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the Independent/UK

Abortion: The Hysteria that Divides the US

Andrew Gumbel

Anti-abortion campaigners in the US will tell you their crusade is about the sanctity of life. But really it is about upholding a singularly unhealthy tendency in American public life - the exploitation of a divisive social and ethical issue to further the ambitions of a single political party whose agenda doesn't necessarily reflect the interests of the anti-abortion campaigners at all.

Since 1973, when the Supreme Court handed down its Roe v Wade ruling and asserted that women have a constitutional right to choose to end an unwanted pregnancy, abortion has been the Republican Party's best tool for enlisting grass-roots support, particularly among evangelical Christians.

At the time, the Republican party was broken - unable to muster a majority in either house in Congress and beleaguered by the Watergate scandal that was to prove Nixon's undoing. Key to its recovery was a new wave of grass-roots organizing in conservative churches. Overturning Roe v Wade became a mantra for this movement.

At almost every turn, however, the anti-abortion campaigners have had reason to be disappointed. Roe v Wade remains on the statute books. Ronald Reagan tinkered with the abortion laws, as George Bush has done since, but fell far short of grass-roots expectations.

The problem is that the majority of Americans support the notion of a woman's right to choose. So politicians are wary of doing anything to make the issue blow up in their faces. Evangelical Christians may pray for Roe v Wade to be overturned, but such a decision by the Supreme Court could easily provoke a political backlash guaranteeing Democratic election victories.

The trick, for Republicans, is to raise the issue just enough to stir the passions of their supporters without turning it into a liability. As the political commentator Thomas Frank put it, they may talk the God talk but they still walk a predominantly corporate walk.

The contradictions between the anti-abortion rhetoric and political reality have been glaring. Republicans who talked about the sanctity of life in the wake of Roe v Wade also supported the Vietnam War. Reagan may have rushed to the defense of the fetus, but he also cut social programs to lower-income families, including access to health care. Many ardent pro-life Republicans have also supported the death penalty. As the Massachusetts Democrat Barney Frank said: "For Republicans, life begins at conception and ends at birth."

© 2007 Independent News and Media Limited

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