Be Careful What You Wish For
Overturning Roe v. Wade would be good for the Democrats.
BY JAMES TARANTO
The Wall Street Journal, Tuesday, December 7, 2004
Harry Reid, the new Senate Democratic leader, is moderate to pro-life on abortion. In 1999 he was one of only two Senate Democrats to vote against an amendment expressing "the sense of Congress in support of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade." But when he appeared on "Meet the Press" Sunday and Tim Russert gave him a chance to take a clear position against Roe, Mr. Reid demurred, saying that "it would be pretty difficult for everybody" if the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 ruling.
Actually, it would be far more difficult for the Republicans, for the continued existence of Roe allows the GOP to have it both ways on abortion while forcing the Democrats to take politically untenable positions.
By mostly removing the issue from the democratic process, Roe created the current polarization over abortion, in which both parties are officially committed to extreme positions. The Republican platform calls for a Human Life Amendment, which would presumably ban all or most abortions, while the Democratic platform backs "a woman's right to choose . . . regardless of her ability to pay"--meaning abortion on demand, at taxpayer expense.
Opinion polls consistently show that only a small proportion of Americans favor either of these extremes. But because Roe v. Wade and subsequent decisions take off the table any restriction that imposes an "undue burden" on a woman seeking to abort her pregnancy, Republicans are an extreme antiabortion party only in theory. When it comes to actual legislation, the GOP favors only modest--and popular--regulations. The Democrats, on the other hand, must defend such unpopular practices as partial-birth abortion, taxpayer-subsidized abortion, and abortions for 13-year-olds without their parents' knowledge.
If the Supreme Court overturned Roe, legislators would have to consider the legality of abortion itself. Antiabortion absolutists would demand action from Republicans--but the GOP would be unable to comply without putting off moderate voters, who are much more numerous. Thus the battle would shift to terrain far more favorable to the Democrats.
Congressional Republicans' smartest response would be to avoid the issue and leave it to the state legislatures. But this would free Democrats as well as Republicans to tailor their positions to match their constituents'. Abortion would likely remain legal in much of the country, and the Democratic Party would find it has nothing to fear from democracy.
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