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Carol Platt Liebau - Columnist

Carol Platt Liebau is a senior member of the editorial board. She is an attorney, political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA, and has appeared on the Fox News Channel, Orange County News Channel, Cox Cable and a variety of radio programs throughout the United States. A graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, Carol Platt Liebau also served as the first female managing editor of the Harvard Law Review.

In the Ring With Barbara Boxer
A “Lightweight” Approach to Justifying Abortion Rights?
[Carol Platt Liebau] 7/14/03

Former Senator Alan Simpson once remarked, “We have the same percentage of lightweights in Congress as you have in your hometown. After all, it’s representative government.”If our elected officials are, in fact, perceived to be typical of the people who elected them, it’s no wonder that so much of the country sees California as the “loony left” coast. After all, we’re the ones who sent Barbara Boxer to the Senate.

Senator Boxer is often seen as a policy “lightweight” who promises a great deal to her liberal supporters, then actually delivers far less. But just this week, she boasted a legislative victory. With the help of nine Republicans and the Senate Democrats, she was able to pass an amendment repealing the “Mexico City” policy, first put in place by Ronald Reagan (then repealed by President Clinton, and reinstated by President Bush). That policy prohibits U.S. foreign assistance to “international-based nongovernmental organizations” that perform or promote abortion overseas.

Certainly people of goodwill and good conscience can disagree on whether current abortion law should stand. And if Barbara Boxer had simply come out and justified her opposition to the “Mexico City” policy as an outgrowth of her support for abortion rights, that by itself would have been unremarkable. She is, after all, one of the most fervent proponents of sweeping abortion rights in the Senate. Senator Boxer was endorsed by EMILY’s List (a pro-choice PAC), opposes maintaining a ban on abortions performed on military bases, and supports even partial birth abortion.

But instead, Senator Boxer headed for loftier constitutional territory: the First Amendment. Last week on the Senate floor, she declaimed “We don’t tell every group in this country that receives federal funds they cannot talk about anything, because this is America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. Free speech is the basis of our country.”

How embarrassing – not just for her, but for every Californian she purports to represent. In fact, the federal government does tell many groups that receive government funds in this country that they can’t talk about some things – most notably, religion. That’s why President Bush’s faith-based initiative bans religious discourse in government-funded social services programs, even when they’re provided by religious organizations. And that’s why a public school teacher can be disciplined just for mentioning Jesus’ (or Mohammed’s) name in class.

Worse yet, Senator Boxer fundamentally misconstrues the protection provided by the First Amendment. In a statement touting her legislation, she states, “These organizations face two choices, they can either refuse U.S. assistance or give up the right to speak freely.” By Barbara Boxer’s reasoning, because the United States chooses to withhold its taxpayers’ money from foreign organizations that perform and promote abortion, it’s somehow destroying these groups’ rights to espouse their own views. But the foreign organizations can perform all the elective abortions they want to and promote abortion all day long; in turn, the United States can choose not to fund them. The whole issue comes down to that most precious principle in abortion policy: choice.

And finally, Barbara Boxer knows (or should know) that every constitutional right secured to Americans does not necessarily apply to overseas individuals or entities. She’s no lawyer, but surely she’s aware of the recent rash of legal decisions allowing foreign terrorists to be treated differently by our government than those who are American citizens. And presumably she wouldn’t support the logical extension of the First Amendment/funding principle she extols. If it were somehow wrong for the United States to condition its aid on the content of a foreign recipient’s speech, Americans wouldn’t have the “right” to withhold foreign aid even to powers that openly advocate this country’s destruction.

It’s clear that Senator Boxer is invoking the First Amendment not as a matter of principle, but as a point of strategy. Certainly her support for abortion rights has been more consistent than her support for freedom of speech and religion (both guaranteed by the First Amendment). Indeed, even after the Supreme Court held that the Boy Scouts had the constitutional right to exclude homosexual members and leaders, Senator Boxer stood silent when the Los Angeles City Council directed all of the city's departments to review contracts with Boy Scouts in an effort to force compliance with the city’s nondiscrimination clause. Where was Senator Boxer when government support was being explicitly conditioned upon an organization relinquishing its freedom of religion, speech and conscience?

But perhaps the more interesting question is why the Senator decided to make the strategic choice to emphasize the constitutional right to free speech over the constitutional right to abortion. Standing for reelection next year in a state that is, by all news accounts, overwhelmingly pro-choice, why wouldn’t Senator Boxer simply come out and say that she is committed to a policy of providing American tax dollars for abortions to be performed overseas?

Could it be that even Californians are more ambivalent on the abortion issue than is commonly believed? Or does Senator Boxer sense that even a pro-choice state draws the line at taxpayer funding for the promotion or performance of the procedure? Is there anything that “lightweight” Barbara Boxer knows, that the rest of us are missing?

CRO columnist Carol Platt Liebau is a political analyst and commentator based in San Marino, CA.


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