The Corner: TNR vs. SBA

This post first appeared online at National Review Online on July 12, 2011.

The Corner: TNR vs. SBA
By Ramesh Ponnuru

The last time Christine Stansell wrote about abortion policy and politics for The New Republic, the result was inaccuracy and confusion. She is at it again, this time with an essay trashing the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group. Let’s take her claims in the order she makes them (rather than in order of falseness).

“Anti-abortion views first entered presidential politics in 1980, seven years after Roe v. Wade, when Ronald Reagan embraced a “family values” agenda to run against Jimmy Carter.” No. During the 1976 primaries Carter himself led Catholic bishops to believe he opposed abortion. During the general election that year Gerald Ford said that he opposed Roe v. Wade and suggested that states should prohibit most abortions (and should be allowed to do so).

“They’ve been the stock-in-trade of Republican candidates ever since, and, this year, a pro-life group called the Susan B. Anthony (SBA) List—more about them in a minute—has instituted an early gut-check, a ’Pro-Life Presidential Leadership Pledge.’ All of the candidates, except Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, and Gary Johnson, have signed it.” Stansell is forgetting Huntsman, but okay–it’s easy to do.

“The SBA pledge signifies a radical escalation of the war against abortion by aiming to mobilize all three branches of government to subvert and overturn Roe.” Um, what? Pro-lifers have always sought this.

“In short, the document stakes out a position that is openly committed to extirpating in Washington any views on abortion except those of hard-core right-to-life activists.” It is certainly true that the SBA List wants to keep people who do not share its views on the policies it is most concerned about from setting those policies. What activist group harbors a different ambition?

“The commitment to cutting off federal funding for any entity associated in any way with abortions brings the ‘gag rule’ home to America. The detested ‘gag rule’ was an executive order issued by Reagan, revoked by Clinton, reinstituted by George W. Bush, and revoked by Obama as one of his early acts in office. It blocked U.S. funding for clinics and hospitals abroad that performed abortions—or even discussed the option of abortion.” This isn’t the most important point in the world, but it’s curious that Stansell, though a pro-choice historian, is apparently unaware of the history of pro-choice propaganda. People on Stansell’s side of the debate introduced the phrase “gag rule” to describe a policy of refusing funds to family-planning programs in the U.S. that promote abortion. (Read Rust v. Sullivan for more background.) Pro-choicers then referred to restrictions in international family planning as a “global gag rule.” Also, note the adjective “detested.” Stansell has a habit of assuming that everyone, or at least everyone worth addressing, already shares the views for which she is trying to argue.

“PPA has been under siege since the fall, when, out of the blue, Tea Party Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana tacked on an amendment to the budget bill to defund PPA because it provides abortions.” In no sense was this move “out of the blue.” Pro-lifers have been trying to do this for years.

“WHO IS BEHIND this weird amalgam of extremist goals. . . ?” Wanting to see pro-life appointments to Cabinet positions, as the SBA List does, is of course no more “extremist” than wanting to see pro-choicers appointed to them, as is the case in the Obama administration.

“The Susan B. Anthony List recently came to prominence in the November midterms and now crows over its success in helping elect several dozen anti-choice candidates to Congress—including the first anti-choice female senator ever, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire.” Ayotte is no more opposed to letting people kill unborn human beings than Elizabeth Dole or Paula Hawkins were.

“[Susan B.] Anthony lived a very long life (1820-1906) and wrote a great deal, but the writings that the SBA List has cherry-picked for evidence of her supposed ‘passionate abhorrence’ for abortion are at best obscure and have no relation to her views about justice for women, which were keyed, above all, to winning the right to vote. In fact, neither Anthony nor any other nineteenth-century women’s rights reformer led an anti-abortion movement, proposed or supported laws to criminalize abortion, or saw abortion as a political problem.” Stansell provides no evidence for the view that Anthony did not “support[]” laws to criminalize abortion and ignores contrary evidence. See, for example, this speech by Anthony, which mentions anti-abortion laws and, while complaining that women had no say in the drafting of any law, also says that “the work of woman is not to lessen the severity or the certainty of the penalty” for various morals laws, including, presumably, the aforementioned laws against abortion. Stansell also entirely ignores all evidence regarding the anti-abortion views of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Victoria Woodhull.

Stansell concludes with two paragraphs complaining that the Republican party no longer has as much room as it once did for supporters of abortion. “Gone is even a hint of toleration for a GOP that would encompass different views—or, for that matter, any idea of a style of governing that could encompass different views. Anti-abortion has become a critical testing ground for the hard-riding high-jackers of moderate opinion.” The Democrats’ declining tolerance for pro-life views does not warrant a full sentence from her.

It is abundantly clear that Stansell detests pro-lifers. It is also clear that for all her passion on the subject of abortion politics, she knows surprisingly little about it.

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