This must be an election year because a lot of the public discussion has begun to carry the word "values." Long a primarily Republican province, particularly in the wake of former President Clinton's infidelities and prevarication, the Democrats have vowed that this year they are going to fight Republican ownership of that term.
Addressing the nation after accepting the Democratic nomination for President, John Kerry's prepared text sought to broaden the definition of values beyond sex and truth-telling.
"For four years, we've heard a lot of talk about values," Kerry argued. "But values spoken without actions taken are just slogans. Values are not just words. They're what we live by. They're about the causes we champion and the people we fight for. And it is time for those who talk about family values to start valuing families."
43% of registered Democrats believe that “abortion destroys a human life.”
And on this point, I agree with Kerry and the Democrats. I believe America desperately needs to start a conversation about our obligations toward children, seniors, workers whose jobs are sent overseas, people living without health insurance, the unemployed and the underemployed.
But the Democratic Party's full-throated and unqualified support of abortion precludes that discussion.
On July 18 in the New York Times, an abortion rights activist named Amy Richards told the tale of "reducing"—in other words, killing— her unborn twins, for primarily economic reasons, in favor of the third child she was carrying.
"When I found out about the triplets, I felt like: It's not the back of a pickup at 16, but now I'm going to have to move to Staten Island," she told a Times editor. "I'll never leave my house because I'll have to care for these children. I'll have to start shopping only at Costco and buying big jars of mayonnaise. Even in my moments of thinking about having three, I don't think that deep down I was ever considering it."
Then on July 22, Barbara Ehrenreich, another Times columnist, wrote an op-ed chastising women for not being more forthright and downright proud of their decisions to kill their unborn children.
"Time to take your thumbs out of your mouths, ladies, and speak up for your rights," Ehrenreich wrote in a fit of abortion-righteousness. "The freedoms that we exercise but do not acknowledge are easily taken away."
Rarely had anyone written about abortion in as cold, calculating or callous a way as Richardson and Ehrenreich had, and Americans from both sides of the abortion debate greeted the columns with at least dismay if not horror and revulsion.
But not the Democratic Party. Meeting in convention in Boston within weeks of each column, the party leaders remained mute about abortion even as they desired to speak more deeply and meaningfully about values. Although previously on the campaign trail Senator Kerry professed a belief that human life begins at conception, he could not or would not find anything wrong with what Richards had done or with the notion that a woman should feel pride for killing her unborn children.
“Any country that accepts abortion, is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants."
Whether they intended to or not, the current Democratic Party leadership has managed to make Clinton's support for abortions that are "safe, legal and rare" the moderate position.
Now, I am not politically naïve. I understand that for Kerry or even a surrogate to have disapproved of Richards or Ehrenreich would have meant angering a vocal and financially critical part of the Democratic Party's base in a year when the each party's traditional supporters matter more than they usually do.
But the beginning of the general election campaign raises the stakes from the lowly, kowtowing primaries and the Democrats have to establish their credibility if America is to have the conversation it needs to have.
For better or worse, abortion bathes our candidates' hearts in an acid test of values. Even if Americans support abortion rights as almost something of a necessary evil, a concession to our hardness of heart as a people, they are far away from defining them as a good thing.
Refusing to recognize that reality, or even that a recent poll found that 43% of their own party believe that "abortion destroys a human life," effectively precludes Kerry or the Democratic leadership from speaking credibly on values. In the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, "Any country that accepts abortion, is not teaching its people to love, but to use any violence to get what it wants."
And love underpins the conversation that America most needs to have.