Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is a staunch left-liberal who has never given up on the 1960s vision of politics. He’s chairman of the House Progressive Caucus. His pet issue is the establishment of a federal “Department of Peace.”
He’s a fiery speaker too. Earlier this year he gave a stem-winder called “A Prayer for America.” In it, he lashed out at the White House for the war in Afghanistan and the USA Patriot Act. He said the Bush Administration had revoked the U.S. Constitution.
His righteous rhetoric was exactly the tonic liberals were looking for in the wake of 9/11. Many began calling him the new moral leader of the left. A few even spoke of a presidential campaign. But those dreams came crashing to earth recently thanks to Nation columnist Katha Pollitt. Kucinich cannot lead the left, she pointed out: He’s opposed to abortion.
It’s true. “”He absolutely believes in the sanctity of life and that life begins at conception,” his press secretary Kathie Scarrah nervously told me.
This stance must have come as a shock to many liberals. How could a serious progressive oppose abortion?
But Kucinich, whose political career began in 1969, is less a freak than a simple throwback. As amazing as it may seem today, there were once many liberals who opposed abortion.
In fact, the left’s current hard-line pro-abortion stance is a relatively recent phenomenon. As recently as two decades ago, it was still a fiercely-debated issue among liberals. The pro-choicers won, of course, and in the process redefined liberalism.
A sense of the debate liberals once had can be found in the September 1980 issue of the Progressive. Seven years after Roe vs. Wade, it could still run pro- and con- articles on the issue.
The keep-abortion-legal article by Deborah Baldwin made many of the by-now familiar feminist arguments. The pro-life article, however, declared, “The Left has betrayed the sanctity of life.” Its author, Mary Meehan, argued that liberals cannot oppose war, the death penalty and support human rights without also opposing abortion. “We don’t … have either the luxury or the right to choose some types of killing and say they are all right, while others are not,” she wrote.
The articles were accompanied by this astounding editorial:
“The debate over current public policy toward abortion is one that divides the Left, just as it divides others. To pretend otherwise — or to maintain that there is no room for differences on this within the Left — is to divide us further and to weaken us in what must be our common resolve to build a world in which freedom of choice and the right to life can coexist.”
The November 1980 issue reported that those articles brought an “almost unprecedented” outpouring of mail from readers. Several enthusiastically applauded Meehan.
One wrote, “I have found it quite hard to be active in the women’s movement lately because of the single-minded obsession of some activist members with abortion.”
What happened to shift the left to a firm pro-abortion stance? Ronald Reagan’s victory in 1980 was one obvious factor. A staunch opponent of abortion, he forced many to choose sides.
Another factor may have been the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Feminists, Baldwin complained in her article, were devoting all of their energy to that and little to abortion. After ERA died, feminists made abortion their central issue.
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