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Mark Shields: The abortion debate: Life does not end at birth The abortion debate: Life does not end at birth

Monday, February 5, 2001


Election Day exit polls of real live voters could be a treasure trove of fascinating information. Instead of questioning people who intend to vote (but sometimes don't) as all pre-election polls must do, the exit poll is able to interview voters immediately after they have voted and long before anyone knows who the winners will be. And because of the thousands of interviews included in a national exit poll, we can almost determine whether left-handed Presbyterians with some college in Great Lakes states backed George W. Bush.

Last Nov. 7, the Los Angeles Times "interviewed 8,218 voters who cast ballots in the general election" across the nation. The questionnaire asked: "Which issues, if any, were most important to you in deciding how you would vote for president today?"

"Moral and ethical values" were named by 35 percent of the voters. The economy and jobs was second, mentioned by 26 percent, followed by education and Social Security. Just behind taxes (17 percent) was abortion, which was named a most important issue in making a presidential decision by 14 percent of the voters.

Abortion got little press coverage after the 2000 Republican convention, before which the nation's leading and most influential editorial pages urged the GOP leadership and presidential nominee Bush to build a "big tent" into which they would then welcome all those Republicans who are pro-choice on abortion.

Keen observer that you are, you may have noticed that the nation's leading and most influential editorial pages almost never urge the Democratic leadership and nominee to welcome pro-life Democrats into their platform or onto their program. When Gallup, just before the 2000 election, asked, "With respect to abortion, would you consider yourself to be pro-choice or pro-life," Americans evenly split -- 47 percent pro-choice and 45 percent pro-life. More than a third of Republicans describe themselves as pro-choice and over a third of Democrats call themselves pro-life.

In the United States, support or opposition to abortion divides almost completely along class lines, with higher-income, longer-educated voters being overwhelmingly pro-choice. Today's leading journalists are not to be confused with that colorful shot and a beer character with his own bookie of popular legend. Instead, today's leading journalists are well educated, compensated well above subsistence level, and have as colleagues and social friends, people like themselves who are overwhelmingly pro-choice.

For most Washington journalists, a pro-choice position is simply a given. And it's a good bet that few in the press gallery -- or in the investment bankers' locker room -- gave much thought to The New York Times/CBS News poll which showed a stunning 50 percent of Americans chose the statement: "Abortion is the same thing as murdering a child," as being closer to their own personal opinion than the statement: "Abortion is not murder because the fetus is not really a child," which was chosen by 38 percent in the survey.

Well, what about last November's Los Angeles Times exit poll in which 14.7 million people (that's 14 percent) selected abortion as the most important issue in their presidential decision? Those Republicans preferred Bush over Democrat Al Gore by 58 percent to 41 percent.

Simply put, that translates into a Bush advantage on the abortion issue of 2.5 million votes in an election that Gore won nationally by more than 540,000 votes.

An admitted liberal, I believe that every individual person has the right to live free from fear and discrimination and has the right to a share of earthly goods, including food, shelter and, that's right, health care. Each and every person has the right to decent and productive work at fair wages, and every one of us has a corresponding duty to work for the community good and to respect the rights of others.

The Invisible Hand, so revered by conservatives including Wall Street Journal editorialists, can often produce a booming economy, but it is no guarantee of a humane and just community. That is what we must achieve together -- through our government.

I am a pro-life liberal who agrees with pro-choice Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., in his criticism that too many pro-lifers act as though life began at conception and ended at birth. It is entirely reasonable to question how we can call ourselves pro-life if we do not defend and protect the powerless among us, the hungry and the homeless, the undocumented immigrant and the unemployed worker.

The question raised by the Los Angeles Times numbers is not whether all abortion should be outlawed. There is no possibility of that. Instead, we do need a debate on whether all abortions should be always lawful, as is now the case. It deserves our attention.

Mark Shields is a political columnist based in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by Creators Syndicate.