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Roe's Army Reloads
They've been dreading this moment for decades. How the pro-choice movement is readying for Roberts—and navigating a critical political crossroads.
By Debra Rosenberg
Aug. 8, 2005 issue - The day before George W. Bush tapped John Roberts for the Supreme Court, a group of abortion-rights activists gathered around the conference table at NARAL Pro-Choice America. Panicked by the departure of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor—the court's key swing vote on abortion—they pored over lists of potential replacements, sharing alarming facts about each one. "Most of us were against all of them," recalls NARAL president Nancy Keenan. The next night, as news about Roberts leaked out, NARAL issued a statement opposing him even before he appeared in the East Room. Now, two weeks into the fight, defeating the affable judge looks like no easy task. On a conference call with Keenan last Friday, one activist from Minnesota cut to the chase: "People are wondering, are we going to be able to stop this guy? Is there going to be a filibuster?" Keenan, a fly-fishing enthusiast, didn't answer directly. "We have waded into the water," she said. "We have cast the line."
Pro-choice activists like Keenan aren't shying away from the struggle—however uncertain their prospects. The Roberts fight is shaping up as a moment of truth for a movement that's struggled to find its footing in recent years. After losing the '04 election, some Democrats began pointing out that although the majority of voters say they're pro-choice—51 percent in a July CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll—the party wasn't connecting with them. Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Democratic think tank Third Way—run by the same strategists who moved the party to the center on the gun issue—is crafting new message and policy ideas to help Democrats appeal to Red State voters on abortion. And the pro-choice groups themselves have begun tinkering with their approach, even considering whether to abandon the framework of "choice" itself. "We've gotten a little far away from talking with people very much from the heart," admits Karen Pearl, interim president of Planned Parenthood. The Roberts hearings could give the movement a chance to publicly test the new strategy.
This is the battle pro-choicers have been dreading for years. They've long warned that a single retirement from the high court could be enough to topple Roe v. Wade. Though it will take the loss of at least one more pro-Roe justice to overrule the decision outright, pro-choicers want to pin down exactly where Roberts stands. Last week Democrats signaled that abortion—or at least the general topic of "privacy"—will be a major issue at Roberts's confirmation hearings, now set to begin Sept. 6. Though several pro-choice senators hinted that a failure to support Roe could be a deal breaker for Roberts, activists weren't sure whether enough lawmakers would stand firm. "The Democrats don't have a lot of starch in their spines," says former Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt. "We're going to be pushing a big boulder up a hill."
The past dozen years have been a political roller coaster for the choice groups. First they grew complacent with a sympathetic Bill Clinton in the White House. Then they got bogged down opposing popular measures like parental-notification laws and bans on so-called partial-birth abortion. Technology provided more sophisticated images of a growing fetus. Meanwhile, the pro-life movement got an unwitting boost from Clinton, who decreed abortion should be "safe, legal and rare," says Emory University legal historian David Garrow. "Once the pro-choice movement sent the message that abortion was undesirable, we were on a slippery slope headed downhill."
Democrats recently began realizing they were caught in the slide. Democratic Party chair Howard Dean met with members of Democrats for Life last month. Later the same day he told the party's national finance board that he didn't want to change the Democrats' fundamental position, but he did want to "reframe" it. "He said he wanted to take 'abortion' out of the political lexicon," recalls former DNC head Steve Grossman, who attended the meeting. Dean's already taken action: in April, he let pro-life Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan use DNC headquarters to announce his bill to cut abortions by 95 percent over 10 years.
Strategists at Third Way are taking a more cautious approach. For months, they've been quietly drafting a plan to help Democrats better connect with voters on abortion. The think tank—whose co-chairs include seven moderate Democratic senators—has been consulting with a wide range of advisers including pro-life advocates, religious leaders and former staffers of pro-choice groups. After issuing a series of memos and a major poll on the issue this fall, Third Way will roll out a new strategy to help Democrats broaden their support without sacrificing the party's core values.
In one forthcoming issue brief obtained by NEWSWEEK, Third Way divides voters into abortion "polars"—those at each extreme, who believe it should be always le-gal or always illegal—and abortion "grays," those who believe abortion should be mostly legal or mostly illegal. Surprisingly, Third Way found that Democrats were losing among abortion grays, even though more of them leaned pro-choice. "We've now gotten locked in a frame and policies for 30 years that speak to the polars but don't speak to the grays," says Third Way president Jon Cowan.
The pro-choice groups themselves have also been heatedly debating what to do. This spring, activists in New York and Seattle invited Berkeley linguist George Lakoff to speak about how to reframe the abortion issue. "They found that choice wasn't playing very well," says Lakoff, who's become an unofficial guru to beleaguered Democrats. He told the groups it was no wonder: "choice" came from a "consumerist" vocabulary, while "life" came from a moral one. In one of his more controversial suggestions, he advised the activists to reclaim the "life" issue by blaming Republicans for high U.S. infant-mortality rates and mercury pollution that can cause birth defects. "Basically what I'm saying is that conservatives are killing babies," he says. Lakoff advised focusing on reducing unwanted pregnancies and suggested that the groups talk about "personal freedom," a phrase intended to evoke unpopular government intrusion into matters like the Terri Schiavo case.
As a former Montana legislator, Keenan says she didn't need Lakoff to tell her how to relate to Red Staters. But in May, NARAL pollster Celinda Lake released a PowerPoint presentation that declared "the culture of freedom and responsibility frame soundly beats culture of life." In a national poll and focus groups, Lake tested a "prevention first" agenda that sought to reduce unwanted pregnancies through better birth control and access to the morning-after pill. The broader approach, she wrote, "will help combat the widespread view that pro-choice groups are extreme and militant."
The new frame around abortion has plenty of skeptics. "I think they look desperate," says Connie Mackey of the pro-life Family Research Council. Even many pro-choicers aren't completely sold. "I don't agree that we can never say the word 'abortion'," says former NARAL president Kate Michelman. "I also don't agree that 'choice' is a negative word." Others like Planned Parenthood's Pearl point out they've been talking about prevention all along.
In the coming months, Democrats and choice advocates will get a chance to test the new approach in the battle over Roberts. Rather than attacking him squarely on Roe, they plan to raise broader questions about his support for a right to privacy and personal freedom. Pro-choicers worry that even if Roberts doesn't overturn Roe itself, he could uphold abortion restrictions in several upcoming cases. One to be heard in November deals with whether a New Hampshire parental-notification law must offer an emergency health exception. A case on whether a federal late-term-abortion ban needs a health exception could also reach the court next term. "There's going to be an avalanche of new statutes passed by states to see how far the new Supreme Court will go," says Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
Though the odds may be bleak, pro-choice warriors feel they have to take a stand on Roberts—even if he might not be the most conservative nominee to come their way in the next few years. "This is the swing vote. This is the one that shifts the court to the right," says NARAL's Keenan. "How hard do you fight? You fight." Now, pro-choicers hope, banding together against Roberts may be just what they need to get back in the fight.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.
© 2005 MSNBC.com
by alfayoko2005 | 2005-08-02 04:07