Is it time to take partisan politics out of abortion? Those of us who are pro-choice believe it never belonged there. But for decades, Republican strategists have successfully relied on abortion as a wedge issue to win elections, forcing Democrats to make it one as well.
Multiple defeats at the polls last week, however, may signal that the issue has outlived its political value to Republicans. This time, it was Democrats who successfully used it to build a narrative about a GOP war on women.
Mitt Romney's position that abortion should be legal only in cases of rape, incest or to save a mother's life may have helped propel President Barack Obama to a second term. Exit polls found 59 percent of all voters favor legal abortions in all or most cases, with only 36 percent opposed.
Romney lost women's votes to Obama by 11 points and those of women of childbearing age by more than twice that. Voters in Missouri and Indiana also rejected Senate candidates Todd Akin and Richard Mourdock for their tortured attempts -- using words like "legitimate rape" and "God's will" -- to justify their opposition to a rape exception for abortion.
Ironically, party politics may have backed Romney, who supported abortion rights when he first became governor of Massachusetts, into turning anti-choice. As social conservatives have dominated the party, it's hard to impossible for a Republican to win its support without demonizing abortion.
Republican strategists have gotten traction from other wedge issues like immigration and same-sex marriage. But those will likely have run their course by 2016. As of last week, nine states will allow same-sex marriage. And if immigration reform gets passed in Obama's second term, that, too, will be off the table.
Abortion, however, will be an issue as long as people have unplanned pregnancies and seek to end them -- legally or illegally. But it doesn't need to be a partisan one.
It wasn't always. Five of the seven U.S. Supreme Court justices who ruled in the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade that abortion was covered by a constitutional right to privacy were appointed by Republican presidents. They included the chief justice and the author of the majority opinion.
Abortion didn't enter the Republican Party platform until 1980, after the Rev. Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority and began rallying Christians to political activism. Successive Republican platforms have taken increasingly uncompromising positions on abortion, with the current one opposing it even in cases of rape and incest.
What is different about today's Republicans from George H.W. Bush, Richard Nixon and Barry Goldwater -- all of whom, as, Randy Moody, co-chair of Republicans for Planned Parenthood, points out, preferred that government not intrude on private health-care decisions? One thing that has changed is religious involvement in the issue; 63 percent of church-going white evangelical Christians have heard abortion addressed from the pulpit. But not all evangelical ministers welcome the politicization. "What if all the wasted money wealthy conservatives threw at super PAC ads was redirected at establishing more ... crisis centers?" writes Daniel Darling, a senior pastor of Gages Lake Bible Church in the Chicago suburbs, who opposes abortion.
Romney won white evangelical Christians. But were it not for the abortion issue, some might find the Democratic Party a more natural fit because of its positions on serving the poor and welcoming immigrants.
Previous Republican leaders saw controlling fertility as fiscally responsible, argued Moody in a rally for Planned Parenthood. He said unintended pregnancies cost U.S. families $11 billion a year. And for every dollar invested in federal family planning, he says, taxpayers save nearly $4.
Deep personal convictions against abortion cannot be undermined. But it's not an issue that will ever be settled conclusively at the polls, and it has divided the country for too long. It's time for the camps to come together on what they can agree on -- making abortions unnecessary by preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Corning is right that the grassroots party activists ultimately get to shape party positions. Republicans who want their party to reflect a greater diversity of views on abortion need to get mobilized and fight to take this divisive issue out -- or continue to lose elections in a badly polarized America.
Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.