Aug 1 1996

Walking the Abortion Plank

What the Republican Platform Really Says

One of the biggest dramas of the 1996 election–for the political press corps, at least–has been the question of the Republican platform’s abortion plank. Would Bob Dole alienate the religious right by trying to change the plank? Would he alienate pro-choice voters by not changing it? Will Pat Buchanan walk out of the convention? Can Ralph Reed sell “tolerance” to the Christian Coalition?

There have been literally hundreds of these stories in major newspapers across the country, according to a Nexis database search. But only about a dozen times did these papers even let their readers know what the platform plank causing so much controversy actually said.

Here’s the pertinent language:

We believe the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life that cannot be infringed. We therefore reaffirm our support for a human life amendment to the Constitution, and we endorse legislation to make it clear that the 14th Amendment’s protections apply to unborn children.

So what does that mean? The 14th Amendment says that no state can “deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” If fetuses are considered persons under the 14th Amendment, then having an abortion would have to be penalized the same as any other murder. Women who paid a doctor to perform an abortion would be guilty of a contract killing–which in many states is punishable by death.

Columnist Michael Kinsley, writing in Time magazine (6/24/96), pointed out the logic of the 14th Amendment: “Under equal protection, you certainly couldn’t have the death penalty for killing a post-birth human being and a lesser punishment–or no punishment at all–for killing a fetus.”

But aside from Kinsley, virtually no one in mainstream media noted that the Republican abortion plank, the subject of endless commentary, could put women who have abortions behind bars–or even on death row. The New York Times‘ Robin Toner examined 16 years’ worth of Republican platforms, but when the party added the 14th Amendment language, in 1984, her only comment was that “the funding ban was broadened.”

News reports contained a few disingenuous explanations of what the platform meant, in quotes from anti-abortion leaders. The Cleveland Plain Dealer (5/23/96) quoted Steve LaTourette, an Ohio Republican, on the abortion plank:

What the platform says is that the Republican Party reaffirms its support for a human life amendment which would extend protection to unborn children under the 14th Amendment. That says nothing about abortion. It just indicates a state cannot enact a law that deprives unborn children of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The New York Times cited the view of the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed that “the current [platform] language is really silent on whether there are exceptions” to an abortion ban–for example, for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest. The Times didn’t ask any legal experts to explain how you can have an “exception” to “equal protection of the laws.”

The importance of explaining the impact of the abortion plank can hardly be overstated. While many people feel ambivalent about abortion, surely few would vote for a candidate that would declare that women who have abortions should face a possible death penalty.

Besides Kinsley, the only mainstream news figure who seems to have understood what the platform language says is the Washington Post‘s Judy Mann (6/21/96). It’s worth noting that she made the point because she quoted an abortion rights advocate: “If terminating a pregnancy is killing a person, then you have to treat that as murder,” the National Center for Reproductive Law and Policy’s Andrea Miller told Mann. “In a state with capital punishment, you would have to apply the same degree of penalty to killing of the unborn as killing of the born.” The inclusion of more voices from outside the Republican debate might enlighten reporters–and voters.