A friend of mine makes it a point to thank politicians who share his commitment to the pro-life cause whenever the opportunity presents itself. A few years ago, he approached his congressman, Dennis Kucinich, and thanked him for standing up for the unborn despite the pressures of belonging to a pro-choice party.
“I am very consistent on this issue,” Kucinich replied. “I don’t eat meat.”
Such is the length to which one must go these days to reconcile progressivism with opposition to abortion. Pro-life Democrats are not exactly unheard of in Ohio — Tony Hall represented a congressional district including Dayton for two decades and Tim Ryan succeeded Jim Traficant in the 2002 election. Even some of the pro-choice Democrats representing Ohio in Congress, such as Rep. Marcy Kaptur and former Rep. Traficant, have a record of supporting moderate abortion restrictions.
Yet pro-life Democrats far enough to the left to chair the Congressional Progressive Caucus are as uncommon in Ohio as elsewhere and thus tend to attract attention. Now vying to be the left’s “peace” candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kucinich has come to find this attention unwelcome and the anomaly of being a pro-life leftist too much for him. In the ignoble tradition of Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Richard Gephardt and Al Gore he has apparently decided to jettison his old views in favor of the Democratic Party orthodoxy.
Rather unaccountably, Kucinich argues that he has done no such thing, that there is no discrepancy between his now-rabid pro-choice position and his voting record. When confronted with the fact that this record earned him a 90 percent National Right to Life Committee rating in his first term and a 95 percent rating in his second — with the imperfections attributable to his support of the Shays-Meehan campaign finance reform bill, not any directly abortion-related vote — he responds that this shows he was pro-choice but opposed to taxpayer funding of abortion. However, his votes for the partial-birth abortion ban and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act went beyond opposition to publicly funded abortion to support for legal protection of pre-born life.
The main advantage Kucinich has in his efforts to bob and weave on the abortion issue is that during his time in Congress, the pro-life movement has focused on incremental reforms rather than sweeping changes like the human life amendment. While he is on record affirming his belief in the sanctity of human life and that life begins at conception, he has never had to vote on whether Roe v. Wade should stand — although according to the Katha Pollitt column that Sean Higgins credits in part for his shift, he did tell Planned Parenthood that he disagreed with the substance of the decision in 1996. Nevertheless, he can somewhat plausibly claim to have never been a hard-line pro-lifer because he has never had to vote on the movement’s ultimate goals.
His 1998 Republican challenger’s position was far less ambiguous. Joe Slovenec was a dedicated pro-lifer active in Operation Rescue, the controversial antiabortion group known for its acts of civil disobedience near abortion clinics. Slovenec himself had been arrested in clinic protests.
After a third-party bid for the U.S. Senate in 1994, in which he ran against Republican Mike DeWine’s support for rape and incest exceptions to a general abortion ban, Slovenec was one of a half-dozen hard-right conservative candidates for Congress in 1998 that called themselves the Patrick Henry Men. Led by Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, the Patrick Henry Men were united by a platform that included abolition of the federal income tax, an end to federal welfare programs, gun rights — and no-exceptions opposition to abortion.
If ever there was an opportunity for Kucinich to clarify his abortion views by asserting his belief in the right to choose, and for pro-life activists to rally behind one of their own as a purer alternative to the Democratic incumbent, it was during the 1998 campaign. Yet neither happened during this race. Kucinich never assailed his challenger’s abortion stance; instead his campaign played up his own pro-life voting record to like-minded voters. Moreover, the Slovenec campaign workers I knew at the time were livid that some pro-lifers were satisfied with Kucinich’s record. They were especially concerned that the tendency of organizations to favor incumbents would cost their candidate major pro-life endorsements. Their worry was not entirely misplaced.
Ohio Right to Life, the state’s largest and most important pro-life organization, stayed neutral in the race. Kucinich, who had narrowly ousted incumbent Republican Martin Hoke two years before, defeated Slovenec by a two to one margin.
Was neutrality a mere concession to political reality, a way to avoid alienating a sometime ally by backing a long-shot challenger? In fact, Kucinich has actively competed for pro-life voters even in campaigns where he was considered a safe bet for reelection. He responded to Ohio Right to Life’s 2000 candidate survey (which he declined to formally fill out) with a letter in which he stated, “I share your pro-life views.” He went on to talk about the pro-life votes he cast in Congress and his support for abortion alternatives and means of avoiding unplanned pregnancies, including abstinence. This was his last campaign before he began the long march away from his previous position.
Kucinich now presents voters with the following dilemma: Which is worse — a candidate who abandons his convictions or one who refuses even to admit that he has done so?