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It's the topic that won't go away. For nearly 40 years, abortion has been the never-ending subject of protests, political promises and presidential elections. It is once again, and in spades, as the Republican National Convention nominated Mitt Romney as its standard bearer against President Obama.
It wasn't going to go away. Opposition to abortion was ensconced, as usual, in the Republican Party platform, where many party leaders hoped, no doubt, that it would remain inconspicuous, like a piece of furniture. Todd Akin dashed those hopes.
The Missouri congressman's appalling and ignorant comments that women don't get pregnant after a "legitimate rape" shoved the issue once again into the forefront of political discussion, replacing, at least for a time, jobs, the economy and the federal budget deficit. The lesson for those who believe that women, not the government, must have final say over their bodies is that they will always have to be on guard against not just the quacks like Akin, but also those whose heartfelt conviction is that government should have the right to compel women to carry their pregnancies to term, regardless of their wishes or their circumstances.
So polarized is this issue that it is questionable if there was ever a way to avoid it. Some critics of the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe v. Wade decision contend that the matter would have been more broadly accepted had the issue been resolved through legislative debate rather than judicial fiat. It is not an implausible idea, but the passion that abortion unleashes strongly argues otherwise.
So single-minded is the opposition to abortion, especially among those on the Republican right, that presidential aspirants feel compelled to renounce any previously moderate position. Thus, George H.W. Bush ran in 1988 as an abortion foe, despite previously supporting abortion rights. Thus, too, in today's campaign Romney is against abortion rights that he previously championed.
It's not the only issue on which Romney has reversed himself - health care is another - but it is transparently disingenuous. Not only that, but frighteningly so. Akin's crackpot ideas on rape and pregnancy came, he said, from a doctor, evidently one Jack C. Willke, father of the anti-abortion movement and a surrogate for Mitt Romney in his unsuccessful 2008 presidential bid.
We understand that many Americans hold passionate positions on abortion and that it is, and probably always will be, a heated subject - and for good reason. Whether one believes life begins at conception or not, the fact is that a fetus, left to develop, will indeed become life. It's not like removing a mole, or at least it shouldn't be.
But those very passions are, in part, the reason that government needs to keep out of the issue as much as possible. The analogy isn't perfect, but we insist on guarantees of free speech and freedom of religion and freedom of assembly for good reason. At various time, majorities - perhaps even well-meaning ones - have tried to abrogate those rights for reasons they deemed just.
As former President Clinton once put it, the best circumstance would be for abortion to be safe, legal and rare. Opponents would do better to focus on persuasion - remember those "Life. What a Beautiful Choice" ads? - than to demand that government interfere where government has no business going.
Abortion is not a happy subject, but it is one that needs to be left to the best judgment of individual women. Clearly, it is an issue that voters will once again need to keep in mind as they choose a president.