Hillary Clinton's anti-abortion strategy.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 26 2005 11:53 PM

Safe, Legal, and Never

Hillary Clinton's anti-abortion strategy.

Two days ago, marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, Hillary Clinton gave a speech outlining her views on abortion, contraception, and abstinence. "Clinton Seeking Shared Ground Over Abortions," said the front page of the New York Times. "Hillary in the middle on values issues," agreed the Washington Times. But Clinton isn't trying to end the abortion war. She's repositioning her party to win it.

Clinton's speech basically updated the pro-choice message for the age of terrorism. She began by talking about Romania and China, two regimes that in the last two decades forced women to abort (in China's case) or not to abort (in Romania's case) pregnancies. Fifteen years ago, when legal abortion in this country was in doubt, pro-choice Democrats framed abortion laws as big government to turn libertarian voters against pro-life Republicans. Now that abortion's legality seems more secure, it's harder to scare libertarians about government in their bedrooms. And post-9/11 conservatism differs in emphasis from the conservatism of the late 1980s and 1990s. It's more like the Cold War, focused on right and wrong and freedom abroad. Tyranny overseas resonates at home. Bush says he's liberating women around the world; Clinton said Bush is repressing them with a "global gag rule" against internationally funded family planning.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

It's hard for Americans to remember abortion bans here, much less imagine them today. What China and Romania illustrate is the ugly mechanics of turning anti-abortion morality into law. "Once a month, Romanian women were rounded up … taken to a government-controlled health clinic, told to disrobe while they were standing in line … [and] examined by a government doctor with a government secret police officer watching," Clinton recalled. "In China, local government officials used to monitor women's menstrual cycles and their use of contraceptives." In both cases, "the government was dictating the most private and important decisions," said Clinton. "With all of this talk about freedom as the defining goal of America, let's not forget the importance of the freedom of women to make the choices that are consistent with their faith and their sense of responsibility to their family and themselves."

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Note the concluding words: faith, responsibility, family. This is the other side of Clinton's message: against the ugliness of state control, she wants to raise the banner of morality as well as freedom. Pro-choicers have tried this for 40 years, but they always run into a fatal objection: Abortion is so ugly that nobody who supports it can look moral. To earn real credibility, they'd have to admit it's bad. They often walk up to that line, but they always blink.

Not this time. Abortion is "a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women," said Clinton. Then she went further: "There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances."

Does not ever have to be exercised. I searched Google and Nexis for parts of that sentence tonight and got no hits. Is the press corps asleep? Hillary Clinton just endorsed a goal I've never heard a pro-choice leader endorse. Not safe, legal, and rare. Safe, legal, and never.

Once you embrace that truth—that the ideal number of abortions is zero—voters open their ears. They listen when you point out, as Clinton did, that the abortion rate fell drastically during her husband's presidency but has risen in more states than it has fallen under George W. Bush. I'm sure these trends have more to do with economics than morals, but that's the point. Once we agree that the goal is zero, we can stop asking which party yaps more about fighting abortion and start asking which party gets results.

Admit the goal is zero, and people will rethink birth control. "Seven percent of American women who do not use contraception account for 53 percent of all unintended pregnancies," Clinton said. That number drew gasps from her pro-choice audience. I bet if she translated it to abortions, it would knock folks in Ohio out of their chairs. How many abortions are you willing to endure for the sake of avoiding the word "condom"? Clinton says we can cut the abortion rate through sex education, money for family planning, and requiring health insurers to cover contraceptives. What's your plan? Ban abortion and monitor everyone's womb like Romania did? Or ban it and look the other way while the pregnancies go on and the quacks take over?

Critics of birth control say the surest way to avoid unintended pregnancy is to avoid sex. They're right. I've heard a few liberals complain that this message is too preachy and encroaches on the sexuality of teenagers. With all due respect, it's time for Democrats to throw these people overboard. Many profound things are at stake in the abortion debate. Afternoon delight isn't high on the list.

Clinton seems to understand this. In her speech, she recalled campaigning for "teenage celibacy" a decade ago. She emphasized "the important role that parents can play in encouraging their children to abstain from sexual activity. … Research shows that the primary reason that teenage girls abstain is because of their religious and moral values. We should embrace this—and support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do."

Abstain. Parents. Religious and moral values. The right thing. This is the way to shake up the Democratic position on abortion—not with tiny defensive concessions but with a big offensive to promote responsibility and bring down the abortion rate. Bush has used a similar strategy to commandeer the education issue. According to polls, it has worked.

A message of responsibility allows Democrats to turn the moral tables on the GOP. "I for one respect those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available," Clinton declared. Many reporters touted that line as an olive branch. They overlooked her next sentence: "But that does not represent even the majority opinion within the anti-abortion community. There are exceptions for rape and for incest, for the life of the mother." In other words, Clinton has read the polls. She knows that most people who oppose abortion think it should be allowed for rape victims, because these victims didn't choose to have sex. From a crude standpoint of sexual responsibility, they're innocent.

Clinton spent much of her speech excoriating the administration on this question. She blasted the Food and Drug Administration for dragging its feet on approving Plan B, a morning-after pill. Then she demanded that the Justice Department add discussion of such pills to its treatment protocol for rape survivors who "may have had an unwanted pregnancy physically forced upon them." Aiming at cultural conservatives as well as liberals, she asked, "How is it possible that women who have been so victimized by violence can be victimized again by ideology?"

Above all, a message of responsibility breaks down the distinction between motherhood and contraception—the widespread attitude that there are two kinds of women: those who have babies and those who have birth control pills or, failing that, abortions. In reality, said Clinton, they are the same woman. "An average woman who wants two children will spend five years pregnant or trying to get pregnant and roughly 30 years trying to prevent pregnancy," she observed. You don't have to be against motherhood to line up behind birth control as the best anti-abortion strategy. You just have to be for it.

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