John McCain bets the farm that women aren't listening.

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Aug. 21 2008 7:28 PM

Abortion Contortion

John McCain bets the farm that women aren't listening.

John McCain. Click image to expand.
John McCain

John McCain is trying to pull a Jessica Seinfeld. Few Americans (less than 20 percent) want to return to an America in which abortion is almost always illegal, and if they knew McCain's true views on the subject, most would not vote for him. So the candidate is doing exactly what Mrs. Jerry Seinfeld did in her popular cookbook, Deceptively Delicious. He's sneaking a little of his bad-tasting reproductive rights stance into the meatloaf of his candidacy—not by hiding it, but by trading on his reputation as a maverick. Seinfeld's contention was that if your kids don't like asparagus, you should just whirl it up in the blender and bake it into some meatloaf. The children won't know the difference until it's too late.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Now, McCain isn't as attractive as Mrs. Seinfeld, and Americans are much savvier than their children when it comes to faux asparagus. A quick look at the polls reflects McCain's problem: He's running behind Obama with women voters. A poll released yesterday by Emily's List has Obama beating McCain by a 12-point margin among all registered female voters and by 30 points among registered female voters ages 18 to 27. A February Planned Parenthood poll of 1,205 women voters in 16 battleground states found that 49 percent of women who backed McCain did so despite being pro-choice, and 46 percent backing him also wanted Roe v. Wade to remain the law of the land. It's clear that once these voters find out McCain's real record on reproductive rights, they flee. The problem, as Sarah Blustain points out in this great piece, is that voters don't seem to be finding out.

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McCain needs these pro-choice women, but every time he tries to reach out to them, he gets smacked upside the head by his base. When he floated the notion of naming a pro-choice vice president last week—either former Pennsylvania Gov. and Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge or Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman—Rush Limbaugh snarled that "if the McCain camp does that, they will have effectively destroyed the Republican Party and put the conservative movement in the bleachers." Limbaugh also pledged that tapping Lieberman or Ridge would "ensure [McCain's] defeat." So McCain needs to keep his base happy—and the rest of us in the dark.

Cue the mystery meatloaf. John McCain is banking on his reputation as an independent maverick to snooker voters into thinking that his abortion views are centrist, no matter what he actually says. It's a risky strategy: Don't believe what I say. Believe what you used to believe before I opened my mouth. But that's where the Jessica Seinfeld trick comes in. Your kid eats the meatloaf because it looks like a meatloaf. And voters continue to think McCain is a maverick because he looks like one.

Voters, and especially women voters who want to make their own reproductive decisions, need to wake up and smell the asparagus. In July, for example, a Pew poll showed that 56 percent of the electorate didn't know where McCain stood on abortion. Listen up, because he's telling us now. To the extent McCain was ever independent-minded at all on reproductive rights, he's not anymore. In 2000, McCain begged Bush to amend language in the GOP platform, which calls for a human-life amendment banning all abortions and provides no exceptions for rape, incest, or danger to the life of the mother. This week he indicated that he won't work to change that platform. That's a position espoused by fewer than 20 percent of the electorate. In the religion forum last weekend at Saddleback Church in California, McCain announced that life begins "at the moment of conception" and promised, "I will be a pro-life president, and this presidency will have pro-life policies." In April he told Chris Matthews that "the rights of the unborn is one of my most important values." He has bragged about his consistent zero rating from NARAL. He has explicitly said that his Supreme Court choices will be animated by his desire to overturn Roe.

Now, Barack Obama has taken some flak for his "above my pay grade" response to the question of when life begins at Saddleback. It was an artless attempt to connect with the 60 percent of Americans who believe that the abortion issue is simply too complicated for a five-word answer. John McCain really wants you to know that his answer is very, very simple.

So much of the abortion debate involves treating women like children. It was bad enough when Justice Anthony Kennedy told women last year that we are too unstable to be trusted with decisions about what to do with our own bodies. It is an outrage that physicians in South Dakota are being instructed to lie to us for our own good. But we have a candidate for president who is actually telling women the truth: He wants to do away with our right to choose in all but the most dramatic of circumstances. He won't change his party platform to protect rape victims. This issue will be a defining factor in his selections for the Supreme Court. If John McCain respects us enough to tell us directly that there's asparagus in that meatloaf, let's do ourselves a favor and tell him no thanks.