Dems' focus on abortion borrows a page from GOP playbook: It's the social issues, stupid!

Answers to frequently asked questions coming this week from opponents of abortion rights.

Q: Really? Abortion? Now? The U.S. economy is in the doldrums and the upcoming presidential election is about how to get it roaring again. But Democrats are trying to distract voters by inflaming this age-old, polarizing debate?

A: Karma is an angry dog, is it not? For decades, conservatives have successfully used social issues such as gay rights, school prayer, guns, affirmative action and, yes, abortion, as wedges to pry working-class and middle-income voters away from candidates who arguably better represent their economic interests.

This phenomenon was explained in Thomas Frank's 2004 book "What's the Matter With Kansas?"

Liberals are now hoping for a sequel — call it "What's the Matter With Missouri?" — that will explain how fears of Republican extremism on abortion prompted voters in 2012 to disregard gauzy GOP promises of smaller government and more jobs, and to re-elect a Democratic president.

Q: You're referring to Missouri congressman and U.S. Senate candidate Todd Akin's regrettable, even ignorant recent choice of words when speaking about rape and abortion. Fair enough. But he's apologized, and Republicans everywhere have distanced themselves from his remarks. Why should voters hold that against the party?

A: Because Akin's position on abortion is the Republican position on abortion. Forget his bogus assertion that "legitimate rape" doesn't lead to pregnancy. The only reason he said that was to underscore a position he did not retract, that abortion should always be illegal, no exceptions.

And that extreme idea was just this week enshrined again in the GOP platform.

Q: But when the Democrats ratify their 2012 platform, it will likely include language from their 2008 platform supporting "a woman's right to choose a safe and legal abortion" and opposing "any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right." Isn't that equally extreme in the other direction?

A: No. The pro-choice position assumes the basic idea of a moral continuum contained in the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade — that in growing from zygote to full-term infant, a fetus acquires rights to legal protection and a mother loses rights to terminate the pregnancy. Hence the word "legal."

The pro-life position assumes no such continuum. Proposed constitutional amendments such as the Human Life Amendment endorsed by the Republican platform and long championed by presumptive vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan usually imply that full legal protections apply at the very moment of conception and under no circumstances may a woman obtain an abortion unless the pregnancy puts her life at risk.

Q: Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney says he believes in exceptions in cases of rape, so doesn't that make him a moderate?

A: By hard-core Republican standards, perhaps. But Romney's been such a windsock on abortion throughout his political career that it's hard to know what he really thinks. Making exceptions for rape victims is philosophically at odds with expressing support for laws that grant "personhood" status to all embryos, yet Romney has done both during this political cycle.

Until and unless he makes a speech that addresses this contradiction with anything more than platitudes, the safest assumption is that he'll ultimately default to his party's position.

Q: Polls show Americans are queasy about abortion and would like to see more restrictions in place, particularly when it comes to certain late-term procedures. What makes Democrats think a majority of voters won't favor the more pro-life party?

A: Because Americans are also queasy about surrendering their freedoms to absolutists who see no room whatsoever to compromise on this issue. Because Americans are distrustful of those who presume to do their thinking for them on matters of conscience. Because most Americans don't want Akin, Ryan and the Republican establishment standing between women and their doctors.

Q: Isn't this just an attempt to distract from the issue of jobs, jobs, jobs?

A: It's an attempt, but not "just" an attempt. Without conceding the economic argument to Romney, I'd say that Americans have long shown that they care about much more than the economy and their own narrow self-interest. And their votes are based in large part on what kind of society they want to live in and what kinds of freedoms they think all people should enjoy.

Nothing's the matter with that.

Join this conversation at chicagotribune.com/zorn.

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