Death of a Wedge Issue | Opinion | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

We don't know yet which gubernatorial candidate will win the Democratic primary. But we may already know who some of the losers are: anti-abortion voters. 

It wasn't supposed to play out that way. A December 2009 piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News summed up the conventional wisdom at the outset of the race: Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato was a "Roman Catholic and an anti-abortion Democrat." State Auditor General Jack Wagner, meanwhile, was anti-abortion -- "[l]ike Onorato." And then there was Joe Hoeffel, a county commissioner from the Philadelphia suburbs. Hoeffel "appears eager to be the standard-bearer" on "socially polarizing issues," the paper reported. "He is pro-abortion rights."

But these days, apparently, so is everyone else.

In earlier campaigns, Onorato got the stamp of approval from prolifers like LifePAC. They got little in return, since his previous posts -- city councilor, county controller and county executive -- barely touched on abortion. Since launching his gubernatorial campaign, however, Onorato has said others had misconstrued his position, and pledged to veto any change to Pennsylvania's abortion law. 

That law is highly restrictive; 20 years ago it spurred the biggest courtroom battle since Roe v. Wade. It mandates a gratuitous 24-hour "waiting period" and intrusive gag rules, among other things. Still, it does allow women to get abortions. So Onorato is pro-choice, right?

Tell it to the folks in York, Pa. 

I mean seriously: Tell them.

An anti-abortion group there, ACTION, invited Onorato to an April forum slated for pro-life candidates only. ACTION claimed Onorato was sending a representative, which Hoeffel's campaign cited as proof that Onorato was pro-life after all. Onorato's camp promptly denied agreeing to attend. 

If this was a misunderstanding, it's not the only one. When I told ACTION's treasurer, Angie Klein, that Onorato supported the state law allowing abortions, she said, "We were under a different supposition." 

Nor was she alone in her confusion. When LifePAC of Southwestern PA issued its roster of pro-life candidates, it included Wagner while omitting Onorato ... even though their positions sound the same. When asked by the Steel City Stonewall Democrats, a gay-rights group, to "discuss your position on abortion," Wagner answered, "I am a pro-life Democrat and support the current state law."

Wagner has used that phrasing elsewhere. Other times, though, he's described himself as "a pro-life Democrat," muttered something about adoption, and left it at that. You can see why people get confused.

While the positions are murky, the politics are straightforward. To win statewide, Democrats need votes from the Philadelphia area -- and voters there skew liberal on social issues. And Onorato and Wagner have the best of both worlds: They're neutralizing the issue with vaguely pro-choice positions, while old pro-life friends are slow to catch on.

If reproductive freedom is your make-or-break issue, Hoeffel is your choice. For starters, he's been backed by Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women. But if abortion isn't an issue for most voters, it'll hurt Hoeffel most.

"Elections are about drawing distinctions," says pollster Terry Madonna, whose Franklin & Marshall College polls are a mainstay in Pennsylvania politics. And for Hoeffel, being proudly pro-choice was one way to help voters choose him.  

But economic concerns trump everything else this year, Madonna says, and polling suggests that overall, "[a]bortion doesn't have the same emotion it did a decade or two ago." 

In fact, even Madonna was unsure about where a fourth Democrat, Philadelphia state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, stands on the issue. (The Williams campaign says adult women have "a fundamental right to make ... reproductive decisions" -- a position it describes as "without any ambiguity.") 

Is it such a bad thing that Wagner and Onorato are muddying the waters? Maybe not. Many of us already feel like "pro-choice" or "pro-life" are overly simplistic terms. If Wagner can claim to be a "pro-life Democrat" who supports choice ... well, that points out how silly the debate has become. And aren't we tired of elections being driven by "wedge issues" anyway? 

Of course, abortion nearly derailed Barack Obama's health-care reform. Last year a Kansas abortion provider, George Tiller, was gunned down in church by a pro-life fanatic. It's hard to believe abortion could ever not be a lightning rod.

Then again, a Kansas jury convicted Tiller's murderer in less than an hour.  And voters in Pennsylvania -- once the central battleground over abortion -- may have reached their own grudging consensus. 

Compared to this, gay marriage ought to be a breeze.


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