Roe Gave Birth to Politics of Personal Destruction

The 35th Anniversary of Roe must be about more than just one medical procedure. It must also be about understanding how the political tactics many Americans reject have their roots in the election immediately following Roe and how those tactics continue to divide us today. We cannot expect to heal our democracy until we understand what these tactics are doing to our politics.

Issues of race and gender now front and center in Election 2008 make for a painful history, complicated present, and promising future if America can realize its unifying dream. That race and gender issues are being exploited for political gain by people on the left who fight for the rights of women, people of color and differing sexual and gender identities, is beyond disappointing. It is hurtful, divisive and risks an historical moment that people of all races, genders and orientations have bled and died to create.

Our politics will never transcend the historically intersecting oppressions of race, gender and orientation by capitulating to a divisive politics born in the wake of Roe. That post-Roe politic was perfected by forces opposed to a Supreme Court ruling that dared allow women and doctors to make private medical decisions free from government intrusion.

We cannot expect to heal a nation divided with political tactics used to manipulate voters and manufacture a movement since Roe.

The First Post-Roe Election

It was 1974, a brisk November Sunday before an historic election, the nation ready to lift itself from scandal, war and a faltering economy. As people in my heavily Catholic precinct in Topeka, Kansas, left for church, they saw hanging on their doors pictures of aborted fetuses and two words: Vote Dole! When I asked my father about it over breakfast (I was 11) he said, "It's just political dirty tricks taken to a new low."

Sen. Bob Dole was in his first term, hand-picked by President Richard Nixon to lead the Republican National Committee, thus closely linked to the debacle the administration became as a result of Watergate, inflation, and failed policies in Vietnam. Sen. Dole was in a tight, nationally watched race with two-term Congressman Dr. Bill Roy, an ob-gyn who changed parties because of the war.

Dole won with 50.9 percent of the vote, a margin of a few thousand votes out of 800,000 cast, carrying largely Catholic precincts that Roy, Catholic himself, had easily won in his Congressional races.

Flash forward to 1996, when, quite ironically, Sen. Dole was viewed suspiciously by social conservatives as he sought the GOP nomination to run against President Bill Clinton. Despite a near perfect anti-choice voting record, Dole had not made outlawing abortion a priority, and the movement his 1974 election helped spawn, turned on him.

These insights are from Elizabeth Kolbert's excellent 1996 New York Times profile of Dole, Abortion: Dole's Sword in '74 Confronts Him in '96. In it, she writes,

"It was not a major point of conviction for him," noted another longtime adviser, who like several others interviewed spoke only on the condition of anonymity. "It's just that it turned out to be a significant point of vulnerability for his opponent."

Dole discovered that point of vulnerability almost as an afterthought. But he soon turned a State Fair debate about agriculture into a discussion of how many abortions Dr. Roy performed. It was a desperate move, according to Kolbert's reporting. But anti-choice forces seized upon it and, with or without Dole's consent, continued to raise the issue, and delivered last-minute abortion literature.

Dole was never pure enough for the anti-choice forces, but his prominence in the GOP ensured that the success of his eleventh-hour abortion tactic spread like a prairie fire across the nation.

What started as a small, fairly decentralized anti-choice opposition based on genuine religious belief found power in the tactics of a desperate politician who didn't share their passion. They set about electing people who did, and perfecting the politics of personal destruction, promising to take out anyone who stood in their way. Republican politicians desperate for a Congressional majority played along, as did Dole, thinking they could control the nice religious people that made up the movement.

Democratic politicians first rallied, then cowered, compromising their own principles on issues of privacy and personal liberty, trying to appease the so-called Moral Majority, rather than articulating their own values. Democrats lost their majority in 1994 and Dole lost his best shot at the Presidency in 1996.

Instead of being controlled, the post-Roe politics of the far-right took control of the GOP. It was expanded to stigmatize people of different sexual and gender identities as well as the more than one-third of American mothers who have also had abortions. Social conservatives, employing strategies of their modern guru Karl Rove, made politics so distasteful that fewer people participated, thus making the voices of those who did speak seem even louder in the public square.

The result?

In 2008, as the first female and first African-American candidates have a genuine shot at becoming president, we are witnessing an explosion of misogyny and racism that reminds us how far we have to go — because we've allowed the post-Roe politics of personal destruction to become the way our democracy functions. Instead of celebrating the triumph of generations who fought to give women and minorities more opportunity, the progressive coalition risks turning its greatest achievement into nothing more than politics as usual.

Rather than debating ideas and principles, some liberals have adopted the divide-and-conquer mentality of the anti-choice opposition, engaging in never ending war-rooms and failing to differentiate politicians they mostly agree with from those whose ideas are truly regressive.

Thirty-five years after Roe our nation is more divided than ever — not because of the private medical procedure it legalized, but because of the politics that developed in the decision's wake. Anti-choice forces have not over-turned Roe. Of their leading candidates, Mayor Rudy Giuliani would not change Roe, Gov. Mitt Romney has been on both sides of the issue and Sen. John McCain has said, "In the short-term, or even the long term, I would not support the repeal of Roe v. Wade, which would then force X number of women in America to undergo illegal and dangerous operations." Only Gov. Mike Huckabee is a sure a bet for the anti-Roe crowd.

In his pre-quel to what he sees as a disastrous election for conservatism in 2008, David Frum, in Conservatism That Can Win Again, also suggests that the anti-Roe crowd relax, and take a back seat to more important issues.

In other words, even the GOP is still divided on Roe after 35 years. But at some point Roe must be recognized as settled law, while the political tactics surrounding the issue must be correctly recognized as unsettling to our democracy.

Anti-choice forces have not contributed to the political dialog or public health strategies that could prevent unintended pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Instead, they chose to use their divisive tactics to stigmatize, creating a culture where violence against women, doctors and clinics is applauded.

Democrats are by no means all pro-choice, but the leading candidates for President are, signaling more comity on policy, even where they employ divisive post-Roe political tactics.

If the issue of abortion is really what matters, then the discussion should be about education, contraception, prevention and medical privacy.

But it seems no candidate on either side cares to talk about the substance of reproductive health publicly, preferring to use abortion as the hot-button it is to rally their respective base voters, having adopted the post-Roe politics of personal destruction.

At a moment when more voters than ever are paying attention to this historic election, those who have fought to create a diverse nation, respectful of all genders, races and orientations, should recognize and reject the politics of division that those opposed to Roe have used to poison our civil discourse.

If that style of politics really worked, we would not be marking the 35th Anniversary of Roe as settled law, but fighting for rights in the states. If that politics worked, we would not be worried about keeping abortion legal and safe, but creating underground networks for banned contraception, and would not see gains and acceptance of gay people, or even women and minorities rising in politics to new heights, because the old order would have won. Fear of the post-Roe political tactics and the compromise of principles that grew from it, are responsible for the state of our politics today. America has never operated from a place of fear, and our politics should reject these fear-based tactics once and for all.

The only thing the post-Roe politics has proved to be is divisive. They have distracted our nation from important business, prevented social progress and politicized the judiciary.

The post-Roe politics never delivered on the promise of outlawing abortion, but used the issue to manipulate true believers for the past 35 years. President Bush has delivered two U. S. Supreme Court Justices, but after 35 years, that hardly seems like evidence that the post-Roe politics has been successful at anything but creating more polarization.

The movement keeps busy in the states, trying to define fertilized human eggs as people with rights, making access to reproductive health care harder for women, limiting sexuality education to failed abstinence-only programs, and stigmatizing gay youth. That is not evidence of a successful political movement, but of fringe ideas on the extremes of society distracting the nation's business.

Sure, politicians can win by destroying their opponents with innuendo and last minute attacks that appeal to their base, but is that really what we've been working toward as a nation — better political tactics? Or is that why more Americans have been tuning out of politics for the past generation, and why in this election — so far — more are tuning in, because they sense real change is possible.

Abortion may have been a "significant point of vulnerability" for Bob Dole to exploit in 1974, but look at what his desperate campaign tactic turned into, and what it has done to our democracy ever since.

When it comes to issues of race and gender, sexuality and reproductive health, politicians from all parts of the political spectrum would be wise to think about whether or not their desperate campaign tactics, and the personal issues they choose to exploit today, will have a similar impact 35 years from now.

True leadership can be seen in those who choose a higher path, based on principle and judgment that appeals to the best in all of us, rejecting baser instincts and impulses.

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  • amanda-marcotte

    It's worth noting that the Christian right that spearheaded this uglier and uglier version of politics, didn't actually organize against reproductive rights, as myth would have it. The major instigator was desegregation. The anti-choice movement is tied up irrevocably with white supremacists, which is something that people try to shove down the memory hole.

  • invalid-0

    “Roe Gave Birth to Politics of Personal Destruction”

    Scott, I read the title of your column on a google alert and thought it was written by a pro-lifer.

    I’m sure your “gave birth” was intended to be clever, but “personal destruction” was an unintentional poke back at you, perhaps a Freudian slip. Not much could personally destroy someone more than abortion, as in kill them.

  • scott-swenson


    I choose my words very carefully, so I can assure there was no slip. By stating it the way I did, I intentionally raise the question: Which is more harmful to our democracy; the continued focus on one private medical procedure that many social conservatives agree has come to dominate politics in an unhealthy way, or the politics that you and others have perfected in its wake?

    The question this year Jill is about how this nation conducts it’s business, and you are on the wrong side of that debate.

    Thanks for the comment, I enjoy your blog too.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    Scott, thanks for the comment on my blog. I also enjoy reading RH Reality Check, although, of course, we couldn’t disagree more.

    BTW, I notice you repeatedly call it a medical procedure, rather than abortion.

    The height of irony is that you call pro-lifers fighting abortion “unhealthy,” while Amanda says it is we making politics “uglier and uglier.”

    Scott, who started this? I’ll answer that.

    By judicial fiat the Supreme Court in 1973 thwarted the U.S. political process by overturning every state anti-abortion law in one fell swoop. By reading what your side said at the time, you expected that decision to end the debate, but it only created swift and strong negative reaction by its undemocratic dictatorial move.

    Scott, you wish we would accept Roe v. Wade as settled law. That will never ever happen. Ever.

  • scott-swenson

    The important thing is that the majority of Americans view Roe as settled law, and do not want abortion or contraception to be made illegal. I understand that there will always be a very vocal minority that will not appreciate why women should be able to make their on private health care decisions. The point is that as the pendulum swings back toward the center from the extreme far right place its been with your crowd, more people will realize just how small that vocal minority is.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    the Supreme Court did the right thing with it’s “judicial fiat”. Laws which deny women the right to decide are completely, utterly, and dead wrong (As well as unconstitutional). Anti abortion laws are politically- motivated paternalism at it’s worst.

  • invalid-0

    “The 35th Anniversary of Roe must be about more than just one medical procedure.” Indeed. It is about taking human life to solve personal or social problems and whether or not we have a constitutional right to do just that. And that issue will never go away, Scott, until it is resolved in favor of human life. The reason is easy enough to understand. If we allow a right to choose to supersede a right to life, we have fundamentally mitigated and compromised our Constitution. If that happens the American Experiment will inevitably fail. That is why Roe must go. I think, deep down, Scott, you know that.

  • invalid-0

    The American Experiment only fails if women are denied the right to decide when, if and how many children they produce. The government should not and cannot decide for us. When their right to life is abridged in favor of so-called “fetal rights”, this great country will be thrown into reserve.

  • invalid-0

    No, Ruthless. The experiment fails when women or men are allowed to kill other innocent women or men to solve personal or social problems. The advocates of abortion, I believe,know that, and that is why they will not face the fact that abortion is just that, killing human beings. They will talk about anything else under the sun, but as these posts clearly show they will not discuss the central issue involved, that every abortion ends a life.

  • harry834

    Should the women get the same criminal penalty for murder? Life in prison? Death penalty?

  • scott-swenson

    Joanne, deep down I know that valuing women’s health decisions and making sure that families are ready to bring children into the world by planning properly, will do far more to bring peace to this issue than prohibition of abortion, prohibition of contraception, and abstinence-only policies will ever do. Fundamentally, if we are agreed that we want to value life then we must stop devaluing women, gender and sexual minorities, and pretending that the only way to have a healthy sex life is to only use sex to reproduce. That may work within the confines of some dogma that people are free to choose to follow, but it does not work for everyone, and we decided long ago that in America, one dogma would never rule all people. Please, follow your own moral judgments and live as you believe you must, but afford others the same opportunity. Imposing your belief system on all people has not worked and will not work, and it has derailed our democracy. It is time for so-called ‘pro-life’ forces to take responsibility for their role in aborting democracy.

    Be the change you seek,

    Scott Swenson, Editor

  • http://thecurvature invalid-0

    So the anti-choice movement isn’t content anymore with calling embryos and fetuses “babies?” They’re now “men and women?” If that were true, it would in fact strengthen my pro-choice convictions. It’s bad enough making a woman carry around a “baby” for nine months against her will, but to carry around a “man” in her stomach for nine months against her will? It really goes to show just how much the anti-choicers want to forget the fact that when it comes to pregnancy, we’re talking about a woman’s body, not some magical floating incubator. I imagine that if women could carry around fully grown human beings inside their bodies, we would still be considered selfish for arguing that no one should be able to force us to do so, and it would still be claimed that there are absolutely no potential health risks involved.

  • harry834

    And essential to democracy, is the freedom to decide the fate of your body. Especially in a society where 95% will have sex before marriage, including many pro-lifers (who often won't talk about it with other pro-lifers).

  • invalid-0

    pro choice views. On this one discussion board, some pro lifers do that a lot. You also mis-state the central issue involved. It really revolves around who has the right to make the choice: women, or the government? Pro choicers feel women are more than competant and the government should not be making this choice for us, because it is not qualified.

  • invalid-0

    I am a woman. The government never forced me to have a child. I decided myself. Don’t your see the absurdity of that twaddle? We live in the freest society on earth, yet the government forces us to have children! What the government does or should do is force us to accept responsibility for the human beings we create in our wombs by engaging in sexual activity with a man. And, Interesting, there are two bodies (possibly more) involved in every pregnancy. There is a human being in the womb with its own DNA, its own blood type, its own developing body, as well as the mother’s body. Call it a man, woman, baby, fetus or any name. The fact is it shares our common humanity and therefore is entitled to the same basic human rights our Constitution guarantees all of us. That’s not rocket science. It’s merely he application of the latest technological information to the question of when life begins.

  • invalid-0

    On this 35th Anniversary of Roe v Wade it has been interesting to read all of your comments. This is my first attempt at “blogging” but I couldn’t resist sharing a poem written 25 years ago, yet ever more applicable today.

    THE CRY !

    THE CRY OF IT IS COME UNTO ME…”[Genesis 18:20-21]

    A.D. 02

    The Cry !
    It must have sounded
    Through the sky

    As from their mothers’ breasts
    Were torn the innocent.
    Oh, babes in Bethlehem!
    You took the blows of Herod’s hate.

    How many thousands
    Gave their tender lives
    That One might live
    To later Die
    So all might live?

    How many thousand pairs
    Of aching arms – unfilled
    Maternal moments ever yearning?

    He who lived –
    Died –
    Lives –
    And Loves.

    He knows the ache – the agony –
    He understands the pain –
    He knows each little one
    Who cried and died for Him,
    And loving each – gives peace.

    THE CRY !
    SINCE A.D. JANUARY 22, 1973

    The Cry ! The Silent Cry !
    How can it
    Reach the sky?

    Cry out you millions !
    Tender voices yet unheard,
    Stilled ‘ere your cords could sound !

    Oh, what songs you might have sung,
    What thoughts inspired,
    What acts of peace performed?

    Cry out ye billion stones of earth
    The agony you feel
    When to your heart again
    The precious blood of innocence
    Soaks deep.

    Oh, Woe ! This modern mood –
    It’s Herod-like greed
    Echoing hollow base desires
    Has silenced ‘ere you learned to breathe
    All your creativeness –
    No chance to give the world
    Your beauty and your love.

    Oh future –
    What will become our race?

    Cry Out – You babes
    Who would have been !

    — Jean S. Groberg (1983)

  • harry834

    "The government never forced me to have a child."

    Point 1: Even if having the child was the right choice for you, it will not be the right choice for others. The only way to be sure is let the pregnant woman decide for herself, and no one else.

    Point 2: "What the government does or should do is force us to accept responsibility for the human beings we create in our wombs by engaging in sexual activity with a man."

    This is another way of saying that the government should ban or restrict abortion. When the government takes way the right to abortion, it prevents the woman from having the choice for herself. With government taking away the choice to end pregnancy, the government is forcing pregnancy to happen.

    Unless she goes out and has abortion by herself, ie. through unsafe means. Thousands of women died from these unsafe, illegal abortions not performed by a proper physician.

    Thank you government, for pushing these women to death.

    And, joanne, you're supporting that government.

    *And remember friends and neighbors, safe and legal abortion is 10 times safer than childbirth itself. So of all the motives to stop abortion, women's health is nowhere on the list of concerns.


  • invalid-0

    someone will write a poem about the very real cries of women. Not just the imaginary cries of imaginary babies.