The battle over abortion rights has been a political staple for decades, and 2012 is no different. But in the competition for women’s votes, the abortion issue isn’t a slam-dunk for Democrats. A recent Pew poll shows no gender gap on abortion views: About half of women and men say abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Access to contraception is another matter, as shown in the recent flare-up over the Obama administration’s mandate that religiously affiliated institutions include free birth-control coverage in employee health plans. Opinion varies depending on how the question about the mandate is framed. When it’s about access to birth control, Obama wins. When it’s about religious liberty, opinion is divided.
On the stump, Obama ties abortion rights and birth control together in one package, centered on efforts both in Congress and in state legislatures to defund Planned Parenthood – an institution that used to have strong bipartisan support.
“We don’t need another political fight about ending a woman’s right to choose, or getting rid of Planned Parenthood, or taking away access to affordable birth control,” the president said in a campaign speech in Columbus, Ohio, on May 5.
For Romney, once the moderate governor of Massachusetts, the issue is trickier. He used to be “effectively pro-choice,” as he put it, but when he launched his 2008 presidential campaign, he argued a staunch antiabortion position – comparing himself to Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, who had similar conversions as presidential candidates.
During the primary debates and in written statements, Romney argued for the “culture of life.” In the Feb. 22 GOP debate, he sought to reshift the birth-control debate back to the terrain of religious liberty: “I don't think we've seen in the history of this country the kind of attack on religious conscience, religious freedom, religious tolerance that we've seen under Barack Obama – most recently requiring the Catholic Church to provide for its employees health-care insurance that would include birth control, sterilization, and the morning-after pill. Unbelievable.”
No matter what Romney says, it seems, many social conservatives remain skeptical that he would fight for their views as president. And so some Republican strategists argue that Romney should aim his message at suburban female swing voters – which means focusing on the economy and not the culture war.
The abortion issue could also affect Romney’s choice of running mate. Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) of Virginia, a key swing state, is often mentioned as a possibility. But in March, Governor McDonnell signed a controversial bill requiring Virginia women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion. The bill originally required a “transvaginal ultrasound,” but now a woman can opt for an abdominal ultrasound. Still, it’s not an issue the Romney ticket wants to come up on the trail.