate absorbs all the negatives for his or her position while acquiring none of the positives.
Thus, until the June 1990 California primaries, most reporters and columnists took as gospel the famous threat of Kate Michelman, executive director of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL): “Take our rights, lose your jobs.” However, on June 5, when anti-abortion played a major role, the truth finally began to sink in: anti-abortion forces had more than held their own in all the special state and federal elections post-Webster, and were now doing quite well in the 1990 primary season leading up to the general election.
Second thoughts about the pro-abortion juggernaut were so pervasive that even before the dust settled, the post-election storyline was that the November elections had been a draw: both sides of the abortion issue could point to their victories in important races. While such a conclusion is a far cry from the usual media portrait of unambiguous anti-abortion ruin, the reality is that anti-abortion forces had done quite well and had come tantalizingly close to their best results since 1980, when they made a net gain of ten seats in the U.S. Senate.
For example, NARAL’s No.l and No.2 targets were Sen. Jesse Helms (R-NC) and Republican state representative Steve Freind of Pennsylvania. Helms’ 54-46 percent victory is by any standard extraordinary. Not only did the organized pro-abortion forces pour millions into the campaign to elect Harvey Gantt, but the Hollywood and arts communities left no mud unslung in their extravagant attacks on Helms for his role in the contentious debate over federal funding of controversial “art.” Meanwhile, Freind, who had angered a number of major power blocs in Pennsylvania for other reasons, overcame an extremely well-financed pro-abortion challenger 52-48 percent, in a race where expenditures ran ten times beyond the ordinary.
There were other major results on November 6, the significance of which was completely lost. At least two prevailing political dogmas were shattered.
We were told, first, that the ultimate “magic bullet” had been discovered: pro-abortion Republican women could combine the rising sentiment to elect women to office with what was supposed to be their ability to persuade Democratic women to cross over and vote for them based on their support for abortion. As it turned out, however, all three female pro-abortion congresswomen who ran for Senate seats failed, as did the most visible gubernatorial candidate, Barbara Hafer in Pennsylvania.
The three congresswomen lost to pro-abortion men. Hafer was buried by an anti-abortion male, Gov. Bob Casey. In all cases, the magic bullet had proven to be a blank.
We were also led to believe that it was shrewd politics for those who had publicly held anti-abortion views to abandon them. Interestingly, the press quietly avoided discussing the fate of flip-floppers. They lost in Ohio, Kansas, Maine, and New Hampshire, in two instances by a whopping two-to-one margin.
In addition, there was no gainsaying that antiabortion forces won a major victory in Michigan, where Republican John Engler upset incumbent pro-abortion Democratic Gov. James Blanchard. Adding to the impact was that all the major leadership positions in both parties in the state legislature remained in the hands of anti-abortionists. Another vocally anti-abortion gubernatorial candidate, Walter Hickel, also bested two pro-abortion candidates to win in Alaska.
Finally, when anti-abortionists did lose, for the most part it was clearly for reasons unrelated to abortion. (The same, it is fair to note, happened on occasion in reverse as well.) Unlike the case in the state legislatures, which are crowded with anti-abortion Democrats, in Congress most anti-abortionists are Republicans. They suffered greatly from the tax and budget controversies that cropped up in the last few weeks of the campaign. Their defeats resulted in a modest anti-abortion net loss of two in the Senate and eight in the House.
Sadly, heavily favored anti-abortion candidates for governor in Minnesota and Texas lost as a fallout from matters completely unrelated to abortion. Had both prevailed, a good night would have become an overpowering victory for anti-abortionists.
In sum, three great conventional wisdoms of 1990 concerning abortion were that anti-abortionists were on the ropes, that flip-floppery would pay off, and that the ultimate political candidate was the pro-abortion Republican woman. All proved dead wrong.
However, there are several other lessons from these off-year elections that can tell us a lot about what we can expect in the months and years to come.
For starters, we must remember that if given any chance at all, political reporters will treat even the most meager evidence as conclusive proof that the anti-abortion movement is in terminal decline. If there ever was any real doubt concerning media bias on this issue, it was dispelled not only by the tunnel-visioned coverage of post-Webster abortion politics, but also by media critic David Shaw’s historic four-part series “Abortion and the Media” in the Los Angeles Times. Reporters are overwhelmingly pro-abortion and, as Shaw demonstrates, that results in biased coverage, partly because of the personal affinity of the media for one side, and partly because the pro-abortionists are master publicists.
The second lesson of the election is that antiabortion candidates who embraced their position rather than trying to hide from it often won, even against overwhelming odds. Engler in Michigan was one. Joan Finney, an anti-abortion female Democrat, was another. Finney defeated incumbent Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden, another flip-flopper.
Third, if there is no end in sight to the abortion issue politically—if the two sides will continue to slug it out in Congress and state legislatures for the foreseeable future—then we can expect even more attention to anything that promises to circumvent the political process. Enter the French abortion pill RU 486 and the incredible media attention surrounding it. This abortifacient is regularly presented as something akin to a woman taking an aspirin in the privacy of her home—safe, effective, and not subject to noisy anti-abortionists demonstrating at abortion clinics.
Ironically, at the same time the propaganda machine began to grind out a new myth—that there are “therapeutic” uses for RU 486—the first independent studies were showing that this powerful artificial steroid is far more dangerous to women than surgical abortions, less “successful” and not at all more private. (A woman will usually come to the abortionist four times; unlike the case with a surgical abortion, the woman also does not know precisely when her now-dead baby will be expelled.)
Finally, if electoral politics and RU 486 hold out no promise to short-circuit the ferocious abortion debate, we can also expect to see even more attempts by pro-abortionists to co-opt major institutions currently neutral on abortion. Two recent examples are illustrative. In February, the American Bar Association adopted an abortion-on-demand resolution only to rescind it six months later in the wake of a tremendous backlash. Likewise the powerful AFL-CIO appeared certain to pass a pro-abortion resolution in early 1990. However, by late summer, the Federation reaffirmed its traditional neutrality as a direct result of tens of thousands of angry letters sent by members who insisted that abortion was not a union issue.
The politics of abortion will continue to be played out in a host of arenas. For some, who see abortion as “merely” a cultural issue, this is much too much ado about nothing. But as William Bennett observed in a recent speech, “We need to have a calm, complete, and honest talk about moral principles and about some of the most troubling aspects of contemporary American culture.” What could be more worthwhile than an honest dialogue over that troublesome but most fundamental of questions: How do we define the human community for which we accept collective responsibility?
Dave Andrusko is Editor of National Right to Life News.