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Issue Date:  November 12, 2004

Tumble ahead for 'values' agenda

Now, reelection safely secured, it’s time for Lucy to yank away the football.

The social-issue conservative Charlie Browns who provided George W. Bush’s comfortable popular vote margin last week are poised for yet another big tumble.

Does anyone really believe that President Bush will put abortion or marriage ahead of the things he demonstrably values, like tax cuts and war? For those who do, we advise both inhaling and exhaling.

On Nov. 3, having barely accepted John Kerry’s concession, the reelected president got a sobering if not surprising message from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“When you talk about judges who would change the right of a woman to choose, overturn Roe v. Wade, I think that is unlikely,” Specter, a pro-choice Republican, told reporters. “The president is well aware of what happened, when a bunch of his nominees were sent up, with the filibuster. ... And I would expect the president to be mindful of the considerations which I am mentioning.”

Overturn Roe v. Wade? Not going to happen.

Recall that Specter owes his political survival to George W. Bush and to his home state colleague, Sen. Rick Santorum. Bush and Santorum, the Republican Party’s leading antiabortion and anti-same-sex marriage spokesman, endorsed and worked hard for Specter in a divisive primary with a conservative opponent. Were it not for them, Specter might very well be enjoying the healthy pension four terms in the U.S. Senate provides.

Santorum reportedly betrayed his conservative pro-life principles for a perceived higher purpose: to keep the Senate Republican. And this is what he gets in return? Specter takes the very first opportunity offered, at a time when the chief justice of the Supreme Court is undergoing chemotherapy, to fire a warning shot across the White House bow. Amazing. Harry Truman was right: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.

The irony of a right-wing Catholic like Rick Santorum being a key player, perhaps the most significant factor, in keeping the Supreme Court unmistakably pro-choice is rich indeed. And a sign, if one is needed, that politics is frequently an imperfect venue for promoting virtue. (We take no position, however, as to whether Santorum’s vote for Specter was a sin, which, given the logic employed by some bishops who cautioned Catholics that they risked eternal damnation by voting for Kerry, appears at least a possibility. But that’s best left to Santorum and his spiritual adviser.)

Nor, despite passage of 11 anti-gay marriage state referendums, is there much reason to believe the Senate will soon be mustering the majority necessary to send such a constitutional amendment to the state legislatures.

So the values voters got suckered again. What else is new?

Which is not, of course, to excuse the Democrats. Remember the pre-primary NARAL Pro-Choice America event at which each of the potential party nominees pledged unyielding support for the pro-abortion rights agenda? The candidates were falling over each other -- one after another -- in their support for the procedure known as partial-birth abortion. How did the Democratic Party become hostage to such a twisted ideology? When did those, for example, who think teenage girls should have parental permission before undergoing significant surgery become extremists?

Yes, there are a lot of issues that matter and, yes, it is sad that this election appears to have been decided by voters whose fondest wishes -- a ban on abortion and gay marriage -- are not going to happen.

And, further, it is true that John Kerry made efforts to reach out to values voters. And it is likewise true that the Democratic Party platform noted that people of goodwill can disagree about abortion.

But it is just as true that the Democratic Party is, at its highest levels, intolerant of those who dare to offer a dissenting thought, a whisper of rationality, on an issue that is full of nuance and uncertainty. When it comes to demanding fealty to the cause, the pro-abortion rights constituency of the Democratic Party makes the National Rifle Association crowd over on the Republican side look like a bunch of liberals.

Absolutism in either direction leads to political gridlock and anger.

The abortion debate in American politics has been shaped and sustained by the extremes. In between, where most people reside, the preference runs to some restrictions and controls. Most people believe abortion should not be absolutely unrestricted.

That is not a bad place to start a discussion within the Democratic Party. Begin the discussion with those who see little use for punitive measures but who also believe that the legal and social regimes surrounding abortion are worthy of discussion. What are they thinking? What would they like to see? Can they envision a way around the impasse of the extremes?

Likewise with embryonic stem cell research. If the argument is that it is simple-minded to ban all research, it is equally unacceptable to pronounce that all research is permissible without regard for ethical considerations because some good might result.

Many of us feel uncomfortable that our politics, not to mention the meaning of “moral values,” are being defined by a few issues and in crass political sound bites. The language itself is disturbing in its implications -- that those who don’t subscribe to such definitions and limitations are somehow immoral.

The way to a broader moral agenda, however, is not by avoiding such issues as abortion and stem cell research, but by confronting them in all of their complexity and being honest about the limits of law and politics in addressing them.

National Catholic Reporter, November 12, 2004

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