Bush’s re-election, the Peterson case and other factors show that the right has gathered steam

by Jim Pinkerton
November 25, 2004

On abortion, the tide has turned.

Events in 2004 have heralded the moment when pro-life — or, if one prefers, anti-choice — forces gained decisive momentum. This trend cannot be dismissed merely as a victory of Karl Rove and the Religious Right. Instead, deeper forces are at work: the basic instinct to perpetuate the species.

Let’s consider the evidence, from just this month. First, George W. Bush, an abortion opponent, won 31 states and a second term.

Second, Sen. Arlen Specter, one of the few pro-choice Republicans in the Senate, was threatened with the loss of his judiciary committee chairmanship — unless he pledged not to block pro-life nominees for judgeships, including for the Supreme Court.

Third, just on Tuesday, Congress passed legislation guaranteeing the right of health-care providers to refuse to take part in abortions. In the cheering words of the conservative Family Research Council, “This is a monumental victory in the fight for life.”

Indeed for years now, the right has been winning the fight. In the ’90s, conservatives won the moral-intellectual battle over “partial-birth abortion”; most Americans deem it to be an abhorrent practice. In fact, the more time people spend pondering the mechanics of abortion, the less likely they are to support it. In the meantime, pro-life sentiment builds further as ultrasound technology improves, to the point where in utero imaging becomes three-dimensional and all the more vivid.

The coverage of the 2002 killing of eight-months-pregnant Laci Peterson in California illustrated a further shift. Reporters routinely referred to “the murder of Laci Peterson and her unborn son Conner.” That a fetus was thus deemed to be a full person, with a name, was a spectacular success for the right. Scholars call it “semantic infiltration.” Indeed, this infiltration was enshrined in a new federal law making it a crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman. Bush himself refers to the bill as “Laci and Conner’s Law.”

The continuing, growing power of the right-to-life movement has many sources, but the most profound source is basic biology: The human species, like any species, is programmed for its own perpetuation. And yet across the industrial nations, the birth rate has fallen. Births are now at or below the numerical replacement level. The once-feared “population bomb,” in other words, has proven to be a “population bust.” Three major books have been published of late on this topic, the most recent of which is “Fewer: How the New Demography of Depopulation Will Shape Our Future,” by Ben Wattenberg, a scholar who hardly rates as a traditional pro-life conservative.

One solution to the birth-dearth, of course, is immigration. Yet that brings controversy. A more natural solution, which people yearn for in their bones, is an increase in the birth rate — more patter of more little feet. Hence the surging popularity of “pro-family” policies put forth by “family values”-oriented candidates. And yes, as part of the same swell of feeling comes the impulse to restrict abortion.

To be sure, the pro-choice establishment is deeply entrenched — in the media, in the legal system and throughout the affluent knowledge economy. Yet pro-lifers have growing numbers on their side. How so? People in “red states” are having more children — which is to say, more future voters — than people in blue states.

The abortion debate is hardly settled, but biological instinct, as well as demographic destiny, is smiling on the pro-lifers.


— Jim Pinkerton served as Director of Policy Planning in the Reagan and Bush Sr. White Houses.  This article originally ran in Newsday.