Can Obama take the politics out of abortion?

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 16 2008 12:41 AM

Safe, Legal, and Boring

Can Obama take the politics out of abortion?

Something new finally happened in this boring series of presidential debates. The word abortion came up.

Go ahead, search the transcripts of the first and second McCain-Obama debates. While you're at it, check out the vice-presidential debate. You won't find it.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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Why not? Because when life really sucks—when your 401(k) is in the toilet, your health-insurance premiums are doubling, and your country is bleeding billions of dollars it doesn't have in places you never heard of—social issues are a luxury you can't afford. If you're a hard-core pro-lifer, abortion will always be your issue. But if you just don't like abortion, or you don't like politicians meddling in it, you probably have some other issue in this election that's bothering you more.

That's why neither John McCain nor Barack Obama brought up abortion tonight. The moderator, Bob Schieffer, did. And each candidate tried to turn it into his kind of issue.

McCain has been trying to make the election a referendum on character: Country first, Obama pals around with terrorists, yada yada yada. How does abortion fit that mold? By exposing Obama as an extremist. Here's McCain's key passage tonight:

Sen. Obama, as a member of the Illinois State Senate, voted in the judiciary committee against a law that would provide immediate medical attention to a child born of a failed abortion. He voted against that. … Then there was another bill before the Senate judiciary committee in the state of Illinois not that long ago, where he voted against a ban on partial-birth abortion, one of the late-term abortion, a really—one of the bad procedures, a terrible. … I don't know how you align yourself with the extreme aspect of the pro-abortion movement in America. … It was clear-cut votes that Sen. Obama voted, I think, in direct contradiction to the feelings and views of mainstream America.

Bad. Terrible. Extreme. Clear-cut. Feelings. Mainstream America. This is the way McCain, Sarah Palin, and George W. Bush talk: There's honor and evil, good guys and bad guys. We fight for the good side. Our opponents don't. They're extreme.

Obama argued that "women, in consultation with their families, their doctors, their religious advisers, are in the best position to make this decision." But his key passage was very different from McCain's:

This is an issue that—look, it divides us. And in some ways, it may be difficult to—to reconcile the two views. But there surely is some common ground when both those who believe in choice and those who are opposed to abortion can come together and say, "We should try to prevent unintended pregnancies by providing appropriate education to our youth, communicating that sexuality is sacred and that they should not be engaged in cavalier activity, and providing options for adoption, and helping single mothers if they want to choose to keep the baby." Those are all things that we put in the Democratic platform for the first time this year, and I think that's where we can find some common ground, because nobody's pro-abortion. I think it's always a tragic situation. We should try to reduce these circumstances.

Common ground. Prevent. Options. Help. Reduce. These are defusing and calming words. They fit Obama's personality. But more than that, they're pragmatic. They convey action, progress, solution. Obama has been talking about abortion this way all along, when the subject comes up. He doesn't like us-and-them language. He doesn't like fights. Even on this issue—one of the nastiest, angriest, most polarizing topics in modern politics—he looks for a course most of us can agree on. He tries to turn even moral issues into technical issues.

The issues that have dominated this election are fundamentally technical: How do we stabilize the financial system and revive the economy? How do we get out of Iraq without triggering a collapse? How do we get affordable energy fast? The surge, the bailout, offshore drilling—they're all technical. They're not about opposing values. They're about what will or won't work.

Obama's doing quite nicely in this environment. He's steady, practical, poised, boring. He's a technician. So Schieffer pops a question about abortion, probably hoping to start a fight. McCain does his part. What does Obama do? He technifies it.

Will a technical approach to abortion satisfy the country? The election hardly hangs on that question. But in the long run, the abortion debate itself probably does. Look at the home page of the National Right to Life Committee, and you'll see the kind of character-focused, us-or-them rhetoric that has pervaded the McCain campaign and the pro-life movement. Meanwhile, I've been reading a booklet issued by NARAL Pro-Choice America. It's a handbook for politicians and activists on how to talk about abortion. The last time I wrote about one of these pro-choice message booklets, it was called "Who Decides," and the remainder of the phrase was "us or them." This one is different. Its message is "Prevention First." Look at the Democratic platform, and you'll see the same language, aimed at reducing unintended pregnancies—and therefore abortions—by voluntary means. The pro-life movement is betting on McCain-style combat. The pro-choice movement is betting on Obama-style pragmatism.

I think the pro-choicers have picked the wiser course. We're a pragmatic country. What disgusts most people about abortion as a political issue is that on that topic, unlike economics or foreign policy, nothing ever seems to be accomplished. It's the same damned debate, election after election, with each side trying to scare you about the other. If only it were more like economics, where you can actually have growth—or maybe like energy, where you can develop a new source or a new technology. If Obama can make abortion more like those issues and couple it with a record of material progress in the form of fewer procedures, he'll take much of the political heat out of it. He might even make it boring. Wouldn't that be great?

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