Jonah Goldberg: Abortion debate leaves no room between extremes | TribLIVE.com
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Jonah Goldberg: Abortion debate leaves no room between extremes

Jonah Goldberg
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Women dressed as handmaids protest against a bill banning nearly all abortions at the Alabama State House in Montgomery April 17.

“Democrats are aggressively pushing late-term abortion, allowing children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth,” President Trump said at a Florida rally earlier this month. “The baby is born and you wrap the baby beautifully and you talk to the mother about the possible execution of the baby.”

For cable news talking heads and leading Democrats, this is a demagogic lie. The fact-checkers mostly say it’s a distortion and exaggeration — and it is. It’s a distortion of something Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a pediatric neurologist by training, said days before revelations that he dressed in blackface (or in a Klan outfit) during medical school eclipsed the Virginia abortion controversy.

Trump has been referencing Northam’s remarks since January, when Kathy Tran, a Democratic Virginia delegate, introduced legislation to liberalize abortion in her state. During a colloquy with a Republican lawmaker, Tran said her bill would legalize abortions through the 40th week of pregnancy, including during labor. (She later said she misspoke when it was pointed out that would violate infanticide laws.)

Tran’s bill didn’t pass, but it was part of a trend in liberal states to loosen abortion laws even further. Earlier in January, Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo had signed similar legislation.

All of this is worth keeping in mind amid the furor over Alabama’s near-total abortion ban. If we go by the attitudes of the American people, both the New York and Alabama laws are extreme. Polling on abortion is notoriously fraught. Wording matters enormously because many Americans are conflicted on the issue. But generally, most Americans support early-stage abortions, and opposition grows along with the fetus. According to Gallup, 60 percent of Americans support abortion rights in the first trimester, but only 13 percent do in the third trimester.

Under Roe v. Wade (and later Planned Parenthood v. Casey), the court not only imposed one of the most permissive abortion regimes in the world, it foreclosed state-level compromise, galvanizing the pro-life movement and causing both pro-choicers and pro-lifers to take more absolutist positions.

Alabama’s law is clearly unconstitutional under current precedent. But that’s the point. Alabama’s GOP legislators deliberately passed an unconstitutional law in the hope that the court’s new conservative majority would overthrow Roe and Casey. New York’s Democratic lawmakers weren’t trying to test Roe or Casey, but to create a post-Roe abortion “sanctuary” in case the court does reverse Roe. In other words, Roe is not a “moderate” ruling. Purely in terms of public attitudes, it permits pro-choice extremism (abortions in the 40th week!) but not pro-life extremism (total bans).

Hence, Roe made it necessary for the pro-life movement to embrace an incremental strategy, working to change attitudes, chip away at Roe at the margins and work to reduce the abortion rate (with considerable success). But now that some think the brass ring is in sight, the movement has split between incrementalists and those — like the sponsors of the Alabama bill — who think it’s worth going for broke. (I think the go-for-broke crowd is miscalculating.)

The underlying political reality is that most Americans want a compromise, but the parties are more responsive to the activists and donors. As a result, Democrats have abandoned their “safe, legal and rare” rhetoric, while Republicans are downplaying a “culture of life.” Instead, each seeks to cast the other party as extreme. Republicans highlight rare late-term abortions, and Democrats focus on the also-rare cases of 12-year-olds impregnated by their rapist fathers.

Roe created this polarized — and polarizing — dynamic in which the debate is dominated by the extremes. Overturning Roe and allowing states to pass laws that reflect majority opinion might not defuse the political passion, but at some point we are likely to find out.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief of The Dispatch and the host of The Remnant podcast. His Twitter handle is @JonahDispatch

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