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Culture, Politics Still Collide on Roe v. Wade's 40th


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're heading now into the Beauty Shop. That's where we visit with our panel of women journalists, commentators and thinkers. In for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club. Mary Kate Cary is blogger and columnist for U.S. News and World Report. She's also a former presidential speechwriter. They are with us in Washington, D.C. and with us from Emory University in Atlanta is Professor Andra Gillespie. She is an associate professor of political science at Emory.

Ladies, welcome, everybody. Thanks so much for joining us once again.



MARY KATE CARY: Great to be here.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

MARTIN: Now, I'm not fishing around asking people's ages. I really am not. But, if you happened to catch the news 40 years ago from last night, this is what you would have heard.


HOWARD K. SMITH: The Supreme Court today ruled that abortion is completely a private matter to be decided by mother and doctor in the first three months of pregnancy. The 7-2 ruling to that effect will probably result in a drastic overhaul of state laws on abortion.

MARTIN: I think that was Howard K. Smith.

CARY: I was just going to guess.

MARTIN: I think that was my old...

CARY: It was not Walter Cronkite.

MARTIN: ...alma mater at ABC News.

CARY: Wow.

MARTIN: And, Viviana's, also. Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Roe V. Wade decision. That landmark decision legalized most abortions in all 50 states. Now, it's safe to say that the country is very different today politically and culturally, but you know, it's interesting to note that this is still a battle. In fact, I would tell you that I think I get a piece of mail about this issue just about every week.


MARTIN: At least one piece of mail about this on both sides of the issue. At least once a week. And so, Mary Kate, I'm going to ask. Do you have memories of the decision?

CARY: Oh, sure. I was - not to give away my age, but I'll be specific. I was 10. You guys can do the math what that makes me now. And I think 10 - you're probably fifth grade and I grew up here in Washington at a Catholic school, St. Thomas More, and when the decision came out, the nuns put the entire school on buses and we went down to the first March for Life and, every year after that, we went to the March for Life. The whole school went.

MARTIN: To protest immediately.

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: Immediately to protest it.

CARY: Immediately. Yeah.

MARTIN: And what was the message that you were given about this? Do you remember? What was it that...

CARY: Just that it was wrong and that we needed to stand up for what was right and, you know, they didn't get too graphic with us because we were kids, but that good people had to stand up and speak out against this.

MARTIN: Andra, do you have any memories from this? I already asked Viviana and she's denying having been on this Earth then, which we know is not true...


MARTIN: ...but Professor Gillespie, do you have any memories of the decision?

GILLESPIE: I am a baby. I wasn't born for another four and a half years. So I've always grown up with abortion being legal, but I was raised in an evangelical family and, you know, grew up and those are my own personal beliefs. So I certainly grew up in the subculture where people were fighting abortion. And so, you know, I grew up with people having - listening to Christian songs where there are abstinence songs and there are also anti-abortion songs that are sort of part of that dialogue and I certainly grew up watching Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson on television. And so I certainly got a lot of what the pro-life movement was about just growing up in - you know, in my environment and growing up sort of in that Christian subculture.

MARTIN: You know what's interesting to me is that I was just starting high school then and I have no memories of it and I find it interesting that I don't and I wonder whether it's because I was growing up in a part of the country where these topics were not discussed. They were not considered appropriate to discuss with young people and so that's why I just find it - and so let's fast-forward, you know, all these years later, where we have a much more open culture, a much more confessional culture. Many people are much more willing to discuss personal matters and also intensely personal matters in the political sphere, you know, as well.

Viviana, I'll go to you first on this. A recent Pew poll says that a little over half the population - well, first of all, a majority of Americans still support the Roe V. Wade decision. They don't want it overturned, but that a little over half don't think of it as a critical issue. And I'm curious about that. And it's the same for both men and women.

HURTADO: Yeah. And, you know, the poll that I was looking at, too, is the latest NBC-Wall Street Journal poll that confirms that. Right? That seven in 10 polled oppose Roe V. Wade being overturned, and what's really interesting is that a lot of this change is being led in the Latino community, the African-American community, who really have been excluded from this debate.

So, looking at the way Latinas view this, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health has done a groundbreaking poll and they have revealed that 90 percent of married Catholic Latinas use birth control that is banned by the Vatican and that 74 percent of the Latinos - registered Latino voters polled agree that women should have the right to make personal decision when it comes to abortion.

MARTIN: Interesting. So how do you interpret that? What do you think that that means?

HURTADO: Well, I think it's really important, firstly, to know that any survey or poll you have to approach it with some kind of skepticism because it has so much to do with the way questions are asked. There's a very - you're going to get one response if you say, are you antiabortion or are you pro-life or are you pro-choice? Interesting is that the questions asked had a lot to do with looking at compassion. Compassion and support were buzzwords that were used towards and putting a face behind these women: sisters, cousins, neighbors, classmates, friends. And I think that's where the debate is going to keep going among these new I guess communities that are being included in this debate.

MARTIN: Interesting. Professor Gillespie, do you agree with Viviana's perspective here, that for whatever reason that African-Americans and Latinos have largely been excluded from the discussions around this issue - that's not kind of the public face that you see? There have been a couple in, you know, history - like Faye Wattleton, for example, is the longtime leader of Planned Parenthood is African-American woman. But that the way that minorities think about this issue is different than the way majorities have thought about it, that the way white voters have thought about it. Do you think that that's true?

GILLESPIE: A lot of the public discourse has been shaped by second wave feminists who are largely upper-middle-class white women and so because of that the voices of Latinas and African-Americans and Asian-Americans have lost - largely been left out of the study. I mean I think one of the things that's actually interesting about some of the data that Viviana points out is that while we do see some variation in terms of question wording, there are certain places where we see consensus, and so general support for Roe versus Wade has stayed largely consistent for the past 40 years. But at the same time, people actually people still express some moral ambiguity about abortion in and of itself. And so while most people will support abortion at least in the first trimester - and you'll see support drop off for the second and third trimester - people still talk about that moral ambiguity. And in minority communities you have sort of slightly more conservatism toward this, but it's not always manifest. And so the idea that African-Americans or Latinos are like overwhelmingly more conservative on these issues was never really borne out by the data itself.

MARTIN: Well, what I found fascinating - and we were talking about this earlier, one of the points that you were making that Viviana was making is that African-Americans and Latinos may see themselves as conservative, like personally conservative. They might say, as you said earlier, this is not for me. This is not a decision I would personally make but I do not feel it is my right to make this decision for you. I do not - so that doesn't translate into voting behavior. Maybe people would answer a survey saying yes, I'm conservative, but I'm not going to vote on this because I don't feel it's your - I don't feel it's my right to make a personal decision I'd make for me for you.

And Mary Kate, I would ask you about this. It's surprising to some that abortion became an issue during the presidential campaign, during the last campaign, really in some of the other races. Like for example, Representative Todd Akin, who was running for the Senate, you know, famously made his distasteful comments...

CARY: Right.

MARTIN: ...about, you know, legitimate rape. And I'm just, you mentioned at the time that you feel that the Republicans had not handled this issue well kind of as a group, their candidates had not handled this issue well. Talk a little bit more about that.

CARY: Yeah. I think what, you know, in the context of what we're talking about over the last 40 years, you know, my memory as an adult of debating abortion and Roe versus Wade 25, 30 years ago was people would argue over when did life begin. Does it begin at conception and all that? And nobody seems to argue about that anymore. And I think that has a lot to do with ultrasounds. We didn't have ultrasounds when Roe versus Wade came out. And so now that people can see what's going on inside of a woman's womb, that debate has sort of gone by the wayside and now we talk more about what Viviana is saying, support for the women, and that's where these rape comments came in. You hear much more discussion about when should there be exceptions. Where is the room for compassion? It's no longer an argument about when does life begin. So I think most people think we all know when life begins.

MARTIN: Well, let me back up for a second...

CARY: Maybe I'm wrong but that's my sense of it.

MARTIN: ...Mary Kate, and just ask you this, I want to ask you why do you think we're still fighting about this?

CARY: I think because there's so much gray area. If you look at these polls, the Pew poll you were talking about and the Wall Street/NBC poll that Viviana is looking at, you've got 10 to 20 percent at one end who are hardcore pro-life, no exceptions. You've got 10 or 20 percent at the other end, hardcore abortion, all the time, 24/7, no restrictions. And then you've got 60 percent in the middle who believe varying degrees of restrictions should come into play, but they also think Roe versus Wade should stand. And so that's the crowd that Bill Clinton spoke to when he said safe, legal and rare. And I think that's the sort of the great mainstream now of American politics. And those...

MARTIN: What does that mean, exactly? What is safe, legal and rare mean? How rare? Yeah.

CARY: Yeah. Different people have different interpretations of that. And that's where the arguing comes in. And I think there's no name for that crowd. We've got a name for either end and we don't have a name in the middle, and we don't really have a political home for those people. And my argument would be that the Republican Party should try and find a home for them and bring them in and say, we know you're basically pro-life with exceptions and we're your people.

MARTIN: Well, Professor Gillespie, what is your sense of - why do you think we're still arguing about this?

GILLESPIE: Well, I mean I think it's a contentious issue. I think that there are deep philosophical issues here about right and wrong and life and not life. And so I think that that's still a very salient discussion. I also think that we're arguing about it because while on the margins, Roe is probably here to stay, there's always a way to try to whittle at the decision and try to come up with exceptions. I mean, you know, really, it's the first trimester part that's only sacrosanct and so we're now arguing about what to do after that and what to do in other types of circumstances.

And so you see this movement in terms of the moral majority sort of coming out of Roe versus Wade, they gained a lot of power and a lot of clout and every time somebody wants to like put the last nail in the coffin of the religious right movement they come up with a new way to try to redefine themselves. So that's why it's still important and because these are fundamental questions. And so we might not be arguing about abortion per se anymore, but last year's contraception debate, that was a huge debate about sexual propriety. And so we're talking about sexual propriety in terms of contraception and in terms of birth, but we're also talking about it in terms of sexual orientation as well. And so, you know, these are just really sort of fundamental life issues about how we define ourselves and how we define how we treat other people. And so these are probably issues that are going to be with us for a long time to come.

MARTIN: We are having our regular visit to the Beauty Shop, that's where we get together with a panel of women journalists, commentators and other thinkers, and we are spending our entire session today talking about the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. With us now Viviana Hurtado, Mary Kate Cary and Professor Andra Gillespie. She's an associate professor of political science at Emory University.

Viviana Hurtado, go back to a point that you made earlier. You were talking about the fact that you thought that kind of Latinos and African-Americans and their perspective on this had really been kind of left out of the discussion. They're kind of part of that middle that Mary Kate was talking about, that many people have made personal objections to abortion. They say it's not right for me, but they don't feel empowered to make that decision for other people. Now that everybody is becoming aware of the importance of Latinos and African-Americans, particularly - and I don't want to leave Asian-Americans out, but just for now we're just going to focus on these two large groups - what effect do you think this will have on the debate around this issue?

HURTADO: Well, I think going forward and, you know, tying into something that Mary Kate said, you see that a lot of these, for example, Latino voters might be in the middle on a lot of issues. But when it comes to the kind of rhetoric that we saw amped up during the election - specifically that legitimate rape comments - that's the kind of thing that's going to drive these so-called voters in some of these so-called new voters we see that Latinos are going to only continue to increase their numbers in the electorate. It's the kind of thing that's going to by default drive these voters to, for example, the Democrats that don't have, that have not, that have gone away really, from the fringe it should be allowed all the time under every kind of exception. And so I think going forward, and this is very similar too I see parallels with the immigration debate. Latinos were alienated. They felt alienated. And I think that if you continue to alienate Latino voters by articulating positions that are exclusive and that are very hard line, including on abortion, is this going to be a way to drive these voters away from the party.

MARTIN: Even if they personally oppose abortion you're saying that the language is alienating.

HURTADO: It is and it's really for a lot of these new voters it's about that gray area. It's about option. Again, I'll use the word compassion, you know, being extended to real people. And here's another thing Michel, that's important, access to education about, you know, your body as well as access, if needed, to abortion services.

MARTIN: Professor Gillespie, where do you see this debate going?

GILLESPIE: I agree with a lot of what Viviana is saying. I mean part of the language and the framing of the issue last year did the Republican Party a lot of damage. And so, and I speak as somebody who is pro-life. When I listen to Todd Akin make those kinds of comments and then I listen to people use faulty science to justify their position, that something as a thinking person that I have to reject. And it actually made me afraid to put people like that in positions of power even if I agree with most of them on this particular cultural issue because it didn't look like they were actually, you know, thinking about this in good faith, it wasn't that they were using proper judgment, and in terms of deciding this, they were making some knee-jerk visceral reaction and trying to make sure that they towed some type of party line about this. And so I think what most voters are going to be looking for is somebody who shows compassion and shows judgment, and also has a basic understanding of science and the human body. If last year's discussion was anything it was an endorsement of why you need comprehensive sex education in schools because bureaucrats are not necessarily the best people to try to tell people what they should be doing with their bodies because they don't know the science.

MARTIN: A final thought from you, Mary Kate Cary?

CARY: Great point. I feel exactly that way. And I think the way - I remember being in '96 on the Dole campaign in a kitchen cabinet meeting, all women and they said let's go around the room and say how you feel about abortion. Mary Kate, you start. And I said I would never have an abortion myself but I wouldn't judge anybody who had it. They're in a desperate situation it's between them and God. And they said you're pro-choice. And I said, no I'm not, I'm pro-life. And it started this huge fight amongst all the women about what is pro-life, what is pro-choice. So that's where I think the debate is going to go, is what are we going to do with his broad middle, the mainstream who don't go to either extreme? And that to me is the interesting part of this debate for the next 20 years.

MARTIN: Mary Kate Cary is a columnist and blogger for U.S. News & World Report. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief at the website the Wise Latina Club. They were both here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio - both being very wise. Thank you today. Very wise today, I think. Also...

HURTADO: I'll consider you Latina today.

MARTIN: Just for today. Just for today.


MARTIN: Also with us from Atlanta, Georgia...

CARY: Thank you.

MARTIN: ...Professor Andra Gillespie, associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. And Andra, I don't want to leave you out, you're wise too. Thank you so much for joining us over there.

CARY: Thank you. So there.


MARTIN: Thank you all so much for joining us today.

HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

CARY: Thanks.

GILLESPIE: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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