Abortion Distortions 

Political ads dissected and explained.
July 14 2000 11:30 PM

Abortion Distortions 

"Compassion" was produced for the Planned Parenthood Action Fund by Laguens Hamburger Stone. "Appeal" and "Push Back" were produced by Haddow Communications for the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. For transcripts of the ads, click. Click here to see "Push Back" on Freedom Channel (scroll down).

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From: William Saletan

To: Jacob Weisberg

Planned Parenthood The narrator of Planned Parenthood's commercial characterizes Bush's abortion views while walking through a background of giant quotes from and about Bush. The quotes, which are supposed to back up the characterizations, are rigged. Consider this one from the Des Moines Register: "Bush would prohibit federally funded family planning clinics from mentioning abortion." A conservative would have written the sentence differently: "Bush would prohibit family planning clinics that mention abortion from taking federal funds." By shuffling the verbs, the Register turns a prohibition on funding into a prohibition on "mentioning"—which Planned Parenthood, in turn, boils down to a "gag rule."

Another trick is the removal of context. The ad closes with the narrator standing in front of this Bush quote from Meet the Press: "I would support a constitutional amendment ..." Why the ellipses? Because the full quote is, "I would support a constitutional amendment with the exceptions of life, incest, and rape. I want to tell you something, though: The country is not ready for a constitutional amendment. There is no chance, at this moment, that there'd be a two-thirds vote out of the House and the Senate." Yes, Bush says he supports the amendment. But the complete quote is a greater affront to pro-lifers than pro-choicers. It basically says he's paying lip service to the amendment. Understandably, Planned Parenthood is frustrated that pro-lifers aren't making a fuss about this. But that doesn't make the quote's truncation any less misleading.

The Center for Reproductive Law and Policy ads are interesting for several reasons. They're essentially but not officially political. They're about a court case—the June 28 Supreme Court decision striking down Nebraska's "partial-birth" abortion ban—which pro-choice groups would like to develop into a campaign issue. This isn't the first time pro-choicers have attempted this conversion—they tried it after previous Supreme Court rulings in 1989 and 1992—but it's a reminder of the degree to which the political process has enveloped the court. The court may not follow the election returns, but if groups like the CRLP have their way, the election returns will follow the court.

On the other hand, if campaign reformers or election regulators ever accused CRLP of using these ads to influence the election, they'd have nothing to hang their case on. The ads never refer to what we think of as the political process. All they do is furnish the address of CRLP's Web site and urge viewers to "contact" the "lawyers who are defending the right to choose in courtrooms across the country." Basically, it's a fund-raising pitch. Legal battles, like election campaigns, cost money. And increasingly, they're just as political. So, CRLP, in effect, is running ads to raise money to wage a political fight that is technically outside the political process altogether. It's a foretaste of the many mutations of politics that will frustrate the next generation of campaign reformers.

Pushback The third thing I find curious is the post-victory timing of "Push Back." We think of ads as tools for influencing upcoming contests. But this ad appears after its sponsor has already won the contest. The ad says as much: "The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that so-called 'partial-birth abortion' bans are extreme and unconstitutional," and CRLP "exposed and defeated" those bans. So what's the problem? According to CRLP, "the attacks on this fragile freedom will continue." No sooner has your side won the battle than it's on the tube hitting you up for the next one. There are no boundaries to politics anymore: not the polling place, not the election calendar, not even the Supreme Court recess. I'm getting tired just thinking about it.

From: Jacob Weisberg

To: William Saletan

In the abortion debate, there are two kinds of dishonesty. First, there are the constant minor distortions of the kind you point out—the misrepresentations of the other side's views, the quotes taken out of context, and so on. And I think you've nailed Planned Parenthood for some egregious examples in this ad. But then there's the larger disingenuousness that runs through the whole political debate over abortion. It's not that activists on both sides aren't sincere in their views—they surely are. But both sides share an interest in convincing nonactivists, and perhaps themselves, that the legal status of abortion in this country might well change, when it very likely won't.

Politicians understand this. Take George W. Bush, the target of the "Compassion" ad. His stated position is that Roe vs. Wade should be overturned, by means of a constitutional amendment if the Supreme Court won't reverse itself. Do you believe that Bush—or Trent Lott or Tom DeLay—really wants that? These conservative politicians, who may truly and sincerely think abortion is murder, are savvy enough to know that overturning Roe would be about the worst thing that could possibly happen to the Republican Party. A genuine threat to the legal right to abortion would energize a grass-roots liberalism not seen in this country since the 1960s. I imagine that it would result in a long-term Democratic majority and in the rapid reversal of any new abortion restrictions. The ultimate result would be to enshrine the legal status of abortion in a more permanent way. Bush might not be the brightest guy in the world, but he understands the Reagan formula, just as his father did. On abortion, you posture for the right-wing base by saying you support a constitutional amendment and various restrictions while making sure that nothing happens to the basic right to an abortion. If Bush were to be elected and apply a litmus test in nominating Supreme Court justices, I imagine it would be the reverse of what he stands accused of intending. The real rule would be: Make sure you don't create an anti-Roe majority on the court.

The dishonesty on the pro-choice side is pretending that Republican politicians might really get what they say they want. Again, it's not that the folks at Planned Parenthood are insincere in their basic beliefs. It's that as professional activists they thrive on the idea that the rights they support are gravely threatened. In the words of the ad, Bush "agrees that he's the most anti-abortion governor in America and supports a constitutional amendment that would take away our right to choose." Scary stuff. But what if the chance of abortion becoming illegal or subject to severe restrictions is next to nil, regardless of what Bush personally thinks or whether he's elected? A candid Planned Parenthood ad would say: "Bush opposes abortion. But he's too smart a politician to try to do anything about it, because that would play right into our hands." I don't expect to hear anything like that from the pro-choice lobby any time soon. The habit of hyperbole is too deeply ingrained.

It's the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy ads that really give the game away. Compare these two spots, the elated-sounding one that ran before the Supreme Court's "partial birth" abortion decision, and the disappointed-sounding one that began running after the decision. In "Appeal," the CRLP warns that the Supreme Court may uphold a Nebraska law that is "extreme and unconstitutional." And a court that would do that might toss Roe out the window. "Wake up!" it demands. In "Push Back," the organization must assimilate the fact that it won the case. The court did not, in fact, uphold the "extreme and unconstitutional" Nebraska restrictions. But wake up anyhow! "Roe vs. Wade is vulnerable, and the attacks on this fragile freedom will continue," the ad warns. In other words, don't despair—we're still on the verge of losing.  

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

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

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