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Abortion Politics

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There are indications America is becoming more liberal: recent Supreme Court rulings opened the door to same-sex marriage; more and more states are legalizing access to marijuana; and Rush Limbaugh is losing sponsors.  Nonetheless, since the 2010 mid-term elections, Republicans have waged an aggressive campaign to limit abortion rights.

Polls indicate that Americans attitudes about abortion have not changed since the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision.  On the average more than fifty percent of Americans support a woman's right to have an abortion in some circumstances.

Despite this reality, Republicans see abortion as a key issue.  The New York Times reported, "The success of new limits on when, how and where abortions can be done has invigorated the Republican base like few other issues this year. Because of such intensity, anti-abortion groups say they have found interest among the newer generation of Republican senators, especially those seeking to build up, or in some cases repair, their standing with conservative voters."

From my perch on the left coast there seem to be three explanations for the ferocious GOP attack on abortion rights.  The first is that abortion is a complex and emotional subject that touches most Americans.  While most oppose the repeal of Roe v Wade, few are in favor of unrestricted abortions.  A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found that 56 percent of respondents "said they'd prefer to impose limits on abortions after the first 20 weeks of pregnancy." (Although only 10 percent said they favored a total ban on abortion.)

In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama carried 55 percent of the female vote.  So it would seem that Republicans would want to adopt strategies that would strengthen their appeal to women -- particularly young women, a group they lost overwhelmingly.  But instead they've pursued their war on abortion rights with undiminished vigor.

But it's not only access to abortion that's under attack.  The Guttmacher Institute reported, "In the first six months of 2013, states enacted 106 provisions related to reproductive health and rights; issues related to abortion, family planning funding and sex education were significant flashpoints in several legislatures."

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A second explanation for the GOP strategy is sociological: Republicans are still fighting a war against "sixties values."  That's what University of California professor Ruth Rosen believes, "[Republicans] want to curtail women's sexuality by eliminating contraception as well [as abortion]."  Another UC professor, George Lakoff, agrees, noting there is now an overriding "conservative moral logic" that is inherently patriarchal: "The idealized conservative family is structured around a strict father."  Family values are the values established by the strict father and he controls sex.

Unfortunately, this does not explain why some of the most extreme anti-abortion Republicans are women; for example, Republican Congresswomen Michele Bachman and Marsha Blackburn.

The third explanation for the GOP attack on abortion rights is political.  Abortion has become a litmus test for Tea-party Republicans: the more extreme the position a Republican politician takes on abortion, the more likely he is to attract Tea-Party support.   In a recent New Yorker article Texas Senator Wendy Davis observed: "It all goes back to redistricting" Most states are not having conversations about issues in the middle anymore. When you have districts, like we have here [in Texas], that are almost purely Republican, all political messaging is directed toward Republican primaries.  They don't have to be answerable to anyone outside their base."

The violent gerrymandering that accompanied the rise of the Tea Party, in 2010, promoted the radicalization of the Republican Party.  In many areas of the country, the Republican who wins the primary is the overwhelming favorite to win the general election.  The Republican voters who turn out for the primary are usually the most conservative.  To win their support candidates ratchet up the stakes by taking increasingly radical positions; for example, they oppose abortion under any circumstances; promote defunding of Planned Parenthood; want to require voters to have several forms of ID; oppose all gun control; and seek to defund the federal government.

It's this process that led to the extreme limits placed upon abortion in Texas and the rise of ultra-conservative Texas senator Ted Cruz.  Recently Cruz has led the fight to shut down the government unless an agreement is reached to defund Obamacare.  Describing the Republican leadership as the "surrender caucus" Cruz said, "There is a powerful, defeatist approach among Republicans in Washington.  I think they're beaten down and they're convinced that we can't give a fight, and they're terrified."

"The statements of Senator Cruz indicate that the Republican Party has slid into internecine fighting as the Tea-Party wing takes on the Republican establishment.  As long as this fight continues, it's unreasonable to expect the GOP to soften its position on abortion or women's reproductive health, in general."

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Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. In a previous life he was one of the executive founders of Cisco Systems.

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