The issue isn’t a priority for most Americans, yet it’s helped shape -- and ruin -- U.S. politics. Here’s how.

WASHINGTON -- The tiny pink plastic “babies” were roughly the size of your thumb. They were molded to show what a human fetus, curled in a prenatal position, would look like after three months of gestation in a womb.

The first time I saw these pieces of propaganda -- for that is what they were -- I was a reporter covering the Democratic Party’s 1984 presidential convention in San Francisco.

Ronald Reagan was running for re-election. His conservative supporters were intent on fomenting -- on his behalf, but also to gain power for themselves -- a “culture war.”

The idea was to portray their foes as “mainstream San Francisco Democrats” -- immoral libertines who wantonly favored gay "lifestyles," legalization of pot and …abortion.

Never mind that, 11 years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that women have a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion, with some government controls on their freedom of choice late in pregnancy.

Democrats, the GOP charged, were “baby killers.” It was easy to see that. All you had to do was look at the plastic “fetuses” displayed on folding tables near the convention hall.

You can still find those plastic toys at anti-abortion rallies. And the culture war that they symbolized has become more intense, divisive and angry.

And, in some cases, violent.

Norma McCorvey (center), the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, and Monica Migliorino Miller gather plastic babies during an anti-abortion protest inside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office in Washington on July 28, 2009.
Norma McCorvey (center), the plaintiff in Roe v. Wade, and Monica Migliorino Miller gather plastic babies during an anti-abortion protest inside then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office in Washington on July 28, 2009.
Manuel Balce Ceneta/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Since the end of the Reagan years, women’s health clinics (most of which provide abortion services) increasingly have been under siege. Since 1990, according to surveys, there have been eight deaths, 41 bombings, 173 attacks and thousands of protests outside the centers.

Many of the clinics are run by the nonprofit Planned Parenthood, including the site in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where a gunman killed three people last week in what authorities say may have been a politically motivated attack tied to the abortion issue.

Around the world, press reaction was muted, limited for the most part to dry recitations of facts and to President Barack Obama’s familiar lamentations about gun violence and incivility.

But in America, the Colorado shootings once again sent pain and anguish into the nervous system of the country's politics.

For no issue in American life is more emotional, divisive and personal -- and therefore easier to manipulate by cynical politicians of all parties and ideological affiliations.

This is even though -- or rather because -- most Americans don’t view the issue as a priority to debate in this or any other election. It is an obsession at the edges of politics, but it is the passion of the edges that controls U.S. public life.

Under political (and often physical) attack for years, Planned Parenthood is now central to politics in Washington.

Anti-abortion Republicans -- which is to say nearly all Republicans -- want to score points with their own supporters by trying to cut off government funding for Planned Parenthood, and GOP presidential candidates will be at the forefront of doing so in Congress. (GOP front-runner Donald Trump, a New Yorker who has been fuzzy on the issue, is straying a bit from the hard core, declining, so far, to call for the overturning of Roe v. Wade.)

GOP leaders say they don’t want to tie the matter to an overall budget measure -- that is, they don’t want to risk shutting down the government again -- but they may be powerless to stop a minority of their ranks from doing so.

Pro-abortion rights Democrats -- which is to say nearly all Democrats -- want to score points with their own supporters by defending Planned Parenthood and are eager to portray the GOP as a cadre of irresponsible zealots eager to hold government hostage.

It’s a perfect fundraising and theatrical opportunity for both parties, even though most voters will find the spectacle outrageous.

How did America get to this place? And what does it mean for the way politics and government work -- or rather don’t work -- in the world’s only democratic superpower?

One reason is that the whole debate has been conducted in the context of the U.S. Constitution, which means the courts. The result is a deadly mix of intensity, unreality and instability.

The Constitution is designed to enshrine and protect individual rights. But who is an individual worthy of protection? Many African-Americans argue that they remain second-class citizens, in reality if not law. The women’s rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s successfully argued in court that freedom and dignity required that women be allowed to control their own bodies, including whether they could abort a fetus. The Supreme Court agreed in the famous Roe v. Wade decision of 1973.

Now, citing the same theory of individual rights, anti-abortion forces argue vehemently, and with increasing success, for the “pre-born.” Modern diagnostic technology and advances in genetics help in two ways: by showing what a fetus looks like in utero, and by raising concerns that abortion is just the top of a vast slippery slope, the bottom of which is a hell of artificially created mutants.

In other countries, legislatures are forums for debate and compromise. But in America, the power -- as opposed to the theater -- is in the courts. As a result, legislators are free to be irresponsibly extreme, knowing that in the end they won’t, in fact, decide the final outcome.

Abortion is a cause and symbol of the ruination of American politics. It was the first shot in a culture war that has turned the two-party system into a fractured mess. Reforms years ago weakened party bosses and gave primary election voters power to pick presidential candidates. That, in turn, turbocharged activists -- such as abortion rights and anti-abortion forces -- in Iowa, New Hampshire and elsewhere. They provide the troops and a good bit of the cash, and they demand absolutism from candidates.

Ronald Reagan’s advisers were the first to see the possibilities of uniting conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants using abortion. A Protestant pastor in Virginia, Jerry Falwell, made common cause with Catholics -- a faith that earlier generations of evangelicals had feared and shunned for ethnic as well as theological reasons.

Today, evangelical Christians are the most numerous, and vehemently anti-abortion, cohort of voters in the Republican Party -- literally the crusaders for GOP election contenders. No candidate dare cross them.

Led by women’s groups, Democrats have responded in kind. No candidate dare cross them.

Today, 69 percent of Republican voters -- and virtually 100 percent of GOP candidates -- describe themselves as "pro-life"; a mirror percentage of Democrats call themselves "pro-choice." The divide is reflected regionally as well, not surprisingly, with anti-abortion views predominating in the South and Midwest, and abortion rights attitudes on the coasts.

Overall, 51 percent of all Americans now say they view themselves as pro-choice. A clear majority of the electorate is female, and a clear majority of females favor abortion rights.

But American politics doesn’t operate in the “overall.” It operates state by state and district by district.

Survey after survey shows that most American voters don’t rank abortion as a crucial issue. It isn’t on most radar screens; climate change, income inequality, education are.

As for abortion, there is a weird combination of silence and fury. In the 2016 presidential race, no candidate in either party will question their respective cultural orthodoxies.

But in the general election campaign, neither candidate will talk about abortion. Why risk alienating what few swing voters there are?

No, the dirty work -- the appeals to the base and the attacks on the other side -- will be left to so-called independent groups. They will spend millions on apocalyptic, inflammatory ads. Expect to see fetuses -- and the Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado.

Obama on Monday said that he thought the country should have a “legitimate, honest debate about abortion.

But then again, the 44th president is known for his idealism. And he isn’t running for office again.

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