January 18, 2006

Wedgie '06

You can tell that a campaign season is about to begin when the life issues once again take the center stage, becoming "wedge issues" by which America can be easily divided between Right and Left. Well, get ready everyone, because it's time now for Wedgie '06.

The first news item sure to send both the Right and the Left scrambling to divide the nation is today's Supreme Court ruling which established that a New Hampshire parental notification law was too hastily overturned by the lower courts. I can almost hear the Right claiming this as a victory for the more conservative Roberts Court, even though this was a unanimous ruling and even though it was sent back to the lower courts so that they could revisit whether or not the parental notification law must contain a provision for the health of the patient, a provision which would effectively render the law meaningless. Meanwhile, I can almost hear the Left claiming that our whole American way of life is at stake just because the Supreme Court doesn't think that minors have a constitutional right to abortion without their parents being notified -- even though minors don't have a right to most other medical procedures without parental notification and consent, and even though this ruling was unanimous, joined even by the most liberal justices on the Supreme Court. The unanimity of this ruling diminishes its "wedge" potential, though.

The second news item has more "wedge" potential, in that it involved a 6-3 decision in which the more liberal and moderate justices on the Supreme Court, including Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, lined up against the three conservative justices. This will likely have some impact on the Alito confirmation, since Judge Alito would replace Justice O'Connor and probably make a future assisted suicide ruling an even closer ruling, although still in favor of assisted suicide. That, in turn, has the potential to impact the 2006 and 2008 campaigns, since now an argument can be made that upcoming retirements from the Supreme Court and future appointments could significantly affect the future of assisted suicide in the United States. If the polls are right, however, the Left may be able to use this as a wedge issue more effectively than the Right, because it seems that most Americans support an individual state's right to determine assisted suicide laws.

The third news item comes to us from our friend David Schrader (Catholics in the Public Square): a bill introduced during the last congressional session by Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), the Right to Life Act. Essentially, the Right to Life Act would implement equal protection under the 14th Amendment "for the right to life of each born and preborn human person." It has often been assumed that a constitutional amendment would be necessary to abolish Roe v. Wade, but it seems that a provision in Roe could allow for an act of Congress establishing the personhood of the fetus. That's what the Right to Life Act is designed to do. The Right to Life Act has great "wedge" potential.

At its most basic level, it would allow Republicans to continue claiming the banner of the "pro-life party." The sponsorship of the bill is already lining up along party lines. But there are elements of the bill which could backfire on the Republican Party. First, the Right to Life Act would have a different effect on abortion law than if the Supreme Court itself overturned Roe v. Wade. Whereas overturning Roe would return the legality of abortion to the state legislatures, establishing the personhood of the preborn and giving them equal protection under the 14th Amendment would have the effect of outlawing abortion in all fifty states. The electorate may not be as receptive to a federal ban on abortion as it would be to overturning Roe and returning the matter to the state legislatures. Additionally, the bill would define personhood as beginning at "the moment of fertilization, cloning, or other moment at which an individual member of the human species comes into being" -- having the potential to impact the legality of so-called "abortifacient" contraception such as the birth control pill and fertility procedures such as in-vitro fertilization.

Even if people are receptive to a ban on abortion, they are less likely to be receptive to a ban on birth control and in-vitro fertilization, but that is exactly what this bill could end up doing. If the Left were to approach the Right to Life Act from the correct angle, it could turn into a political victory for the Left rather than for the Right.

In any event, it will be interesting to see how these three issues impact the 2006 congressional campaign and the 2008 presidential campaign.

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For the record, I support parental notification laws and I oppose legal protection for assisted suicide. I am ambivalent when it comes to the Right to Life Act, in that I do believe that human personhood begins at the moment of conception, but I think the Right to Life Act or any ban on abortion would drive abortion underground and have little significant impact on the abortion rate, while making abortion even more dangerous for the women who seek it. I am also concerned that once Roe v. Wade is effectively overturned, the pro-life social and economic movement which has sought social and economic justice for pregnant women in order to curb the abortion rate would cease. In any event, the above analysis was intended to be a purely political analysis, discussing the effect that these "wedge issues" could have on the political climate in 2006 and 2008 -- it has nothing to do with my actual views on abortion and assisted suicide.