Last week it dawned on me while listening to the two major presidential candidates talk about abortion that their topic meant about as much to them as river boat gambling. Like having gambling facilities placed on the edge of a river from whose activities the state can then draw revenues, the politics of abortion means a lot for some groups, especially feminists and the Religious Right; nonetheless it mostly an issue that politicians bring up selectively with certain key constituents. There was Alan Keyes, who long campaigned as an anti-abortion candidate, but Keyes went nowhere in national politics. Keyes, who is black, viewed the taking of fetal life as being at least as grave a matter as slavery had been, but he could not convince a critical mass of his countrymen that he was right.
The cynicism shown by politicians concerning the pro-life stand has become clear to me by the way Obama and McCain have been handling it. Last Sunday at a meeting of the Faith Forum, a gathering of Evangelicals hosted by Pastor Rick Warren, both candidates were asked to present their views about abortion. McCain was apparently emphatic in opposing this practice and he ended his remarks by stating that “life begins with conception.” When Obama then contended that women should have the right to abort their fetuses whenever they want, Warren proceeded to ask him “And when do you think that life begins?” Obama responded that the question went beyond his knowledge, at which point Warren let go of the subject. He might have raised the stakes by asking whether given his view about the origin of life, perhaps we should not permit what could easily be seen as the taking of innocent life—a possibility that might seem particularly obvious in a late-term abortion, a procedure the legality of which Obama has fought to maintain. But in all probability it would not have mattered what Warren had asked Obama about fetal life. He was speaking to a politician who had staked out his constituency on the feminist left. Although Obama was willing to make some metaphysical noises he was not about to reconsider the abortion issue, and particularly in a manner that might alienate a key constituency.
Nor is McCain about to go out on a limb. Although he stated to a receptive audience that he was morally opposed to abortion, by the time he appeared at the Faith Forum he was also seriously considering as vice-presidential candidates Joe Lieberman and Tom Ridge. Both have consistently identified with the pro-choice side, and neither has any intention of shifting on abortion. The former Pennsylvania governor was clear about where he stood when he suggested in an interview with USA Today that his support for abortion rights would be a plus for the GOP ticket: “What we are saying to the rest of the world is that we need to accept both points of view.” From all indications McCain is alright with this reading of his attempt to reach out for a vice-presidential candidate. But might it be asked whether he would be equally cool with a vice presidential candidate who wished to rescind female suffrage or to abolish anti-discrimination laws passed on behalf of minorities. Clearly McCain would not accept candidates who took such positions because they would be on the wrong side of what matters for the American media and for much of the constituency he is going after. Abortion is a trifle compared to other more fashionable social issues; and McCain’s reputation as a “maverick” has come from being in sync with the left-leaning media on divisive political questions.
Both candidates are playing fast and loose with the abortion question. Obama is trying to balance his support for very broad abortion rights by claiming to have undergone some kind of conversionary experience. Thus Warren diluted his criticism of Obama’s stand on abortion by reminding his listener that the Democratic candidate had been “brought to Christ,” even if the “imperfect instrument” for his conversion had been the black racist Jeremiah Wright. Meanwhile McCain tries to look earnest when he tells Evangelicals that he thinks “life starts with conception.” But this stance does not prevent the GOP candidate from seeking vice-presidential running mates who differ fundamentally with him on what Alan Keyes has properly defined as the paramount moral question of our time. If McCain really believed that abortions are evil, he would be working nonstop to stamp them out. Certainly he would not be seeking out candidates who favor expansive abortion rights in order to balance his ticket.
Thus I come back to my original comparison. Being against abortion is like being against river boat gambling as a corrupting human enterprise. It is a nice gesture on the part of politicians courting religiously earnest citizens but it is not a stand that requires any costly commitment from either national party. Like many of the members of the US Congress, anti-abortion politicians have treated their moral issue as a useful tool, one that can bring in votes from carefully targeted “conservative” blocs but not as anything for which one would go to the wall.