Fetal Mistake

The abortion rights crowd squanders a victory.

When Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson announced on Jan. 31 that he was extending prenatal health-care coverage to pregnant low-income women participating in a $40 billion state-federal health-care program, the most conservative administration in a generation signaled its surrender to the common-sense strength of three liberal principles: That health care should be extended as widely as possible; that health care for poor children is especially important; and that the federal government should pay for it if necessary.

So, what was the response of liberal spokesmen to this modest victory? To kvetch and complain, of course.

“A guerrilla attack on abortion rights,” declared Bob Herbert of the New York Times.

“A legal pathway to making all abortions under all circumstances a crime,” said Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.

“Another way to undermine the rights of women,” intoned former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders.

Why such a negative, defensive, petty, and legalistic reaction to an indisputably progressive measure? Because the liberals have forgotten the lessons taught by that master political tactician Bill Clinton, while the conservatives in the White House political operation have absorbed them.

One small but essential part of Bill Clinton’s two victories over Republican foes was to turn the abortion issue into a Democratic advantage. He accomplished this with his formulation that abortion ought to be “safe, legal, and rare.” In simple positive language, Clinton framed the pro-choice position in a way that was firmly liberal yet appealing to voters uncomfortable with the inescapable reality that abortion involves ending a potential human life.

Instead of responding to the HHS decision with such a majoritarian tactics, these liberal spokespeople seized on a legitimate but tiny point, mainly of interest to lawyers, and beat it to death. The liberal critics were certainly correct that the way the administration went about expanding health-care coverage provided by the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP, no relation to the V-chip) was a sop to pro-life groups who dream of repealing abortion rights. S-CHIP currently covers children from birth to age 19. HHS “clarified” the program’s definition of child to cover persons from “conception” onward. Michelman was not wrong to argue that this language might someday become a footnote in an anti-abortion legal brief. It is indeed possible that a conservative Supreme Court could cite this language to justify a decision outlawing abortion.

But what are the chances of that happening, given the precedents of the court’s pro-choice rulings? As the Chicago Tribune sensibly pointed out, “To suggest that the administration could overturn [Roe v. Wade] … by monkeying with regulatory language in a health-care program is wildly at odds with reality. The first time a law or regulation defines a fetus as a person in a way that actually curbs abortion rights the court will undoubtedly toss it out.”

The professional alarmists at NARAL will no doubt invoke the specter of some future Republican-packed court under the whip hand of Chief Justice Scalia, relegating American womanhood to burqas and back alleys. But, of course, if the Scalia Court wants to ban abortion, it won’t need an obscure HHS regulation to justify its judicial activism.

The political reality is that the Bush White House has very little interest in criminalizing abortion. Karl Rove knows, if NARAL does not, that overturning Roe v. Wade would be an unenforceable nightmare for American law enforcement and an electoral catastrophe for the Republican Party. The naive liberal spokeswomen, while incessantly charging the administration with “cynicism” and “hypocrisy,” still haven’t quite grasped the cynical essence of “compassionate conservatism:” to keep the allegiance of pro-life minority without alienating the pro-choice majority (which includes the likes off first lady Laura Bush and first mum Barbara Bush).

The HHS decision did this quite cleverly. It enabled allies of the Bush administration to espouse the sort of common sense that liberals can reliably use to pummel stingy conservatives who lack compassion. “As we all know,” said Genevieve Wood of the Family Research Council, “children who get good prenatal care are usually much healthier when they’re two and three years old and so is the mother who’s involved in the pregnancy.”

It also suckered liberal voices into furiously denouncing a sensible, if small, initiative on behalf of a core liberal constituency: poor women. Instead of taking credit for the administration’s concession to the liberal agenda, these talking heads served up a dismal menu of complaints about how the administration should have achieved the same goal some other way. The conservatives came across as decent liberals. The liberals came across as petty obstructionists.

The mystery is why the liberal spokeswomen took the bait on a political ploy that’s so obvious CNN’s Bill Schneider made it his “Political Play of the Week.” It’s not that the liberals don’t know the reality of what’s at stake. In his column, Bob Herbert noted that 11 million children in the United States don’t have health care. But he devoted most of his effort to developing his keen insight that Republicans had made a “political move,” not to talking about the desirability and morality of helping American children. It’s not like NARAL opposes expanding prenatal-care access for pregnant women. It consistently favors such measures, Michelman declared—except when enacted by this administration.

Why couldn’t liberals have come up with better sound bites? They could have welcomed Thompson’s acknowledgement that expanded health-care coverage for poor people is a good idea and then upped the ante by asking an obvious question: Why does the Bush administration favor health-care coverage for more fetuses but not for more first-graders? Liberals could have seized a golden opportunity to twit Republicans for opposing Democratic proposals that all children, not just embryonic ones, should have health insurance. Along the way they could have defended the morality of legal abortion and put in a good word for Hillary Clinton’s long-term goal of universal health-care coverage. Instead, they whined.

Part of the problem is financial. A group like NARAL depends on the overturning of Roe v. Wade the way right-wing direct-mail rackets rely on the second coming of Ted Kennedy. To offer a more nuanced or inclusive message would threaten the cash flow from the true believers.

A larger problem is the discourse of abortion rights. “The right to choose” has become abstracted from the larger concerns of public health and the welfare of children. More libertarian than liberal, defenders of abortion rights tenaciously defend the private reproductive choices of fertile females but lack any larger vision of how such freedom contributes to the larger public good.

The liberals’ biggest problem, however, seems to be that they have little appreciation of the skill of their foes. Judging from the micro-politics generated by the HHS decision, the liberals seem to have a catechism about abortion rights but not a clue about how to persuade non-believers. Until they find a higher calling than preaching to the interest group choir, the White House conservatives will continue to outmaneuver them with Clintonian triangulation.