In public debates on abortion, “pro-life” candidates either lose or—at best—don’t win. They either pick fights they should avoid, or avoid fights they should welcome.

This tendency was on display in Sunday’s debate between Iowa Senate candidates Republican Joni Ernst and Democrat Bruce Braley. Ernst’s efforts demonstrated the dysfunctional relationship between the pro-life cause and Republicans—even many pro-life Republicans. The pro-abortion Braley managed to seize the initiative on the issue by attacking Ernst for supporting a “personhood” amendment that he claimed would have banned all abortions (and also contraception—a totally bogus claim that seems to have ended up in a number of speeches by 2014 Democrats). Ernst’s response is worth quoting in full:

I support life. I believe in life. And that’s a discussion that we need to have civilly. The amendment that’s being referenced by the congressman would not do any of the things that he stated it would do. That amendment is simply a statement that I support life. And my faith has shaped me on this very issue. It is a very, very personal issue. I think it is something we will continue to disagree on. I will support life. The congressman believes in partial-birth abortion. And these are things that we’ll just continue to disagree on them, but we can disagree on them civilly.

While it is great that she believes in civility, it is obvious that she was running scared. Journalist Dave Weigel wrote that this was part of an attempt by Ernst to “pivot” on the abortion issue.

It probably “worked” in the sense that Ernst avoided political disaster, but every part of her strategy represents a certain kind of dysfunctionality. Ambitious politicians stake out maximalist policy positions to win the support of pro-lifers and then try to avoid talking about those positions in front of general audiences. This is an open invitation for pro-abortion Democrats to leap upon the difference between what pro-life Republicans say to pro-life activists and what those same pro-life politicians want everybody else to hear. Too often, pro-life Republicans ramble on about how much they like life and civility before moving on to “Hey, how ‘bout that ISIS?”

But Ernst didn’t need to equivocate. If she just picks her fight a little more carefully, she has public opinion on her side. Depending on the poll, Americans either narrowly or overwhelmingly favor restrictions on abortions after twenty weeks. It was Braley who voted against a law that would have restricted abortion in cases where the fetus was able to feel pain. From watching the debate, a viewer would have had no idea that Braley supported an at-will right to destroy a twenty-week-old fetus, and that the law he opposed had exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

It is time for a new deal between pro-life activists and pro-life candidates. It avails little to have pro-life candidates take up commitments to pro-lifers that they will not defend in public. Pro-life activists need to encourage pro-life candidates to push forcefully incremental reforms. Candidates in competitive constituencies might well build their abortion positions around already popular incremental policies, affirm their general pro-life values, but otherwise refuse to engage in hypotheticals. As Ramesh Ponnuru wrote, a pro-lifer can honestly assert that bans on abortion in the case of rape are not going to happen, but that incremental restrictions on late-term abortions are a real and relevant issue—and an issue on which many of our prominent politicians are on the losing side of public opinion.

Republicans—including pro-life Republicans like Joni Ernst—oblige President Obama and his fellow abortion extremists by only talking about abortion when partisan Democrats bring it up. They need to point out that Obama is not a moderate on social policy: He voted against extending legal protections to infants who had survived botched abortions. But Obama and his allies can seem like moderates because pro-life Republicans are letting them pick the terrain for abortion debates. Pro-life candidates have a strong case on incremental abortion restrictions, and they need to bring that case out into the public’s eye and challenge abortion extremists with confidence. If they are too tentative, pro-life politicians squander a real opportunity for political success and waste the chance to begin to remedy one of America’s greatest moral failings. 

Pete Spiliakos is a columnist for First Things. His previous articles can be found here.

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