- The Washington Times - Friday, August 24, 2001

In the aftermath of President Bush's decision on embryonic stem cell research, many outspoken pro-lifers have been professing moral outrage. But what most pro-lifers don't seem to understand is that their cause has been helped by the past several months of public discussion. The pro-life movement may have lost this battle, but it is one step closer to winning the war.
In mainstream America, support for abortion has never been as deep-seated or ironclad as the liberal elite would like us to believe. Choice is a benign, even friendly-sounding word, and many Americans are loathe to oppose the principle of "choice." In the label wars inside the Beltway, the forces of the left win when they cloak abortion as "choice," "reproductive freedom," and a "woman's right to control her own body." As long as the debate is framed as impacting a singular person the woman then multitudes of soccer moms, and even football dads, are willing to tag themselves as pro-choice. But when abortion becomes an issue that affects a mother and her child, the politics of "pro-choice" get a lot messier.
The most brilliant strategy ever employed by pro-lifers was to coax state legislatures and Congress to vote to ban partial birth abortions. And the best gift Bill Clinton ever gave pro-lifers was to keep the issue alive with his veto pen. Though a terribly gruesome procedure, partial-birth abortions nonetheless constituted a small minority of all abortions performed. So why go after that one procedure? Because it allowed abortion to emerge from the philosophical context, where pro-choicers typically win, and forced ordinary folks to face the ugly truth about "choice."
Primarily because of the nationwide debate over partial-birth abortion, support for abortion rights has declined substantially since 1995. According to Gallup, 56 percent of registered voters that year identified themselves as pro-choice, and only 33 percent as pro-life. This June, the Polling Company found that the gap had narrowed by 16 points, standing at 46 to 39 percent.
Much like the debate over partial-birth abortion, Americans could not just flippantly reply "I'm pro-choice" and be done with the stem-cell decision. The answers are not obvious, and to come to a decision, people had to really think about the nitty gritty details of life and conception. The more one sits and reflects over these complex issues, the more likely one is to discard the old feel-good, pro-choice stance.
Polling Company President Kellyanne Conway, who has done extensive polling of attitudes toward all aspects of abortion, notes that two groups exist in abortion politics. The first group bases its position on morality and religion (or the lack thereof), and the other segment relies primarily on science. Attitudes in the first category have hardly budged in the past five or six years, but a lot of movement has occurred in the second group during that same span.
In the context of partial-birth abortion, it is entirely possible to believe that the late-term fetus is a child, and yet remain pro-choice in a more limited sense. People started making the rationalization that the second and third trimesters constitute life, but not the first. Mainly because of the national debate of the late 1990s, the Polling Company recently found that only 16 percent of Americans believe that abortion should be allowed for any reason after the first trimester.
In the stem cell discussion, however, the rationalization that takes place is significantly different. People want to see this amazing potential being promoted, but they draw a new line that says embryos in a research lab are not human life, but an embryo in a womb is life. But the former view is not some fringe minority. Fully 36 percent of respondents said that an embryo not implanted in a mother's womb should be treated under the law as human life, according to a new CNN/USA Today Gallup poll.
So what are the early results on how the embryonic stem cell debate has influenced abortion politics? You have to take any single poll with a grain of salt, but Gallup released numbers shortly after Mr. Bush's decision that showed, for the first time, as many people called themselves pro-life as did pro-choice, at 46 percent each. In the wake of what seemed like a defeat, that is very good news for pro-lifers indeed.

Joel Mowbray ([email protected]) is a freelance writer.

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