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The Democratic debate on abortion may finally help the party find an identity.

12:20 PM, Jan 27, 2005 • By TERRY EASTLAND
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SENATOR HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON has given a speech on abortion that is befuddling the political class. Did she, in her speech Monday to abortion-rights supporters, say what she's always said on abortion, or something new?

Clinton affirmed her long-standing support for abortion rights, as declared in Roe v. Wade. But "then she quickly shifted gears," the New York Times declared in a front-page story, "offering warm words to opponents of legalized abortion and praising the influence of 'religious and moral values' on delaying teenage girls from becoming sexually active."

A day later a Clinton aide told reporters that the senator had said nothing new and that the speech didn't merit A-1 coverage. So the Times was wrong to see the speech as an effort to reach out "beyond traditional core Democrats who support abortion rights"--or was it?

This much is clear: It would have been front-page news everywhere if Clinton had said that it's time for her party to quit defending Roe v. Wade.

That would have been heresy to "traditional core Democrats," of course, but the truth is that the Democrats' fierce attachment to Roe is a big reason for the party's gradual decline.

In Roe, another anniversary of which passed last week--with the usual arguments, rallies, and meetings, including the one Clinton attended--the Supreme Court declared a constitutional right to abortion so sweeping that it may be exercised for any reason up to the point of viability and even after that to preserve a woman's health.

Roe nullified state abortion laws everywhere. Yet Roe was vulnerable on many grounds, not least that it lacked rooting in the text and history of the Constitution.

As abortion-rights supporter Benjamin Wittes writes in the current Atlantic Monthly, Roe had "a deep legitimacy problem." But soon the Democratic party swore allegiance to just such a decision. That meant as well a commitment to its disenfranchising effects, since Roe mandated policy. The party came to shut down dissent (recall that Robert Casey, the pro-life Pennsylvania governor, was barred from speaking at the Democratic National Convention in 1992) even as it advanced ever more strident defenses of Roe (no "warm words" for pro-lifers).

In the last Senate, Democrats routinely resorted to filibusters to block judicial nominees they regarded as opposed to Roe. And in John Kerry the party offered a presidential candidate who refused to talk about abortion in terms other than the narrowly legal ones of Roe, and who vowed to name only judges who would support Roe.

Now, in the wake of an election in which the Democrats lost badly, Democrats for Life aren't the only Democrats who understand that the party's position on Roe helps explain the party's ebbing fortune since the '70s, when it still held large majorities in both houses. Consider that in 1977 to 1978, 125 of 292 House Democrats were pro-life, while in the last Congress only 28 of 203 House Democrats were. "There are a number of districts," says Kristen Day, the group's executive director, "that could be won by a pro-life Democrat" but which are held by Republicans "because of the pro-life issue."

As reported by Newsweek, John Kerry now echoes Kristen Day: "We have to find a different way to deal with the issue of abortion . . . We have to find a way to bring . . . right-to-life Democrats back to the Democratic party."

The best way to do that would be for the party to quit defending Roe v. Wade, quit saying the sky would fall if Roe were overruled, and quit making fidelity to Roe a litmus test for judges or for positions of party leadership. And to welcome democratic debate in which "the deeply held differences of opinion" on abortion that Clinton acknowledged in her speech could finally be aired in ways that matter.

Imagine if Clinton, while observing that she would favor abortion rights in such a debate, would say that. Imagine if John Kerry or Howard Dean or any other nationally prominent Democrat would say that. It would be big news, for sure.

Terry Eastland is publisher of The Weekly Standard.