Abortion Fight Still Key, as New Front on Culture War Opens Up in Election Year

Planned Parenthood endorses Hillary Clinton before the 2016 primary season begins, but other issues are also salient in this unpredictable election cycle.

(photo: Shutterstock/Gutzemberg)

WASHINGTON –- Planned Parenthood endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton for president in a first-ever announcement issued in January, before a single primary was decided.

During a joint appearance with Planned Parenthood Action Fund President Cecile Richards at Southern New Hampshire University, Clinton embraced the mission of the nation’s largest abortion provider.

“Planned Parenthood should be funded, supported and appreciated, not undermined, misrepresented and demonized,” said Clinton, who warned that a Republican president would get a “chance to stack the Supreme Court with right-wing justices.”

The endorsement underscored the 2016 election’s high stakes for Planned Parenthood, which has gone on the defensive after pro-life investigators released a series of undercover videos that alleged the organization was trafficking in the sale of fetal body parts, and Congress later voted to defund it.

President Barack Obama vetoed that legislation on Jan. 8. But his swift action served to remind activists and voters on both sides of the issue that the next occupant in the White House will face crucial decisions regarding the future of Planned Parenthood and the nomination of Supreme Court justices who may be prepared to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Unlike past election cycles, there is a laser-like focus on what will truly push the pro-life effort forward and save lives, and that is defunding Planned Parenthood,” Live Action’s Lila Rose told the Register.

Pro-life activists contacted by the Register underlined the strong partisan divide on abortion.

The three Democratic presidential candidates — Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley — all defend Planned Parenthood and Roe, while every candidate in the crowded GOP race — Jeb Bush, Ben Carson, Chris Christie, Ted Cruz, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, John Kasich, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Donald Trump and Rick Santorum -— take the opposing position.

Likewise, the three Democrat rivals applaud the U.S. Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex “marriage.” And the GOP hopefuls have attacked the high court’s landmark ruling, which effectively redefined marriage to include homosexual unions.

So far, marriage and religious-liberty issues have received less attention in the campaign season, but Catholics will be evaluating the candidates’ plans to address the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell v. Hodges and the threat that presents to the conscience rights of individual believers and religious institutions.


Different From 2012

Obergefell has injected fresh energy into the Democrats’ presidential race; however, the battle to defund Planned Parenthood has also galvanized the Republican field.

During the 2012 election year, Republicans were on the defensive as abortion-rights groups framed the party’s opposition to Roe and the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate as a “war on women.”

This time around, GOP presidential contenders have used campaign ads and their popular televised debates to focus attention on the undercover videos, which appear to show Planned Parenthood physicians altering abortion procedures to procure intact fetal body parts for researchers. And Carly Fiorina has helped pro-life Republicans go on offense.

“Liberals and progressives will spend inordinate amounts of time and money protecting fish, frogs and flies,” Fiorina told reporters last fall, when she visited a crisis-pregnancy center and viewed ultrasound images of a client’s unborn child. “They do not think a 17-week-old, a 20-week-old, a 24-week-old is worth saving.”

Meanwhile, as Hillary Clinton presents herself as a leading advocate for women’s rights, and recently called Donald Trump a “sexist,” the New York real estate tycoon reminded voters that Clinton stood by her husband as he faced multiple accusations of rape and sexual harassment.

“I hope Bill Clinton starts talking about women's issues so that voters can see what a hypocrite he is,” Trump tweeted, as Bill Clinton stepped up his appearances in states with early primaries.


Marriage and Religious Freedom

Republicans’ robust, unified stance on life issues will make it tough for Democrats to revive the “war on women” playbook. But marriage and religious-freedom issues will need the same focused attention.

At the National Organization for Marriage, President Brian Brown told the Register that his group has endorsed Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, because the Tea Party favorite is the sponsor of legislation calling for a constitutional amendment that would restore the right of states to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Cruz also sponsored the First Amendment Defense Act, which would “protect the rights of people to exercise their belief that marriage is a union of one man and one woman.”

Cruz, Ben Carson and Rick Santorum have signed NOM’s “Presidential Marriage Pledge,” confirming their support for passage of a federal constitutional amendment that affirms the traditional definition of marriage.

In contrast, Ohio Gov. Kasich has suggested that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges took the issue off the table, and it was “time to move on” and call a halt to a polarizing debate.

But, for now, at least, that goal seems out of reach, not only because many Americans still reject the court’s ruling, but also because church leaders and legal experts believe the decision threatens the conscience rights of religious individuals and institutions that still hold to marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

This fall, Kentucky clerk Kim Davis was arrested after she refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Davis drew support from some GOP candidates, like Rand Paul and Mike Huckabee, while Chris Christie argued that the clerk should fulfill her oath to uphold the law.

Media sound bites don’t allow for a nuanced or comprehensive treatment of religious-freedom issues. But Jeb Bush used his commencement address at Virginia’s Liberty University to offer a bold defense of religious freedom and America’s Christian roots.

“Justice, equality, the worth of every life, the dignity of every person and rights that no authority can take away — these are founding moral ideals in America, and they didn’t come out of nowhere,” said Bush, urging Liberty’s graduates to resist secular arguments that dismiss Christianity as a backward religion with no relevance beyond church walls.

Hillary Clinton, for her part, has backed the Obama administration’s long legal battle to override religious nonprofits’ objections to the Health and Human Services’ contraceptive mandate. And last year, when lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas struggled to pass controversial state bills inspired by the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Clinton tweeted:  “Like IN law, AR bill goes beyond protecting religion, would permit unfair discrimination against #LGBT Americans. I urge Governor to veto.”

Clinton’s Democrat rival, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, adopted a more moderate tone, when asked if religious institutions that oppose same-sex “marriage” should lose their tax-exempt status — a position floated by some partisan groups.

“You know, we have religious freedom, and I respect people who have different points of view,” Sanders told CNN in July, while noting his support for same-sex “marriage.”

A self-identified “democratic socialist,” Sanders’ strong showing in the polls has shocked Clinton’s supporters, just as Trump’s rise has roiled the GOP establishment and led some to predict the opening of a new, populist front of the culture wars, as more voters express anxiety about the country’s direction.


National Identity Concerns

“Unlike the culture wars of the recent past, this one isn’t about the place of Judeo-Christian values in our public life, the regulation of abortion or the recognition of same-sex unions,” argued Reihan Salam in a Jan. 4 column for National Review that sought to explain the surge of support for GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump.

“Those conflicts are still with us. But they’ve been overshadowed by the fight over the future of American national identity in the face of rapid and accelerating demographic change.”

Whatever the reasons for Trump’s rise in the polls, the surprising success of his campaign has clearly sparked alarm from the GOP establishment, which has questioned his commitment to conservative economic and social principles. However, pro-life activists, while concerned about Trump’s past history on abortion, are reserving judgment.

“All of the Republican candidates are pro-life, and most have track records” on this issue, Carol Tobias, the president of the National Right to Life Committee, told the Register.

Tobias acknowledged that Trump previously identified himself as “pro-choice.”

“We would like to hear more details from Trump on what he would do as president. But the fact that he has said in the past he was ‘pro-choice’ doesn’t bother me so much. We have a lot of converts in the pro-life movement.”

Tobias then underscored the striking partisan divide over abortion.

“On the Democratic side, the three candidates running are strongly pro-abortion and would support taxpayer funding of abortion. Between the two parties, the difference is clear-cut.”

Asked to explain Trump’s unexpected surge in popularity, Rusty Reno, the editor of First Things, dismissed the arguments of pundits, who frame the billionaire as merely the standard-bearer for an “anti-immigrant” or “nativist” movement.

“Middle America feels as though the post-war economic system … is dissolving under their feet,” Reno told the Register.

“Meanwhile, social institutions such as marriage are much weakened. Trump’s support comes from people who are looking for someone to reassure them that they’ll have a firm place to stand.”

Robert Royal, the Catholic author and commentator, sees voter restiveness as further evidence of a “spiritual crisis” brewing in the land of the free.

“I’m surprised at how many people I meet who say that they ‘don’t recognize’” their own country, Royal told the Register, as he took stock of the anti-establishment tenor of the election year.

“If Western nations were confident in themselves, the immigration and refugee problems, terror threats, even the economic downturn, might still exist but wouldn’t seem so threatening.”

Said Royal, “A lot of people intuit that the problem is not merely this or that policy, but the deeper challenge to the legitimacy and reliability of our institutions.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.