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Anti-Abortionists Search For a Strategy

It drew considerable attention last week when President Barack Obama waited until a day after the annual anti-abortion March for Life in Washington to reverse the so-called "Mexico City" or "gag-rule" executive order that banned U.S. funding for any groups that promote or provide abortion services overseas. Even among intense right-to-lifers, this was regarded as a shrewd move by Obama that denied to the January 22 marchers a much-needed focal point for their protests.

I think they'd better get used to it. While there's no reason to think that Obama has or will changed his strongly pro-choice views, he's also made it clear that he doesn't want his presidency, and particularly the first phases of his presidency, to become overshadowed by culture-war issues like abortion. Indeed, some observers, like Peter Beinart, believe the Obama presidency will signal the end of this latest, sexuality-centered phase of the culture wars.

Whether or not that happy development materalizes, the Cultural Right has some real problems. On the gay rights/gay marriage front, generational change virtually guarantees an eventual defeat for the Right. And on abortion, serious right-to-lifers know their window of opportunity to overturn abortion rights via the Supreme Court closed, perhaps for a long time, with Obama's election.

Given the impossibility of a constitutional amendment to restrict abortion, that leaves them with the bleak prospect of going back to the long-term drawing board, and gnawing away at the right to choose through narrow and symbolic statutes and/or harrassment (legislative and otherwise) of abortion providers.

Not surprisingly, anti-abortionists are trying to keep morale up by rattling hobgoblins--conjuring up threats of radical "pro-abortion" activity that must be fought immediately, which is more satisfying than the thankless and almost certainly futile task of trying to convince a majority of Americans that abortions should be outlawed. (It's the same impulse that leads conservatives generally to manufacture the bizarre "fairness doctrine" conspiracy theory.) The preferred hobgoblin of the right-to-life movement is the Freedom of Choice Act, a bill that President Obama cosponsored as a senator, and that doesn't appear to be very high on the administration's list of initatives.

The basic idea of FOCA has always been to codify Roe v. Wade as a federal statute, so that if Roe is ever overturned there will be a national pro-choice policy instead of a crazy-quilt of 50 state laws, some of them highly restrictive or even prohibitory. Activists on both side of the abortion barricades, of course, naturally tend to dramatize more immediate, short-term developments, so FOCA has gradually come to be viewed through the prism of its possible impact on non-fundamental but symbolic issues like so-called "partial-birth" abortion bans, and the variety of harrassing techniques states have devised over the years, such as waiting periods and parental or spousal notification laws. (Any FOCA provisions that actually conflict with current law would, of course, almost certainly be eliminated before it could pass both Houses of Congress). Accordingly, anti-abortion leaders disengenously talk about FOCA as though it represented a vast expansion of abortion rights, and use Obama's cosponsorship of the bill as Exhibit A in their scare-the-troops case that the new President wakes up every morning wondering what more he can do to promote what the National Right To Life Committee calls "Obama's Abortion Agenda."

The latest skirmish in the abortion cold war involves the inclusion of language in the House version of the economic stimulus package that allows states to provide contraceptive services to Medicaid beneficiaries. Republicans are complaining that it illustrates Democratic efforts to toss stuff into the package that has nothing to do with the economy, but there's no question they are also trying to get the Cultural Right (some of whose shock troops oppose contraception generally, while others think many contraceptives are actually abortifacients) engaged in the stimulus battle.

But like Lucy removing the football each year as Charlie Brown approaches it, it looks like Obama will deny conservatives a clear target, by urging House Democrats to remove the family planning language from the stimulus bill and moving it as separate legislation.

In the absence of an realistic strategy for achieving their real goals, anti-abortionists can be expected to continue efforts to paint Obama, Democrats, and pro-choice Americans as aggressive radicals who won't stop til infanticide and euthanasia are legal and widely practiced. But it's beginning to look like Barack Obama won't be an easy president to invidiously stereotype.