Framing the Debate

Democrats and Republicans are framing the Supreme Court abortion ruling in very different ways.

How you frame an issue means everything in a political debate. Take last week's Supreme Court decision on abortion. The 5-4 ruling upholds the federal Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003, which outlaws an abortion procedure typically performed in the second trimester of pregnancy.

Abortion-rights opponents want to frame the debate around that procedure, says Republican strategist Alex Vogel. "On the Republican side, if these candidates have to talk about abortion, they would rather talk about 'partial-birth,' " Vogel said. "It's something they probably all agree on.... They will not necessarily relish a broader debate on this issue."

When the act was signed into law, a solid majority of Americans supported the ban, polling shows. A Gallup poll for CNN/USA Today in October 2003 asked about "a specific abortion procedure known as 'late-term' abortion or 'partial-birth' abortion, which is sometimes performed on women during the last few months of pregnancy." By 68 percent to 25 percent, the public thought that such a procedure should be illegal.

In responding to last week's Supreme Court ruling, Republican presidential candidates referred to the procedure. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, for example, issued a statement praising the Court for "upholding a ban on a practice that offends basic human decency." And former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who describes himself as "pro-choice," issued a statement saying that the Court had reached "the correct conclusion in upholding the congressional ban on partial-birth abortion."

Abortion-rights supporters frame the debate as being about pregnant women's right to choose whether to have an abortion. "This judgment today is a major strike against a woman's right to choose," Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said on the Senate floor. "The Court in this case has, by a narrow 5-4 margin, essentially enacted the first federal abortion ban in this country and has struck down a primary part of Roe v. Wade—protection of the health of the mother."

Democratic presidential candidates sounded a similar theme. Former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina issued a statement calling the decision "a stark reminder of why Democrats cannot afford to lose the 2008 election." He added, "Too much is at stake, starting with ... a woman's right to choose." Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois expressed concern that the ruling will "embolden state legislatures to enact further measures to restrict a woman's right to choose."

Democrats are expressing alarm over the broader implications of the ruling—namely that for the first time the Court has allowed the criminalization of a specific medical procedure rather than upholding a law regulating access to abortions. The Court gave lawmakers the go-ahead to counterbalance the protection of women's rights with what Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, called "ethical and moral concerns"—"that the government has a legitimate and substantial interest in preserving and promoting fetal life." The decision creates the legal underpinning that potentially will allow states to pass more restrictions on abortion.

In a Gallup Poll taken last year, only 15 percent of Americans said that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; 30 percent said that it should be legal in all circumstances. The majority view since 1975 has been that abortion should be legal "only under certain circumstances." (Fifty-three percent endorsed that position in 2006.) For years, abortion-rights opponents have been working to narrow the circumstances under which abortion is legal. They count last week's decision as a major breakthrough.

Abortion-rights supporters predict that last week's ruling will motivate their base. "The more this is seen as the beginning of an attack on the right [to abortion]," Democratic strategist Jenny Backus said, "the more it will help the abortion-rights movement grow at a time when, for the last couple of decades, people have not been scared." Backus believes that "Democrats win on the issue of abortion when it's a larger issue—when it's a right." Republicans win "when they keep it narrow," she said. "They win with language describing specific procedures."

Both sides agree on at least one thing. "To quote the president, 'Elections matter,' " Vogel said, "and this is one [case] where the change in the [composition of the] Court has made a difference." Seven years ago, when the Court struck down a similar law, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor cast the deciding vote. Last week, the crucial swing vote was cast by O'Connor's successor, Bush appointee Samuel Alito.