Melinda Henneberger's NYT op-ed about how Democrats could regain women voters is a lost opportunity. Despite having some interesting conversations with parts of the Democratic base from which we rarely hear, such as African American women*, Henneberger chose in her op-ed to focus on herself -- not quite literally herself, but women very much like herself: middle-aged white Catholics who consider themselves good liberals but reject the Democratic Party over abortion. Though Henneberger doesn't explicitly reveal her own position on legalized abortion in the op-ed, she unintentionally makes it clear elsewhere, as when she refers to the women she interviewed as "we." In a book tour interview, Henneberger says, "One thing I heard again and again from women across the political spectrum was the desire for authenticity, for less pandering and intellectual dishonesty from candidates. In fact, many women suggested it was more important that candidates come across like THEY believe what they're saying than that we agree with them!"
But this is precisely what the Democratic candidates whom she chastises for their concern about the Carhart decision have been doing. One of my Republican friends briefly thought Obama might be our next president based mostly on his speech about how his campaign misstepped in disrespecting pro-life voters (they were first in line before the online activists and Indians). A couple months after the 2004 election, Sen. Clinton was making speeches about how abortion "represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women" and voicing her respect for "those who believe with all their hearts and conscience that there are no circumstances under which any abortion should ever be available." Both Obama and Clinton are stalwart supporters of a constitutional right over one's reproduction, which right currently is founded in Roe, but they also recognize that their opponents on the issue can be well-intentioned people.
The Democratic front-runners' lawyerly disdain for the majority opinion in Carhart -- a disdain shared by Reagan solicitor general Charles Fried -- is based on Kennedy's disregard for the actual facts on women's health and adoption of Congress's spurious findings to the contrary. Refusing to give a health exception for an abortion regulation is a huge break with precedent. Roe said that states could ban abortion after viability, "except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother." For attorneys to nod their heads along dumbly with Kennedy simply because the majority of Americans find it worse to crush a fetus's skull outside a uterus than to do the same inside a uterus would be intellectually dishonest. Indeed, one issue that sticks in my craw with regard to Sen. Clinton was her pandering proposal to ban flag desecration, when she knows very well that such legislation impinges on the First Amendment.
* From a that book tour interview:
One of the surprises was the intensity of opposition to gay marriage among black women, even those for whom it was not a religious issue. Black women are both the most Democratic voting bloc and the most opposed to gay marriage, so it's a tricky issue for Democrats. (One woman I met in Oregon, for instance, said that Bush scared her more gay marriage, but once he's out of office she might switch to the Republican Party.) I also found that the fairness argument was a non-starter for some of the African-American women I talked to, who did not want to hear gay rights compared to civil rights. And yes, I think these problems are enduring ones for the party, which must find ways to make those religious swing voters feel less excluded. ...Apparently the GOP has succeeded in convincing this group with higher rates of out-of-wedlock births that letting two men marry somehow will make men less likely to marry women. (Note to the secular black woman: If you're so desperate for a man that you'd take a guy who sneaks off for homosexual sex, you might want to look outside the African American male pool for potential marriage partners.) And is this solely a higher-than-average opposition to gay marriage, or also to orientation equality generally -- are black women more likely than other Democrats to be against including sexuality in anti-discrimination law?
For many, of course, it's part of their religious faith. But as one secular black woman told me, "Anything that takes men out of the marriage pool, we're against.'' So many black men are incarcerated that the demographic reality is that there are many more women in the marriage pool, and the "down low'' phenomenon of hidden bisexuality in the African-American community has also contributed to the feeling among some women that gay men are the competition.
** At the end of his speech:
A few days after I won the Democratic nomination in my U.S. Senate race, I received an email from a doctor at the University of Chicago Medical School that said the following:
"Congratulations on your overwhelming and inspiring primary win. I was happy to vote for you, and I will tell you that I am seriously considering voting for you in the general election. I write to express my concerns that may, in the end, prevent me from supporting you."
The doctor described himself as a Christian who understood his commitments to be "totalizing." His faith led him to a strong opposition to abortion and gay marriage, although he said that his faith also led him to question the idolatry of the free market and quick resort to militarism that seemed to characterize much of President Bush’s foreign policy.
But the reason the doctor was considering not voting for me was not simply my position on abortion. Rather, he had read an entry that my campaign had posted on my website, which suggested that I would fight "right wing ideologues who want to take away a woman’s right to choose." He went on to write:
"I sense that you have a strong sense of justice... and I also sense that you are a fair minded person with a high regard for reason... Whatever your convictions, if you truly believe that those who oppose abortion are all ideologues driven by perverse desires to inflict suffering on women, then you, in my judgment, are not fair-minded... You know that we enter times that are fraught with possibilities for good and for harm, times when we are struggling to make sense of a common polity in the context of plurality, when we are unsure of what grounds we have for making any claims that involve others... I do not ask at this point that you oppose abortion, only that you speak about this issue in fair-minded words."
I checked my web-site and found the offending words. My staff had written them to summarize my pro-choice position during the Democratic primary, at a time when some of my opponents were questioning my commitment to protect Roe v. Wade.
Re-reading the doctor’s letter, though, I felt a pang of shame. It is people like him who are looking for a deeper, fuller conversation about religion in this country. They may not change their positions, but they are willing to listen and learn from those who are willing to speak in reasonable terms -- those who know of the central and awesome place that God holds in the lives of so many, and who refuse to treat faith as simply another political issue with which to score points.
I wrote back to the doctor and thanked him for his advice. The next day, I circulated the email to my staff and changed the language on my website to state in clear but simple terms my pro-choice position. And that night, before I went to bed, I said a prayer of my own -- a prayer that I might extend the same presumption of good faith to others that the doctor had extended to me.
It is a prayer I still say for America today – a hope that we can live with one another in a way that reconciles the beliefs of each with the good of all. It’s a prayer worth praying, and a conversation worth having in this country in the months and years to come. Thank you.