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The 15 Biggest Lies in Politics

The 15 Biggest Lies in Politics

by Major Garrett, Tim J. Penny

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In the world of politics, it's hard to separate the truth from the lies. In this strongly argued but nonpartisan book, Major Garrett and Timothy J. Penny draw on their combined decades of experience watching government work to illuminate the deceptions and delusions to which we as citizens are subjected every election season. Here are some of the lies:



In the world of politics, it's hard to separate the truth from the lies. In this strongly argued but nonpartisan book, Major Garrett and Timothy J. Penny draw on their combined decades of experience watching government work to illuminate the deceptions and delusions to which we as citizens are subjected every election season. Here are some of the lies:

Tax Cuts Are Good
Social Security Is a Sacred Government Trust
Medicare Works
Money Buys Elections
Republicans Believe in Smaller Government
Democrats Are Compassionate

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"A self-defense manual for voters." — Pioneer Press

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The Fifteen Biggest Lies in Politics

By Major Garrett, Timothy J. Penny

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 1998 Major Garrett and Timothy J. Penny
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-312-24602-0



The title of this chapter is intentionally inflammatory.

We apologize to anyone on either side of the abortion debate whom we've offended, or who believes we've been flippant or cruel.

We're not suggesting that Americans who are pro-choice or pro-life are irrelevant to the ultimate decision the nation reaches on the question of abortion rights. Clearly they are important voices, and their interest and dedication to their beliefs are commendable. Would that other issues in America attracted similar passion.

Nevertheless, we believe that America must reassess the way it discusses abortion—believe it so strongly that we are compelled to attack, in the strongest terms possible, the tenor, direction, and content of America's raging debate over abortion.

But let's establish how we, the authors of this book, personally approach this issue.

In a professional context, Tim dealt with abortion issues repeatedly during his twelve years as a member of Congress. He had a generally pro-life voting record and consistently voted against Medicaid funding of abortion. Contrary to the wishes of the pro-life lobby, he voted for international family-planning programs that provide access to birth-control services, but Tim generally enjoyed support from pro-life groups. He never received contributions from pro-choice forces.

In his fourteen years as a professional journalist, Major has covered many facets of the abortion debate, from clinic protests in Las Vegas and Houston to the struggle over abortion language in the Republican Party platform at the 1992 National Convention. Major also observed dozens of abortion debates while covering Congress from 1990 to the present.

Since 1982 we have been participants in, or witnesses to, a good deal of America's abortion debate.

And we're sick of it.


We're sick at heart about it.

We're sick at heart because it all seems beside the point.

It's now been twenty-five years since the Supreme Court ruled that access to abortion was constitutionally protected throughout America (it was legal in fourteen states before the Court handed down its ruling in Roe v. Wade).

And what has America gained from its inflamed debate over abortion?

What have we to show for all the protests, the court filings, the clinic blockades, the bombings and shootings, the rallies on the Mall, the press conferences, the television and radio commercials, the congressional floor speeches, the presidential speeches and vetoes, the sermons (for and against) from the pulpit? What has all the yelling wrought? Nothing.

After twenty-five years, the abortion debate in America has done nothing to reduce appreciably the number of abortions performed every year in this great nation.

Federal law gives every woman in America the right to terminate her pregnancy up until the twenty-sixth week of gestation. In 1973 the Supreme Court ruled this to be the point at which a fetus becomes "viable" outside the mother's womb. The Court did not endorse the feminist concept that a fetus is the property of the woman, only that the fetus is the property of the woman until the fetus is healthy enough to survive outside her womb by means of medical intervention. At that point the fetus, according to the Court, can be subject to state protections if the state decides to impose them. By and large, however, the Court has rejected most attempts by the state to impose restrictions on adult women seeking abortions at any time in their pregnancy. At the same time the Court has upheld various laws meant to discourage and in some cases outlaw abortions obtained by a minor without the consent of at least one parent.

Following the Court's Roe v. Wade ruling, the number of abortions doubled—from 744,600 in 1973 to 1,409,600 in 1978. Since then the number of abortions nationally has averaged about 1.5 million per year. In 1992, the last year for which hard statistics are available, the number of abortions was 1,528,900. Estimates from the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a special-research affiliate of Planned Parenthood, suggest that the number of abortions from 1994 through 1996 fell slightly, to 1.4 million per year. But this decrease is largely attributed to the decline in women of child-rearing age—particularly women in their twenties, who have a disproportionately large number of abortions compared to women in their thirties.

This follows a statistical trend established after the number of abortions reached 1.4 million in 1978. Since then, according to Census Bureau statistics, the aggregate number of abortions has fluctuated primarily in relation to the number of women of child-rearing age. As the number of women of child-rearing age has increased, so too has the number of abortions. As it has declined, so too has the number of abortions, if ever so slightly. The incidence of abortion has remained relatively constant across all demographic and regional groups and subgroups. According to estimates from the Guttmacher Institute, more than 34 million abortions were performed from 1973 to 1996. After twenty-five years of debate, the cultural predisposition toward abortion has neither increased nor decreased.

To our way of thinking, reducing the aggregate number of abortions each year is the only rational goal and the only worthwhile measurement of the quality, importance, and relevance of America's debate on abortion.


Because that's the one thing both sides say they want.

Pro-life forces want to make abortion a crime, or at least return the decision on whether to make it a crime back to the states, where the issue could be debated and a majority decision reached. Clearly their intention is to have fewer abortions, since they consider the procedure an act of "killing the unborn."

Pro-choice forces do not, of course, see abortion as murder, but rather as a woman's way of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy on her own terms. Pro-choice mores hold that the woman herself is the only one who possesses the moral and legal right to decide the fate of the fertilized ovum in her uterus. The state has no right to force a woman to bring that fertilized ovum to term if she does not want to.

But pro-choice mores also hold that abortion is only one of myriad "reproductive health-care" choices a woman can make. Pro-choice forces rarely argue that abortion is the morally superior method of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy. In fact, leaders of the movement take pains to emphasize that they are not "pro-abortion," and are quick to point out that adoption is an equally valid means of dealing with an unwanted pregnancy.

If we take both sides at their word, it would seem they have a common goal: to reduce the number of abortions in America. Pro-life forces would like to see individual states enact laws against abortion, thus using government coercion to reduce abortions. Pro-choice forces, though they support the right to abortion as it now exists, also want women to understand and to make use of available alternatives.

At least theoretically, both sides want to reduce the number of abortions.

Has that message come across to you?

When you think of the abortion debate in this country, do you think of it as a means of building a cultural consensus on sexuality? Does the debate explore the responsibility women and men have to themselves and society when they decide to have sexual intercourse? Do you think the abortion debate has in any way helped women and men unite in common purpose against the immense psychological and physical angst an unwanted pregnancy unleashes on a relationship? Do you think of the debate as revolving around the individual consequences of abortion—the physical and psychological trauma that accompanies each procedure—and about whether society should act to reduce abortion in order to protect as many women as possible from such pain and anguish?

Probably not.

The abortion debate in America is really about power, and the combatants are special-interest zealots as politically obtuse as they are morally righteous.

Before going any further, let us briefly summarize the arguments on both sides of the issue—the moral and legal justifications both sides have used to defend their positions in court and in the political arena.

The abortion question turns on decisions societies must make about life, death, the rights of men and women, the rights of the unborn, and the value placed on individual liberties when the exercise of such liberty deprives a potential human being of life itself.

When debating an issue such as this, neither side will cede the moral or legal high ground.

To activists on the pro-choice side, any diminution of abortion rights is, by definition, a blow to the rights of women and a return to a patriarchal society awash in subjugation and oppression. To activists on the pro-life side, the very existence of abortion rights is an affront to God and all civil society, because it's a license to kill a fetus that is unwanted or inconvenient. Those who are pro-choice are no less fervent in believing that morality and law are on their side than those who are pro-life. In short, both sides are sure they are absolutely right. In a battle in which moral and legal certitude is absolute, compromise is impossible. And so it has been.

Pro-choice forces, particularly those with ardent feminist beliefs, see the abortion question as a defining battle in the millennial war women have waged against moral patriarchy and oppression. Take away a woman's rights to abortion and soon enough the right to contraception might also fall away. Take away a woman's right to control her reproductive organs, and you deprive her, and by extension all women, of the precious autonomy they have established in a world previously dominated by men.

It's important to remember that the federally protected right to abortion in America grew out of the federally protected right to contraceptives. The key legal antecedent to Roe v. Wade was the 1965 Supreme Court ruling in Griswold v. Connecticut. That case arose from the arrest of the executive director of the Planned Parenthood League of Connecticut and its medical director, a licensed physician, for giving married couples information about contraception and providing women with a medical contraceptive device. Connecticut law at the time forbade the use of any drug or device to prevent conception. The plaintiffs sued on the grounds that the law violated the Fourteenth Amendment's due-process clause, which guarantees that the state shall not "deprive any person of life, liberty or property without due process of law."

The United States Supreme Court had over time expanded its definition of "liberty" to include an individual's right to privacy, ruling in previous cases that parents had the liberty to make certain decisions about their children's education without state interference. It also used the connection between liberty and privacy to strike down a law forbidding interracial marriage.

In a seven-to-two vote, the high court ruled that Connecticut had no compelling interest in violating a married couple's right to privacy (and thus their right to liberty as defined by their reading of the Fourteenth Amendment) by dictating what they did about contraception in their own home. Seven years later, the Court ruled in Eisenstadt v. Baird that unmarried women had the same right to privacy, and it struck down a law forbidding the use of contraceptives by unmarried women.

The privacy right outlined in Griswold v. Connecticut and reaffirmed in Eisenstadt v. Baird set the legal precedent for the Court to rule in favor of abortion rights in the landmark Roe v. Wade case in 1973. A woman named Norma McCorvey, given the pseudonym Jane Roe in the Court filing, sought to overturn a Texas law forbidding abortions except those performed to save the life of the mother. (Interestingly, McCorvey never aborted the child she was carrying at the time the suit was filed. The child was the third unwanted pregnancy of her life and, as with the previous two, she carried it to term and gave the child, a girl, up for adoption. McCorvey has also backed away from her abortion-on-demand position and now advocates abortion only in the first trimester. This change of heart arose, according to her 1994 autobiography I Am Roe, out of her work in an abortion clinic, where she witnessed far too many second-trimester abortions.)

The right to privacy, the Court ruled, was no less valid when it came to ending an unwanted pregnancy than when the issue was attempting to prevent one in the first place. The Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy that the Court construed as protecting the rights of parents to send their children to private schools, of mixed-race couples to marry, and of married couples and unmarried women to use contraceptives was, the Court said, "broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy."

So, on the one hand, the Court validated the feminists' point that women had a fundamental constitutional (even human) right to control decisions about their own sexuality and motherhood. On the other hand, the Court also validated the pro-life community's contention that a woman's womb is home to more than a mixture of cells, tissue, and genetic codes. The Court came up with a scientifically informed judgment of twenty-six weeks as the point at which a fetus becomes capable of living outside of the womb—and therefore as deserving of state protection from harm as any other human being.

So the Court itself, ironically, provided foundations for the moral certitude both sides have brought to this debate since 1973. Moral certitude is the best weapon any voice in a political debate can have. It establishes rigid principles and sets a high standard for those who wish to join the cause. It calls upon political leaders to reach beyond easy compromise and measure their own moral precepts against prevailing political attitudes.

It was just this kind of moral certitude, of course, that forced America's political and legal system to confront the question of abortion rights.

Those opposed to anti-abortion laws considered it immoral to require a woman to have a child against her will. This they considered the ultimate violation of her rights as a woman. The intricacies of human sexuality and the nuances of each and every sexual encounter were such that mistakes would inevitably occur. Whereas men had the legal right and, usually, the financial power to flee such mistakes (unless they agreed to marry the woman, which many were not prepared to do), women had no legal right to flee the consequences of a pregnancy. Pregnant women were sentenced to become mothers of children they did not want, regardless of whether they had the financial means or emotional and spiritual inclination to raise those children. In the event of a "mistake" between consenting adults, men had options that women simply did not. The conviction that this situation was morally and legally unfair gave rise to the push among feminists first for legal access to contraceptives and then for legal access to abortion in all fifty states. At first, the call for abortion rights was intended to give a woman recourse when, in the most-difficult of personal circumstances, abortion appeared to be the best course of action. The crusade for abortion rights was not motivated by a desire to make abortion available as a method for casual birth control, but by the need to give women a legal method of coping with the extremely difficult circumstance of an unwanted pregnancy. The moral thrust behind the movement was to give women the right to control their destinies in cases—assumed to be rare and acutely painful—when adults who consented to sex could not agree on how to cope with their unwanted pregnancy.

This moral and legal construct remains central to the pro-choice argument in defense of legal abortion. It is a legitimate and entirely defensible argument, honorably conceived and consistent with legal precedents and moral codes that seek to equalize rights and responsibilities in our pluralistic society.

There was also a practical side to the abortion-rights crusade: legalizing abortion, it was hoped, would reduce maternal mortality. The medical community lobbied to legalize abortion because more than five thousand women—predominantly black and Hispanic—were dying annually as the result of botched abortions performed in illegal clinics. Pro-choice advocates were fighting to end the days of such procedures; surprisingly, though, the era of the "back-alley" or "back-room" abortion was not as long as many might guess. From colonial days until the last third of the nineteenth century, abortion was legal before (in the language of the time) "quickening" had occurred—until roughly the fourth month of pregnancy. After the Civil War, the American Medical Association, seeking to bolster the authority of physicians over that of midwives and homeopaths, pushed for legislation to prohibit abortions in state legislatures across the land. Legal prohibition of abortion led many women to seek back-alley abortions—and to accept the considerable risks that went with such measures.


Excerpted from The Fifteen Biggest Lies in Politics by Major Garrett, Timothy J. Penny. Copyright © 1998 Major Garrett and Timothy J. Penny. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Major Garrett is the congressional correspondent for U.S. News&World Report. He has appeared on such television programs as Hardball with Chris Mathews, CNN's Crossfire, and The Today Show.

Former congressman Timothy J. Penny, now a senior fellow at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and policy chair of the budget watchdog group Concord Coalition, lives in Waseca, Minnesota. Their previous book was Common Cents.

Major Garrett is the congressional correspondent for U.S. News&World Report. He has appeared on such television programs as Hardball with Chris Mathews, CNN's Crossfire, and The Today Show.

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