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Richard Cohen

Democrats, Abortion and 'Alfie'

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 14, 2004; Page A27

Dickens wrote "A Tale of Two Cities." Cohen will write "A Tale of Two Movies." The first is "Alfie," the 1966 film starring Michael Caine, and the second, as it happens, is also "Alfie," this year's remake of the original, with Jude Law in the title role. In the first "Alfie" a woman of his acquaintance gets an abortion. In the second she does not. Therein lies my tale.

The second "Alfie" was obviously made before folks such as me decided that moral values were what made George Bush the winner of this year's presidential contest. Still, very little about making films is an accident -- movies cost too much -- so I can posit that someone had sensed that the zeitgeist had shifted: Abortion is no longer seen as central to sexual liberation but rather as much more troubling and problematic. Over the years, the so-called right-to-life movement has changed some minds.

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Mine among them, I am quick to say. This is especially the case with late-term abortion, which in some cases has been not too unfairly packaged for propaganda reasons as "partial-birth abortion." Whatever it is called, a description of it turns the stomach and makes you wonder whether the procedure should be authorized only under certain circumstances. For the record, I stated my qualms a long time ago.

But the Democratic Party still marches to the tune of "Alfie" ("What's it all about, Alfie?") as if nothing has changed in almost 40 years. Abortion remains a core party principle -- up there with civil rights and, more recently, gay rights. Gay rights is one thing. It is nothing more than an extension of the party's traditional -- and politically costly -- embrace of civil rights. But abortion is a different matter entirely. It is no longer what it was -- simply about women's rights and sexual freedom. It is, as its opponents say, about life -- arguably about the taking of it.

Yet the party insists otherwise. It entertains no doubts and counters reasonable questions and qualms with slogans -- a woman's right to choose, for instance. The party is downright inhospitable to abortion opponents. Therefore, it was good Sunday to hear Howard Dean -- both a physician and pro-choice -- say on "Meet the Press" that "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."

Dean may make a run for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and so what he says could matter. As it is now, being pro-choice is a litmus test for all Democrats, especially their presidential candidates. It is almost inconceivable that a Democratic candidate could voice qualms about abortion. It's almost inconceivable, though, that the candidates don't have them.

Over the decades my views on abortion have evolved. I'm still pro-choice, but I no longer see the issue as solely about women's rights or sexual freedom. It is more complex -- freighted always with the phrase "it depends" and tinged with regret: Something has gone wrong and something difficult has to be done about it. An abortion is not a mere exercise of a right like voting. It is more complicated than that.

The next Democratic chairman ought to recognize that. Let the GOP become the bastion of know-it-alls and zealots. Let it take its opposition to abortion into the corner where it is finding itself -- against even stem cell research and hospitable to extremists who would, if they could, execute physicians who perform abortions. "I favor the death penalty for abortionists," the newly elected Republican senator for Oklahoma, Tom Coburn, said during the recent campaign.

Fine. Let the GOP defend that statement when, say, the abortion was performed on a 12-year-old rape victim or a woman whose health was in danger. Let the GOP become the party that cares more about ideology than about people and their concerns -- unwanted pregnancies, possible cures for hideous diseases or the irrational treatment of homosexuals.

It's been almost 40 years from one "Alfie" to the other, and much has changed. Contraception devices, once forbidden, are now advertised on TV. One era's simplicities have become another's complexities, and sentient people know it. Only in the political realm do life's most vexing questions become either/or questions with answers that only a guppy could accept. When it comes to abortion, for instance, the new "Alfie" tells us something. Maybe if Dean wins, he'll screen it at the DNC.

cohenr@washpost.com


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