Special Report

When Liberals Could Oppose Abortion

Dennis Kucinich must sometime wonder if he was born too late.

5.24.02

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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.

They succeeded in bringing the rest of left in line. Others had to get out of town. One-time abortion foes such as Jesse Jackson and Al Gore switched sides. Meehan now contributes to Human Life Review.

Today there remain some prominent liberals who are opposed to abortion, but you can count them on the fingers of one hand: In addition to Kucinich, there's former Democratic House Whip David Bonior, columnists Mark Shields and Nat Hentoff. They oppose abortion on ethical grounds. Yet they aren't very vocal about it. Presumably, they want to avoid fights with their fellow left-wingers.

In a recent column, Hentoff revealed how his stance almost cost him a lifetime achievement award from the National Press Foundation.

Kucinich, for example, doesn't mention abortion at all on his otherwise comprehensive House website. But his support is there where it counts. "In his two terms in Congress, he has quietly amassed an anti-choice voting record of Henry Hyde-like proportions," Pollitt wrote. Although her column is called "Subject to Debate," she made it clear there is no room on the left to debate this topic.

Pundits tend to view the right's pro-life politics as an albatross weighing it down. If it would only give up its obsession with the fetus, they say, the right could attract more moderate voters. Rarely do those pundits ask the inverse: Does the left's strident support of abortion turn off people who would otherwise support liberal politics? How many activists and leaders like Kucinich has that stance cost them?

Pollitt herself made that point in her article, albeit unintentionally: "That a solidly anti-choice politician could become a standard-bearer for progressivism, the subject of hagiographic profiles in The Nation and elsewhere, speaks volumes about the low priority of women's rights to the self-described economic left, forever chasing the white male working-class vote," she wrote.

Maybe so. Or maybe it speaks to how little priority feminists give to any issue other than abortion.

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