This unfortunately titled volume is sure to attract many puzzled and curious readers: "They/we won the abortion war?!? When did that happen?" But William Saletan's conservatives are the "pro-choice conservatives"; right-to-life activists call them liberals and politicians call them moderates. These swing voters, conservative but not radical, pro-choice but pro-restriction, have dictated the terms of engagement in the abortion war from the late 1980s on. And Saletan's well-written account of abortion politics since that time gives no indication that the conflict is over, or will be any time soon.
Bearing Right begins its narrative in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1986. Pollster Harrison Hickman is leading a focus group on a proposed amendment to the Arkansas constitution to ban public funding of abortions, while the strategists of the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) watch from behind a darkened glass panel, discussing how to turn the values of the Arkansas populace against the popular amendment. Remarkably, they succeed.
Despite voters' widespread disapproval of public funding for abortion, Hickman found a pair of key weaknesses: women were far less likely to support the amendment when rape entered the picture, and men reacted strongly when the amendment was portrayed as government intrusion into private family decisions. The resulting media campaign based on Hickman's insights marked the beginning of a dramatic shift in the terms of the public discourse on abortion rights. Pro-choice activists embraced the language of libertarian conservatism, the first slip onto a politically expedient slope that would gradually erode the meaning of "choice." They soon found that their ungrammatical new slogan, "Who Decides-You or Them?," was just as useful to their opponents for enforcing patriarchy and limiting the rights the poor and the young as it was for defending abortion rights generally. The only possible answer to the question was "you," but different groups had very different ideas of who, exactly, "you" referred to.
The story of the internal workings of NARAL is relevant to a wide array of scholars, activists, and general readers. For political scientists and historians it presents a compelling and personalized case study on rhetoric, special interests and the meanings of populism. The strategy decisions of NARAL and their consequences underscore the importance of what questions are being asked and in what contexts as competing interests try to define the "will of the people."
As Saletan points out in his less-than-subtle way, the abortion war highlights the pitfalls of sacrificing principles for expediency: inevitably, once the terms of debate are shifted toward the middle, especially in a disingenuous way, the double-tipped pen of rhetoric will write both ways. By 1992, recruiting Barry Goldwater to help defeat an Arizona ballot measure that restricted abortion rights, "pro-choice activists had reached the summit of victory stripped of the cumbersome weight of much of their agenda." "They had conquered the middle ground," Saletan concludes, "and the middle ground had conquered them." More interesting for activists and ideologues may be Saletan's discussion of "the right to choose life." Ironically, as pro-life and pro-choice rhetoric converged into a libertarian chimera of ideals and politics, it was the common ground that lost out. Within the framework of the public debate, in which abortion rights were protected by keeping the government out of personal, family (not individual) decisions, there was little room for protecting the rights of minors or working women to carry pregnancies to term against the respective demands or threats of parents or employers.
Unfortunately the intriguing NARAL story, based on organizational records and interviews, gradually dissolves into the broader context of the recent history of national abortion politics, essentially a distillation of fifteen years of news specials and newspaper clippings. The narrative loses momentum and coherence as it disconnects from the personalities and details of NARAL, and the issues spread from bans on abortion funding and government interference to parental consent laws, rape and incest exceptions, dilation & extraction/partial-birth procedures, cloning and stem cell research, and beyond.
Bearing Right is hardly adequate as a general account of abortion policy and politics; it leaves far too much out. The role of jurisprudence is mentioned occasionally but largely ignored, discussions of state abortion laws are unsystematic, and there is no analysis of the formal positions and ideologies that inform abortion activism. Even if the premise in the title is granted, the question of how the war was won is only partially answered. But what this book does do, it does very well. Saletan's extensive experience as a political correspondent shines as he analyzes the choices and public positions of activists and politicians, and though his biases are obvious, his work makes a strong enough attempt at a balanced treatment that it can-and should-be read profitably by combatants on either side, and the civilians in between as well.