Confused about politics these days? Maybe this is one reason why.
During my drive this morning, NPR's Morning Edition was covering the stalemate over the budget (again). One of the Congressmen-- a Democrat-- was quoted, decrying the "radical social agenda" of the Republican majority.
What was the radical provision that he so adamantly rejected? A measure that would de-fund abortion providers in the Washington, D.C. region.
Now, this may sound striking to the ear (it certainly did to mine): to have something labeled "radical" that would de-fund abortion. We typically think of an anti-abortion position as hallmark "conservative" issue. And those who promote support for legalized abortions (and the social freedom, and thus implied-ethical freedom, to have them without castigation) are regularly dismissed as "liberals" -- the very word spat out with a hiss of distaste.
However much opposing abortion and like issues are socially, theologically, or ethically conservative, though, they are no longer matters of political conservatism. The word "conservative" means someone or something whose core principles are designed to guard the status quo, to "conserve" against change. Politically-speaking, the issue of abortion is greatly confusing to us in this way.
From a theological perspective, opposing abortion represents a conservative perspective: conserving the status quo theologically means protecting the historically-orthodox view, which is a high view of all human life and the belief that life begins at conception. Ethically, similarly, opposition of abortion is a generally conservative position; while the matter gets a bit more complex because of the more recent introduction of "situational ethics" as ethics determined in part by the relative circumstances, generally the status quo ethically is still favoring the reduction of abortions. (This has been shifting in co-relative degrees to the following points, however.)
Even socially, there is a certain degree of conservatism still wrapped up in opposing abortion. While our society continues to shift in a direction away from general opposition to abortion toward a general allowance of it, questions of degree and circumstance demonstrate a lingering status quo as opposing abortion at least to a point-- and, in fact, the trends of recent years have demonstrated a social shift toward the "center" on this issue. In other words, our society is less and less radically socially-progressive toward open and unrestricted access to abortion, but it is also decreasingly in favor of outright and total elimination of legalized abortion. (For some interesting stats on this, check these articles from The Pew Forum, The Christian Post, The University of Notre Dame, and Wikipedia.)
Politically, however, the status quo is unequivocally in favor of legalized abortion. We are approaching the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that found bans on legalized abortion to be a violation of a woman's constitutional rights. In 1992, Planned Parenthood v. Casey further underscored the tacit legalization that was the result of Roe, though it mitigated some of the open-endedness that Roe had allowed. Due to these and other court decisions, legalized abortion has been the status quo for almost my entire life; I was born not quite two months before Roe was decided. And it is and has been the status quo for nation, which is evidenced in the very regular push for legislation to restrict legalized abortion.
In other words, those who oppose legalized abortion-- or who are in favor of its legal restriction-- are not political conservatives on that issue, but are political progressives, or even liberals! (Okay, perhaps political "regressives" might describe some/many on this particular issue.)
Frankly, I would argue that this is not the only issue for which people who are theologically, socially, ethically, or even fiscally conservative now find themselves on the progressive/liberal end of the spectrum. One thing the Tea Party has made a core part of their identity is open and, yes, radical opposition to current governmental spending trends and policies. This is classic fiscal conservatism, but no one can argue (in light of our national debt figures or the size of the budget they are haggling over in Washington) that it is political conservatism.
This is one of the things that, I think, leaves so many of us a bit bewildered about politics these days. There are many issues where some must take a progressive/liberal political stance in order to be consistent with their theological, ethical, social, or fiscal conservatism. And few, apart from the politicians themselves, know how to parse that sort of disparity.