What’s so extreme about using the word “tragic” to describe abortion?
Hillary Clinton did it in 2005. As she prepared a run for president, Clinton, then a senator from New York, said opposing sides in the abortion debate should find “common ground” to prevent unwanted pregnancies and reduce abortions — which she called “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women.”
This week, the Massachusetts Republican state committee adopted a platform that keys at least partly into a similar sentiment: “We affirm the inherent dignity and sanctity of human life,” the Republican platform reads. “We believe that every instance of abortion is tragic. We advocate policies that will assist a woman during a crisis pregnancy.” The GOP platform also states support for “traditional marriage.”
NARAL Pro-Choice Massachusetts, an abortion rights advocacy group, immediately denounced the Republican state committee for supporting “a fringe and extreme social agenda”; the description “tragic” was cited as evidence. And Attorney General Martha Coakley, one of five Democrats running for governor, swiftly sent out an e-mail seeking contributions in the fight she expects to wage against Republican Charlie Baker because he “endorsed a platform that would be a major step backward for women’s rights and equality.”
Back in 2005, liberal Democrats knew exactly what Clinton was doing when she praised the influence of “religious and moral values” on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active, and declared that reducing abortions was a worthy goal. As she laid the groundwork for her presidential campaign, Clinton, a prochoice, feminist icon, was reaching out from the left to more conservative and religious voters in the middle.
Her core supporters may have found it calculating, but they didn’t consider it “a major step backward for women’s rights and equality.” After John Kerry’s 2004 loss to George W. Bush, Democrats pragmatically concluded some language-softening would help on the abortion rights front. But over the last decade, the dynamic shifted.
The abortion rate in the United States dropped to its lowest point since the Supreme Court legalized it in 1973, according to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute, a proabortion-rights think tank. Is that a victory for the persuasiveness of the antiabortion movement? Or is it because — as abortion rights advocates believe — states are making it harder for women who want abortions to get them? Last year, 22 states adopted 70 different restrictions, including late-abortion bans, doctor and clinic regulations, and bans on insurance coverage, The New York Times reported.
Baker is a moderate Republican who supports abortion rights and gay marriage. The language in the GOP platform reflects the view of more conservative activists who make up the elected state committee. Hanging a conservative social agenda around Baker’s neck helps Massachusetts Democrats, and reflects the national Democratic strategy to set up a Republican “war on women.”
Massachusetts is a battleground because of McCullen v. Coakley, the case now before the Supreme Court which address the 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics. The plaintiff, Eleanor McCullen, contends the buffer zone violates her First Amendment rights by restricting her ability to counsel women seeking abortions. As attorney general, Coakley argues that the buffer zone is necessary to protect women from harassment and violence.
Coakley’s credentials as an avid defender of abortion rights are an important part of her gubernatorial campaign — just as they were for her unsuccessful bid for US Senate in 2010. In that primary, in which she was the only female candidate, Coakley said would rather vote no on the national health care bill now known as Obamacare than accept any new restrictions on abortion. In the general election, she questioned the abortion rights commitment of her Republican opponent, Scott Brown, who supported Roe v. Wade but opposed federal funding for abortion. She ultimately lost the race to Brown by a 5-point margin.
In the post-mortems that followed, Brown’s victory was largely attributed to personality. However, his personality was not enough to beat Democrat Elizabeth Warren, who deftly used women’s issues, including abortion rights, against Brown.
In the 2014 governor’s race, Coakley shows signs of taking up the same rallying cry. “Tragic choice” no longer represents a quest for common ground. They are fighting words — to extremists on both sides of the abortion battle.Joan Vennochi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.