Abortion is a powerful force in American politics. If anybody but Mitt Romney wins the Republican presidential nomination, it will be at least partially due to Romney's past support of abortion rights as governor of Massachusetts. Likewise, if Romney prevails, he'll have his recently adopted anti-abortion position to thank.
And yet, as with much of the other political posturing that has defined the GOP campaigns thus far - from Newt Gingrich's purported disgust with Romney's business career to Rick Perry's expressed belief that President Obama is a "socialist" - the anti-abortion talk will never amount to anything but more talk.
No president - Republican or Democrat - will ever sign a bill that makes abortion in the United States illegal. Abortion is simply too popular.
Polls consistently show that the percentage of Americans opposed to abortion in all circumstances hovers around 20%. Similarly, about a fifth of the population believes abortion should always be legal. The group that really matters, however, is the 50% to 60% who believe abortion should be legal sometimes.
"Sometimes" means different things to different people. Some in the "sometimes" crowd believe abortion should be legal only in the early stages of pregnancy. Others believe it should be legal only in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's health is in danger.
No matter what the definition, "sometimes" is what will keep abortion legal in the U.S. It's what kept Mississippians - perhaps the most religious and socially conservative people in the nation - from embracing a recent law that would have banned all abortion and possibly some forms of birth control, such as the morning after pill. For better or worse, even Bible Belters prefer a society in which they can control the consequences of unprotected sex.
"Sometimes" is what keeps Wisconsin Right to Life, the largest anti-abortion group in the state, from supporting a Mississippi-style "personhood" amendment to the state constitution. In fact, according to the organization's website, preventing the drafting of such a law is one of the group's top priorities. It lists a variety of legally dubious excuses for the counterintuitive stance, including that such an amendment would invalidate the 19th-century statute - currently moot because of Roe v. Wade - that would make abortion illegal in Wisconsin if the Supreme Court ever overturned Roe.
Wisconsin Right to Life's position may seem hypocritical, but it is not surprising given the group's self-description as "Wisconsin's most effective pro-life organization." The slogan is meant to contrast it with its more principled (read: less effective) relative, Pro-Life Wisconsin, a Christian anti-abortion group. In addition to opposing virtually all forms of birth control and abortion in all circumstances, Pro-Life Wisconsin strongly supports a personhood amendment and dismisses as nonsense claims that the law would put other pro-life statutes in jeopardy.
While Wisconsin Right to Life's legal defense may be nonsense, its political intuition is probably correct. If you oppose abortion, the last thing you want to do is put such a policy to a vote. If Mississippians aren't ready to define "life at fertilization," Wisconsinites sure as hell aren't.
Of course, some true believers are going to try anyway. Here, state Rep. Andre Jacque, a freshman legislator (of course) from Green Bay, slightly altered the language of the Mississippi initiative and has tried to interest colleagues. He gained six co-sponsors, which amounts to a tenth of the Assembly GOP caucus. Besides naiveté, I can't imagine what motivated any of his colleagues to sign, except perhaps gambling debts.
It's not only Wisconsin conservatives who are fearful of engaging the abortion issue; the hundreds of self-described pro-life Republicans (and some Democrats) in Congress have not made a serious push to ban abortion in decades. Although the GOP platform advocates amending the Constitution (and thus invalidating Roe v. Wade) to protect life from conception, such a proposal has not been voted on in Congress since 1983, when an amendment introduced by Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Thomas Eagleton (D-Missouri) fell far short of the 67 votes necessary to begin the lengthy process of ratification by the states.
Even when Republicans, led by the socially conservative President George W. Bush, controlled both Houses of Congress, there was not even minimal interest in giving citizens the opportunity to vote on abortion.
It's not just that Republicans know they don't have the votes in Congress for such a feat. If that were the case, they would not have introduced a similarly hopeless constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage in 2004 and 2006. They know that floating the idea of a national abortion ban is politically poisonous - it scares even Americans who casually refer to themselves as pro-life, and who are sympathetic to a number of abortion restrictions, such as parental notification requirements or a ban on partial-birth abortion.
Republicans can and will win on many social issues. Gov. Scott Walker and his allies have used abortion as an excuse to cut state funds to Planned Parenthood. They've also successfully pushed to take away sex education requirements in public schools. But they will never take away abortion.
Jack Craver blogs about politics at TheSconz.com.