I'm not sure the Republican presidential candidates really care much about abortion. Yes, there is lots of huffing and puffing about the Supreme Court and Planned Parenthood, all of which plays well among a narrow segment of voters in the primaries. But here is the thing: At no point in either of the debates, or at any other point in the campaign that I know of, has a Republican candidate offered a credible plan for reducing the number of abortions performed in America.
Let's just briefly review the civics here. Banging the rostrum and declaring oneself to be more "pro-life" than the other 57 Republican candidates does not change the law regarding abortion in America. If anything, it makes a meaningful policy change on that issue less likely. According to Gallup, most Americans (50 percent) believe abortion should be "legal only under certain circumstances." There is far less support for making abortion completely illegal (21 percent) or legal in all circumstances (28 percent).
So all that pro-life talk will not play well in the general election. News flash: If you don't get elected president, you will not change anything with regard to American abortion policy.
But we're not done with the civics lesson yet. Let's suppose a pro-life Republican does get elected. Reversing America's abortion policy in a major way (as opposed to nibbling around the edges) requires overturning Roe v. Wade. A president would have to appoint a Supreme Court nominee willing to make such a decision, and, more important, the Senate would have to confirm him or her. That is just not going to happen, given that the Democrats will hold enough Senate seats after 2016 to filibuster such a nominee.
But let's dream a little. Suppose a pro-life candidate is elected, and he or she appoints a Supreme Court justice who offers the fifth vote necessary to overturn Roe. What happens next? Not as much as you would think. The states are responsible for making laws regarding abortion. Some states would outlaw abortion; many would not. Women with resources would travel to get abortions. Women without resources would find illegal options. (If the war on drugs has taught us anything, it is that people tend to get what they want when there is profit to be had in supplying it.)
We are now pretty far into a Republican dreamscape and there is no compelling reason to believe that abortion would become significantly less common. Let's add some data to the civics lesson. The abortion rate across countries is strikingly uncorrelated to whether abortion is legal or not. For example, a study published in the British medical journal The Lancet concluded, "Restrictive abortion laws are not associated with lower abortion rates." Some of the lowest abortion rates are in countries with the most liberal abortion laws.
Women have abortions because the pregnancy is unintended or because they cannot afford to have a child. Thus, the logical place to start for those who abhor abortion is preventing unplanned pregnancies and fighting poverty. Yet the Republican candidates jostling to show off their pro-life credentials have said absolutely nothing about these pragmatic tools for lowering America's abortion rate. If anything, Republicans tend to support "abstinence education," despite clear evidence that it has no effect on youth behavior and precludes more effective sex education.
The Republicans have at times been described as the party of "no." That's not quite right. They are becoming the party of "nothing," because there is no reasonable plan for getting anything done on the issues they purport to care so much about: abortion, Obamacare, tax reform, regulatory overhaul.
We just saw it once again with the resignation of Speaker John Boehner, a guy who, on his good days, cared about governing. The Republicans have effectively tossed him over for a leader who will be even less likely to compromise with the Democrats holding crucial levers of power. What will that achieve? Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Ideological purity may win a Republican primary. Ironically, it is inimical to real progress on the issues that get primary voters so exorcised.
Here is my question for the next Republican debate: "Given your strong pro-life views, please explain your plan for reducing America's abortion rate." The answers will separate those candidates with the potential to achieve something from those destined to deliver more nothing.
Editor’s note: This article, written by Charles Wheelan, originally published on U.S News