There’s one bit of unfinished business from the GOP primary for governor. And, no, I don’t mean a public kiss-and-make-up session between Nathan Deal and Karen Handel.
I worry that the long-term health of the pro-life movement in Georgia may have taken a self-inflicted hit during this primary, because of the words and tactics of Georgia Right to Life.
The most prominent anti-abortion group in a red state, GRTL issues endorsements during each election cycle that Republican candidates covet. High among its criteria is a stipulation that candidates agree to only one exception to a ban on abortions: when the life of the mother is in danger.
GRTL defends its stance as “the 21st-century demands of being pro-life,” a tacit acknowledgment that one exception hasn’t always been the rule. For decades after the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, many pro-life groups allowed for two additional cases: pregnancies resulting from rape or incest.
It was largely over these two exceptions that GRTL and Handel, the only GOP gubernatorial candidate not to get the group’s endorsement, disagree. But it was no light disagreement.
After Handel received a late endorsement from Sarah Palin, GRTL lashed out: One day before the primary, the group sent out a robo-call to voters describing Handel as “extremely liberal” on abortion.
That’s when I began to worry.
I understand that intellectual consistency dictates that the unborn’s right to life isn’t lessened by the circumstances of conception. I understand that allowing abortion in the case of a rape but not in most others could lead to an explosion in the number of rape claims, and a ban-enforcement nightmare.
But I also understand that people don’t always like to be intellectually consistent. And, more to the point, we are eons away, in public-policy years, from reaching a point where this kind of debate can be more than just theoretical.
The fact is that abortion under any circumstance remains legal in this country — and that, as GRTL itself notes, more than 99 percent of U.S. abortions don’t involve rape or incest. Even a ban on partial-birth abortions proved highly contentious not that long ago.
There’s reason for hope. Gallup, which tracks U.S. attitudes toward abortion over time, found last year for the first time that more Americans call themselves pro-life rather than pro-choice — reversing a 10-percentage-point deficit as recently as 2006, and a 23-point gap just 15 years ago. There were gains in all age groups.
But the number of Americans who believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances remained a majority of 54 percent — almost unchanged from the years immediately following Roe. It’s unlikely that most of them favor just one exception rather than the more commonly stated three.
As the left has proved over the years, a gradual approach to big policy changes is usually more successful than a one-fell-swoop strategy.
Withholding an endorsement is one thing. But there’s an important difference between that and an all-out attack on a three-exceptions candidate as “extremely liberal.” The latter is an unlikely way to build and sustain the momentum in public opinion that will be essential to any lasting change in the law.
It’s a bit like Charlie Brown asking Lucy to place the football farther from the goal posts. To the degree that this rigidity makes it harder to realize slow but steady pro-life progress, it’s an unconscionable mistake.