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OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Reasonableness in wringer

by John Brummett | May 11, 2022 at 3:55 a.m.

Abortion is a convenient issue for conservative Republicans.

Fetuses are ideal causes. They haven't yet voted Democratic or by mail, or taught in school that America fought a Civil War in which race was a factor, or suggested we might limit assault weapons, or protested police abuse of Black persons, or taken a shine to persons of their own gender, or questioned their own gender, or piled up student-loan debt, or placed church membership with the Episcopalians or the Unitarians, or condemned insurrection.

The conservative base is wholly intolerant on abortion. Some in that base treat abortion as their single issue. Republicans get their votes simply because they believe Democrats kill babies.

Murdering the most innocent, as some view the matter, defies the public-policy concept of see-both-sides moderation, collaboration, compromise and pragmatic slicing and dicing toward transactional problem-solving.

The best rejoinders against intolerance or extremism have become despised clichés. Saying "I'm against abortion personally but don't see a way to end it in a practical, fair or safe way" or "If you're against abortion, don't have one" or the Bill Clinton favorite that abortion must be "safe, legal and rare" ... all those manage to do is infuriate and galvanize.

Thus the issue is primarily responsible--not entirely, but primarily--for the dysfunctional polarization pervasive in all our national politics. Everything else aside, either you're killing innocent babies or treating women as broodmares. King Solomon couldn't finesse a summit meeting of those camps.

My current favorite center-right problem-solver, Gov. Asa Hutchinson, tried Sunday on "This Week" on ABC to wiggle without room, to navigate where Solomon would fail, to walk a nonexistent center line on this one-lane, both-ways, high-speed thoroughfare.

That's a metaphor. Hutchinson wasn't literally crushed in the head-on impact of barreling tractor-trailer rigs, one labeled "baby-killer" and the other "woman-hater." His political crushing wouldn't become evident until and unless he went through with this strange idea of running for president as a rare reasonable Republican.

I suspect the reason Hutchinson appears on a Sunday network talk show nearly every week is that, whenever producers of those shows open their files labeled "reasonable Republican," Asa's 8-x-10 glossy is the only item in there.

(That's hyperbole. There are photos in there of Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski and Larry Hogan. But maybe Asa seems the most interesting because he's both reasonable and from Arkansas. He's the ivory-billed woodpecker of politics, exciting folks from up east who swear they saw one down there in the swamp.)

Asa said Sunday that he didn't like the percolating Republican congressional idea to make a federal law banning any state laws permitting abortion. He also said that exceptions to an abortion ban ought to be considered for pregnancies from rape or incest.

He did a pretty good surgical job on those issues. Or at least as well as could have been done.

Of a congressional law presuming to bar states from making abortion-permissive laws, he said there would be issues of constitutional overreach in doing that, which, he said, would be "inconsistent with what we've been fighting [about] for decades, which is that we wanted Roe v. Wade reversed and the authority to return to the states. And so as a matter of principle, that's what we should do."

Of rape and incest exceptions, which are not contained in an Arkansas trigger law or a bill Hutchinson signed because he'd have been perfunctorily overridden, he said, "Even though we believe life begins at conception, we try to save lives. Rape and incest and life-of-mother exceptions--those are accommodations that are made to get public acceptance ... of saving unborn lives."

On any other issue, his sound reasoning might gain currency. But let me tell you how the Republican base is likely to interpret his attempted slices and dices on abortion: One response would be that Hutchinson wants innocent babies killed in some states. The other would be that the sinful circumstance of a life's conception wasn't the fault of the innocently conceived baby and should not provide sanction for snuffing out that innocent life.

The abortion issue defies the vital give-and-take of political negotiation.

The only way to achieve any sort of political finesse on it--and it's just a hopeful thought at this point--is that states would be permitted to make the decisions for themselves, resulting in the majorities of the people having the issue their way nearest their homes, thereby reducing the heat of passions in both sets of places, and permitting voters to look open-mindedly to other issues, and policymakers to move on to the vital imperfections of pragmatic problem-solving.

That wouldn't satisfy anyone on the central issue. It wouldn't be equitable state-to-state or woman-to-woman or fetus-to-fetus.

It would not change individual absolutism on abortion. But it just might begin to loosen absolutism's stranglehold on everyone and everything thing else.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

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