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Palin’s Coded Anti-Abortion Support


Sarah Palin and her son, Trig. (flickr Sparky05)

HERSHEY, Pa. — During Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s last swing through battleground states this week, boisterous supporters cheer almost on cue when she delivers her stump speech.

Few lines get a more deep-felt roar of approval than her signature issue — support for children with disabilities.

Palin’s words strike deeper than just with parents who come to her rallies because one of their children has a disability.

Social conservatives cheer when Palin talks about the value of all children because her words are a subtle but clear signal of her staunch anti-abortion views. She talks about special-needs education in words and phrases generally associated with the anti-abortion movement, effectively reminding anti-abortion voters that she shares and supports their view.


Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

During a stop Sunday in Asheville, N.C., Palin told a raucous audience that she plans on “ushering in that spirit” of prioritizing children if she becomes vice president.

“John [McCain] and I have a vision of America where every innocent life counts,” Palin told a crowd at a high-school football stadium in Roanoke, Va., the next day. “Where everyone has a chance to contribute and every child is cherished. And that’s the spirit I want to bring to Washington, D.C.”

Palin, a mother of five, gave birth to her youngest son, Trig, in April. She knew he would be born with Down syndrome. On the stump, she talks about how, through prayer, she prepared herself for the challenges of welcoming the new member of her family. She tells crowds that when she and her husband, Todd Palin, saw Trig for the first time, he was “perfect” in their eyes — and now they consider him a “blessing.”

The issue of special-needs kids resonates with families eager to have a public figure so ready and able to prioritize programs for their children.

But Palin’s words appeal to many more of her supporters for what they signal. Her personal story is leavened with language regularly used by the anti-abortion movement — including phrases like “spirit” and “culture of life.” It allows her to reach the GOP’s anti-abortion base without actually talking about reproductive health issues.

Palin has spoken about her anti-abortion views publicly. During a debate in the 2006 Alaska gubernatorial campaign, Palin said she would be against abortion even in the event her daughter was raped. She said she only supports abortion in instances where the life of the mother is endangered.

During the presidential campaign, Palin has been more cautious in outlining the specifics of her beliefs.

Advocates on both sides of the abortion-rights debate agree that Palin doesn’t need to be direct. By discussing her plans for special-needs children and touching on her own story, she galvanizes the arm of the GOP base that lists abortion as a top issue. At the same time, she runs less of a risk of alienating pro-abortion rights voters.

“She is able to talk about the life issue without talking about abortion, because everybody knows her personal circumstance,” said Janice Crouse, a political commentator from Concerned Women of America, a conservative nonprofit public-policy group that opposes abortion rights.

“She is able to talk about issues just with her personal life,” Crouse said, “without having to bring up the political kind of rhetoric that people are so tired of. Instead, she talks about it from a personal standpoint, and that makes it very palatable for people.”

Palin’s strategy is not new in the anti-abortion-rights movement.

Caitlin E. Borgmann, a professor at the City University of New York’s Law School who writes the Reproductive Rights Prof blog, says “special code words” and euphemisms have served anti-abortion activists well.

After the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade in 1973, the anti-abortion movement aimed to reduce access to abortion incrementally rather than by an outright ban.

Campaigns targeted seemingly narrow goals, including laws requiring 24-hour waiting periods or parental notification before a woman, or woman under 18, could undergo an abortion.

Anti-abortion voters tend to be more conscious of the broader strategy, while pro-abortion rights voters tend to see such initiatives as discrete measures.

Borgmann said language helps this dichotomy between galvanizing the base and not alienating moderates and liberals.

“The movement and the supporter know it’s part of this larger strategy,” Borgmann said, referring to discrete measures and specific language. Borgmann noted that pro-abortion rights voters tend to be less aware of, or sensitive to, the tactics and wording.

Palin has used some of the most common terminology like “a culture of life” in referring to abortion.

Her comments about special-needs children have a similar feel. Rather than talking broadly about people with special needs, her focus is on children and families. She frames it as a family issue.

In her first major policy speech, Palin focused on how she plans to prioritize funding for special-needs education. She said she would work for the full funding of a federal law that matches state funds for special education.

She couched her policy discussion in a broad discussion of the value of every child’s life.

“Too often, even in our own day, children with special needs have been set apart and excluded,” Palin said during an address in Arlington, Va. “Too often, they are made to feel that there is no place for them in the life of our country, that they don’t count or have nothing to contribute. This attitude is a grave disservice to these beautiful children, to their families and to our country — and I will work to change it.”

Borgmann noted that such phrasing is an example of reaching the base without turning off more moderate or even liberal voters.

It’s an important line for Palin to walk. Even if her crowds hold more extreme views than most voters, she must remember she is being broadcast live on national TV.

A recent ABC News poll shows that 53 percent of likely voters now say the economy is the most important issue, well above any social issue. Only about 6 percent of voters now say abortion, marriage and gun rights are their top issue for the 2008 presidential race, according to a Newsweek poll from last week.

Palin has been careful discussing her anti-abortion views during previous campaigns. In 2006, when running for governor of Alaska, she avoided talking about her anti-abortion views at major events.

The state of Alaska has strong legal protections for abortion rights, including an explicit right to privacy in the state constitution, and the electorate is not largely concerned about the issue.

Clover Simon, head of Planned Parenthood Alaska, said Palin only touches on reproductive rights explicitly at “really targeted events,” where supporters are staunchly anti-abortion.

In her year and a half as governor, before being tapped for the GOP presidential ticket, Palin had not pushed for any policy changes on abortion. Her anti-abortion supporters have said they are hopeful she might still make it a priority, if she returns to Alaska as governor.

In the meantime, to continue reaching out to her base, Palin only needs to hint at her record — and her plans — to let them know her views. Without getting into the specifics of her policies, her supporters know where she stands.

“As governor,” Palin said in a recent speech in Johnstown, Pa., “what I’ve been able to do is kind of manifest my commitment to life.”

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