Reflections on presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich, a “prolifer” for choice.

By Frances Kissling
Summer 2003

Conventional wisdom holds that about 20 percent of the US population believes that abortion should be legal without exception or regulation. Another 20 percent or so believes that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. Both groups come to these positions based on deeply held-perhaps even absolutist-principles about rights, morality, women and fetuses. When people in either group are confronted by hard cases against which their principles are tested (incest and post-viability abortions for other than serious health reasons are just two) most retreat to the principle that formed their core views and as difficult as it may be, stick to their guns. Any exception represents a slippery slope, a threat to all women or all fetuses.

For most Americans, almost 60 percent, the core values that are easily prioritized by advocates on either side are not so sharply held. People are one day more prochoice and on another day specific circumstances make them more antichoice. By and large, they want abortion to be legal, but they want it taken seriously—and often they think the way to accomplish this is through government regulation. Legislators are no exception to these patterns of beliefs and values. But they are encouraged by all the experts- from campaign consultants to political advocates-to avoid allowing any nuance to creep into their political positions or voting. “Take a stand and vote according to it, every time, in every way.”

Few public figures change their position on abortion, and when they do there is usually hell to pay from one side and rejoicing in heaven at the return of the prodigal son or daughter on the other. Antiabortionists point with pride to Dr. Bernard Nathanson who once presided over one of the first and largest abortion clinics in New York and who now champions fetal life. Norma McCorvey, the Roe of Roe v. Wade, has become the poster child of Operation Rescue. Christopher Hitchens was the bad boy of the Nation crowd for his politically incorrect views on abortion rights and Naomi Wolf, prochoice but troubled, drove us all crazy.

In the 1970s, Senator Edward Kennedy found a way to reconcile respect for fetal life with a prochoice position and has become an ardent supporter of choice. Following the Webster Supreme Court decision when it looked as if Roe was on its way to defeat, many politicians who had been nominally antiabortion felt that they no longer had the luxury of sitting it out and became publicly prochoice.

It has been said Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor has never met a restriction on abortion that she didn’t like, yet at the same time she upholds the central tenet of Roe. Strong prochoice supporters could equally be said to have never met a restriction they could support until laws against partial birth abortion emerged. Former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Senators Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle, all of whom are regularly lauded by the prochoice movement and vilified by the American Life League found it impossible to take the prochoice position on this issue. It should be noted that the prochoice movement has had the nuance to accept, with regret, these “lapses” by such men of principle. Equally notable has been Senator Orrin Hatch’s very nuanced understanding of when and under what circumstances human life acquires high value. Hatch’s antiabortion voting record was always 100 percent-until research on fetal stem cells became an issue. The senator developed the novel view that fetal life outside the womb was of lesser value than that in the womb and more cogently that the potential life-saving benefits of such research outweighed any argument that fetal life was inviolable. Again, while the antichoice movement was unhappy with this position, it has been tolerated.

Kucinich Shift Emphasis

The current manifestation of the complexity of arriving at and maintaining a comprehensible political stance on abortion-a deeply complex moral issue-is Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who has been in my prayers for a long time. He has surely been the bishops’ poster boy for the so-called consistent ethic of life: against war and the death penalty, for human rights and all that makes life meaningful and against abortion. Kucinich had an almost perfect 100 percent antiabortion voting record through 2000. He even supported cutting off funding for overseas family planning agencies if they had anything to do with abortion.

And yet, on the floor of the House this June, the congressman voted against the latest incarnation of the partial birth abortion bill and made an outstanding defense of the constitution and a woman’s right to choose.

Kucinich describes it as less a dramatic policy change, more an expansion of his views. And to the extent that he resembles the vast middle ground of Americans, this rings true. He says he never wanted Roe v Wade overturned nor does he want abortion itself made illegal. At the same time he has had a deep concern for how society can express respect for human life, even in its early pre-personal (my term) stages. With a secure Roe, members of Congress have, thankfully, no opportunity to express legislatively their view on the legality of abortion. They can only show a preference for women’s rights or fetal claims through restrictive legislation. And to date, the legislative initiatives are formed and articulated by those vehemently opposed to legal abortion. Middle grounders like Kucinich have been forced to go further in one direction or the other than perhaps reflects their views fully. And since Roe seemed secure, it may well have been easier for some to vote “prolife.” Now that Roe is clearly threatened, Kucinich and other middle grounders must shift their emphasis to support preserving their core commitment to women’s rights. And Kucinich has done so.

Prolifers for Choice

Much has been made of recent shifts in public opinion. More people are comfortable calling themselves prolife than ever before-especially the young.

My own conversations and encounters with the public give credence to this claim. (Other prochoice leaders disagree. Ellie Smeal of the Feminist Majority which has a very active and successful outreach program finds young people on campus more prochoice than ever before.)

But these statistics and even the nominal claim of an increasing number of people that they are more prolife than prochoice should not be interpreted as a commitment to making abortion illegal. In fact, when I ask those who tell me they are “prolife” if that means they think abortion should be illegal, they are amazed. “Oh no,” they say, “I would not want to make that decision for someone else.” Rather, to be “prolife” for middle grounders today is a more general expression of respect for all life, for children, for the environment, a way of indicating compassion and kindness toward all humanity. In this sense antiabortionists have captured the middle ground.

It is this space that Kucinich occupies and those of us who are prochoice would be well advised to join him. I too am a prolifer for choice.

A Teaching Moment

What has intrigued me about Kucinich’s evolution has been the absence of any strong reaction. The prochoice advocacy community has accepted it as genuine with NARAL Pro-Choice America’s Kate Michelman, the lead spokeswoman for the movement, saying, “I…welcome that he believes the right to choose is fundamental.… I know these candidates don’t change their positions on a whim.”

At the same time, the movement has not made the most of the change. It is barely mentioned in speeches and newsletters. Unlike the biblical feasts and fatted calves that prolifers rolled out for Bernard Nathanson and Norma McCorvey, the reception to Kucinich’s conversion has been far more muted. That is probably to his liking, but not necessarily helpful in our efforts to convince more middle grounders to shift their priorities more sharply to a prochoice stance. Kucinich’s evolution is what we Catholics call a “teaching moment” and one that needs to be used.

Clearly the Catholic bishops understand the significance of Kucinich’s conversion. While Senator Daschle has been publicly chastised by his bishop, it is as if Kucinich’s bishop, Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, is hoping no one will notice any change.

More enigmatic is the relative lack of notice in the Catholic press. A cursory Google search turned up only one mention in a Catholic paper–Our Sunday Visitor. Neither America nor Commonweal has written a word. One would expect that this would be seen by both as another opportunity to beat the drum against the Democratic Party and bemoan the personal pain of Jesuits who no longer know for whom to vote. To raise again the specter of the late governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey, who we are repeatedly and falsely told was denied the “right” to speak at the 1992 Democratic Convention because he was prolife. In reality Casey was denied a speaking role because he refused to endorse the Democratic ticket, a perfectly reasonable criteria for speakers, but one that does not fit the simplistic antiabortion editorial line of eitherAmerica or Commonweal. At best, these publications, along with the National Catholic Reporter, might have seen the Kucinich case as an opportunity to look beyond the stale stereotypes of prolife and prochoice towards an articulation of a position that respects that which is best in both prochoice and prolife.

I am convinced that if those Catholic clergy, theologians, public intellectuals and others who know there is no theological basis for the current hierarchical assertion that fetuses are persons from conception would come clean, the Catholic community could make a significant contribution to a public policy and US culture that was both prolife and prochoice. It remains to be seen if Dennis Kucinich will play a meaningful role in that quest.

Frances Kissling is president of Catholics for a Free Choice.

Catholics for Choice