Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Question: What issues do moderates jettison first when they have national political ambitions?

Answer: Women’s reproductive rights.

We just got a good demonstration of that last week, when New York’s George Pataki vetoed a bill passed by the legislature allowing women to purchase the emergency contraception pill over the counter. Though he has strong credentials as a pro-choice governor, Pataki’s move was widely seen as the opening step in a run for the presidency.

Pataki’s move follows a similar one by Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who touted his mother’s pro-choice activism to win votes during the campaign. Romney now says he has had a change of heart. (Guess who else is running for president?)

This willingness to jettison women and their reproductive rights as a first step into national politics is considered the natural response to the 2004 re-election of President George W. Bush.

The media has consistently interpreted that election as a war of culture and values, won by “red state” conservatives and lost by “blue state” progressives.

The red-state-blue-state divide is cited as fact so often that it’s easy to believe that the United States is loaded with people who yearn to overturn the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe vs. Wade, get prayer back in schools and let pharmacists refuse to dispense birth control pills.

Amid this, progressives and moderates are making concessions to conservatives in the name of political expedience and the easiest issues to trade away are women’s issues.

But do progressives and moderates really have to abandon well-established pro-choice positions to win? Is the country really hopelessly divided, and does it follow that women’s issues are losing issues?

Media Artifact, Not Fact

Not according to Morris P. Fiorina, professor of political science at Stanford University, who says the red-state blue-state map is a media artifact that distorts our view of the political landscape.

Fiorina, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author of the 2005 “Culture War? The Myth of a Polarized America,” argues that most states are really purple, because of their mix of red and blue.

Ohio, for example, is called red but only about 51 percent of the votes went to Bush and around 48.5 percent went to Kerry. In “blue” New Hampshire, meanwhile, Kerry earned 50 percent of the votes and Bush 49 percent.

Fiorina looked at data on such hot-button issues as abortion, homosexuality, gender and religion. He found that “on the whole, the views of the American citizenry look moderate, centrist, nuanced, ambivalent–choose your term–rather than extreme, polarized, unconditional (and) dogmatic.”

With this in mind, it’s worth remembering that the battle for birth control and the right to choose were battles for social justice. These women’s rights are moral issues and should not be jettisoned in a desperate grab for “red” votes. Nor should the rights of pharmacists and fetal cells be considered more important than those of women.

Winning Issues

Not only is it wrong for politicians to turn their backs on choice, it’s politically pointless and perhaps even foolhardy. Far from handicapping candidates, election analyst and pollster Celinda Lake says that women’s reproductive issues are in fact winning issues.

Writing in the summer issue of Ms. magazine, Lake reports that voters identify as pro-choice over anti-choice by a double-digit margin, with 52 percent of voters favoring choice and 41 percent anti-choice. She says the pro-choice position has been dominant since 1996 and has changed little over the past four years.

A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that 56 percent of respondents favored keeping abortion legal, and another poll showed that 62 percent of voters did not want government interfering with a woman’s choice. Sixty percent of Americans, according to an Associated Press poll, want President Bush to appoint justices who would uphold Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that a woman’s constitutional right to privacy encompassed the decision to choose an abortion. Sixty percent believe that pharmacists should not be allowed to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraceptives.

Some see younger women as unconcerned with abortion rights. Critic Katie Roiphe wrote in the U.K. Guardian newspaper, “A younger generation of women . . . believes wire coat hangers belong to the distant sepia toned past of history books and the latest Mike Leigh film [Vera Drake].”

Celinda Lake contests this, citing data that show that 60 percent of female voters under 45 are pro-choice, compared to 55 percent of older female voters. If these young women are mobilized, she suggests, they will demand candidates who strongly support women’s right to choose.

In other words, reproductive rights are not political losers. They are issues about which most Americans agree, to some degree or other. Most Americans do not want government in their bedrooms, no matter how thorny and uncomfortable the issue of abortion may be.

Boston University journalism professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author (with Dr. Rosalind Barnett) of “Same Difference; How Gender Myths Are Hurting Our Relationships, Our children and Our Jobs.”