Will Coloradans Get Real About the Politics of Abortion?

DENVER — Maybe it’s time to get real about the politics of abortion. Maybe voters in Colorado are on the verge of doing just that.

The polling on this challenging issue is nuanced. So are the views of most Americans. This is as it should be. It’s a subject with compelling moral, constitutional, theological, and scientific arguments on both sides of the question. Yet it’s reduced to caricature by our binary political system.

The official Republican Party platform, adopted every four years at convention time, holds that human life is sacrosanct from the moment of conception, which is to say from the moment a sperm cell fertilizes an egg. Interfering with the process that follows, maintains the GOP, is the taking of a human life. Therefore, it should be legally forbidden. And this means without exception, regardless of the health condition or age of the mother—or whether her pregnancy resulted from incest or forcible rape. Adherents to this view like to be called “pro-life.”

Meanwhile, The Democratic Party position, adopted quadrennially at its presidential nominating convention, holds that abortion is a woman’s basic human right, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution—and that no man, no Republican, no Congress, no legislature, no state court, no popular referendum of the voters can put any restriction on it, even something as non-invasive as requiring adoption counseling. Minors can get abortions; there should be no trimester limitation, nor any limit on the number a woman can have. The prospective father need not be notified. This is called being “pro-choice.”

Democrats are vigilant in protecting this choice. Earlier this year, Senate Republicans attempted to draw attention to new pre-natal research by naming a bill that would ban abortion after 20 weeks the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. Democrats were unmoved: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made sure it never came to the floor for a vote, but not before California Sen. Barbara Boxer said such a law would “drive more women to rogue doctors,” adding the Democrats’ ubiquitous battle cry: “It’s a war on women.”

That’s one way to look at it. Here’s another: That kind of rhetoric is a war on common sense, not to mention a war on American public opinion. Consistent results over the years from Gallup and other polling organizations show that the Democrats’ stance and the Republicans’ combined don’t reflect that of even half the electorate. Questioned whether abortion should be “legal under any circumstances,” 28 percent of Americans agree. How about “illegal in all circumstances”? That nets 21 percent. “Legal only under certain circumstances”—the position of neither major political party in this country—registered 50 percent.

So what does this have to do with Colorado? The answer is everything, thanks to the campaign that incumbent Sen. Mark Udall and his Democratic allies are waging. The Senate seat being contested here actually features two fairly appealing candidates, not that you’d know it by the nasty and relentlessly negative ads being aired round the clock in the closing days of the campaign. This week the bulk of the attacks are leveled at Republican challenger Cory Gardner, portrayed in a blizzard of Democratic 30-second spots as an extremist, a liar, a sexist, and a man who wants to put women in jail for buying birth control pills.

One attack ad, titled “Outlaw,” was produced by a Democratic super PAC run by Harry Reid’s former chief of staff. It depicts prison doors slamming on a succession of women, including one who appears to be buying birth control pills at a pharmacy.

“Cory Gardner led the charge for a constitutional amendment that would outlaw common forms of birth control,” the female narrator says. Another spot by the same group depicts a woman behind bars, presumably for either having an abortion or performing one. It ends with the incendiary assertion that if the Republican candidate had his way, “doctors would have faced up to 12 years in prison, meaning a rape victim’s doctor could be punished more severely than her rapist.”

Just to get this out of the way, the sensational claims the ads make aren’t true. What Gardner objects to is Obamacare, not family planning; he’s actually proposed that birth control pills be sold over the counter instead of requiring a doctor’s prescription.

But make no mistake, the Republican congressman is as much a player in our bipolar politics as Barbara Boxer. It was Gardner’s support of “personhood” ballot measures that opened him up to attack ads in the first place.

Gardner was a strong supporter of Colorado ballot initiatives seeking to amend the state constitution to say that fertilized eggs have the same legal rights as human being. It lost by a landslide as recently as 2010. Running statewide for the first time in 2014, Gardner has reversed himself.  Asked why, he told the Denver Post that he’d taken to heart the claims that this bill would have potential consequences for certain types of birth control, not just abortion.

“I’ve learned to listen,” he said. “I don’t get everything right the first time.”

This explanation stretches credulity, especially since Gardner remains a co-sponsors in the House of a social conservative hobby horse called the Life Begins at Conception Act,” which is quite similar.

But the Democrats’ pious claim that they are running these relentless “war on women” attacks against Gardner because of his credibility, and not because of abortion, is also disingenuous. Of course, he isn’t telling the truth! The two political parties, with their unforgiving, single-issue, absolutist and well-heeled special interest groups, won’t let candidates with nuanced views do any such thing. They haven’t for years.

Was George H.W. Bush, former donor to Planned Parenthood, telling the truth when he switch from pro-choice to pro-life in the flash of an eye? Or did Ronald Reagan tapping him to be his running mate having something to do with it?

Then there are the prominent Democrats who were reliably pro-life when they represented districts, states, or constituencies where abortion was held in low regard. Democrats such as Richard Gephardt, Jesse Jackson Jr., Al Gore, Bill Clinton and, of course, Harry Reid.

Perhaps voters here in Colorado will demonstrate on Nov. 4 that they realize that on this issue the two major political parties demand loyalty, not honesty, and that to get to Congress, sometimes the ancient wisdom of Sam Rayburn still applies: to get along, you have to go along.