The Politics of Abortion

July 01, 1992

Democrats may not be able to make the abortion issue the silver bullet that kills President Bush in the 1992 election. They had hoped the Supreme Court would confirm their worst fears and Mr. Bush's professed wishes by overturning Roe vs. Wade, thereby affronting the clear national majority, especially among women, that insists on abortion rights. Instead, one of Mr. Bush's own appointees, Justice David Souter, provided the key vote by which the right to choose was upheld, though subject to tighter state restrictions.

In political terms this muddles the issue, just as Republican strategists had wished. The Souter vote cancels the dissent of Mr. Bush's other appointee, Justice Clarence Thomas. Instead of thumping for the outright overturn of Roe, Mr. Bush now can counter Democratic passage of a Freedom of Choice Act not only with a veto but with the court's powerfully expressed compromise. GOP handlers have long considered abortion a loser for their candidate, a judgment shared by Democrat Bill Clinton and independent Ross Perot, who may split the pro-choice vote in November.

In the aftermath of the court's 5-4 decision, zealots on both sides of the abortion issue were quick to react with predictable exaggeration.

Movement conservatives, who don't like Mr. Bush anyway, assailed the "wimp bloc" on the court for betraying their cause. Their targets were Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony M. Kennedy, both Reagan appointees, plus Justice Souter. These three have combined to keep the court on a moderate path in recent decisions.

Liberals, in looking for a worse-case scenario with which to clobber the president, claimed that Roe vs. Wade really was dead and the court's seeming compromise merely a smoke screen and a facade. In this opinion, they had an unlikely ally in Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, leader of the four dissenters (including JFK appointee Byron R. White) who wanted to overturn the 1973 decision.

It is fair to say that the court, once again, sought to reflect a national consensus -- in this case the view that abortion rights should be preserved but under reasonable limitations as determined in individual states. It is also fair to say that Justice Souter (and Justice White) have shown once again that the future voting patterns of a justice cannot always be accurately anticipated, even by the president who does the appointing.

Governor Clinton, seeking abortion rights votes, said he would appointed only right-to-choose justices if he is elected. But Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, Reagan and Bush could tell him, with vivid examples, that the presidential reach ends at the Supreme Court's door.

We find this healthy for our political as well as our judicial system. Abortion should be a key issue in this campaign, but it should not be the only issue. The court has ruled in a way that will allow American voters to judge the presidential candidates through many prisms.

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