Photo: Andrew Harnik / Associated Press
Lately, it seems that every week another state moves to restrict or virtually outlaw abortion. We know that Brett Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court fuels the hopes of those seeking to overturn Roe v. Wade. But how do we explain why the anti-abortion movement remains so virulent 46 years after that landmark decision?
Those who believe, as I do, that our Constitution and our national character demand protecting pregnant women’s choices must rethink strategies that aren’t working. As strongly as we embrace a woman’s right to control her own body, that argument has not swayed abortion opponents, who assert without scientific proof or fear of refutation that human life begins at conception. States such as Alabama and Louisiana who now refuse exceptions even for rape or incest have adopted this primarily religious point of view, firmly rejecting President Clinton’s formulation that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. What are we to say to them?
Pro-choice forces should begin by recognizing the pre-eminent role abortion plays in U.S. politics, even beyond its transcendent effect on millions of women. Abortion burns vividly in right-wing imaginations as proof that those who want government to help the vulnerable are not as compassionate as we claim. If you are apprehensive about America’s changing culture, pro-immigration liberals can accuse you of racism. If you want lower taxes to shrink the public sector, liberals can label you greedy. If you fear carbon taxes will cripple the economy, liberals can blame you for planetary collapse. But if you conceptualize a fetus as a human life, that freezes conversation, and gives you the moral high ground as long as focus remains on a pregnant woman’s options. Once someone has staked out such anti-abortion ground, that issue’s salience may cement allegiance to an overall rightward drift.
Pro-choice advocates blind to this dynamic are unlikely to move red state voters through emphasis on women’s rights. As the conservative agenda becomes increasingly discredited (most immigrants aren’t criminals, programs such as Medicare are effective and the planet really is warming) opposition to abortion serves to anchor opposition to progressive change. In that sense, states rushing to outdo each other in banning abortion resemble English voters who chose Brexit simply as a primal scream.
Neither is the pro-choice movement gaining by highlighting the undeniable misogyny and hypocrisy on the other side. Yes, some men disdain changing gender roles and see abortion as dangerously liberating women. Yes, the Republican Party, firmly gripped by a movement calling itself “pro-life,” opposes safety net programs that would help children flourish after they are born. No evidence shows marriages stronger, sex out of wedlock less prevalent or children better cared for in states attacking Roe. Yet none of these oft-repeated points has succeeded in quelling anti-abortion fervor.
Pro-choice supporters must instead shift the conversation from one about the nature of a pregnant woman’s choice to one about the character of the nation. How do those who believe a fetus is a human life plan to share a country with people who do not? Do they want to divide us into two nations, with abortion wholly outlawed in one of them? Do they want to point a gun at the head of their fellow Americans and force adherence to religious dictates that are not widely shared? Is that really the best way for us all to live together?
Focusing less on the characteristics of the fetus and more on how a country committed to freedom of thought should resolve profound moral disagreement will remind voters of what led to Roe in the first place. Once one accepts that holding our country together demands embracing our differences, the anti-abortion position reveals itself as imposing religious views onto those with different beliefs. Such dogmatism is difficult to square with the ethos of a nation founded on freedom of conscience. Of course, pro-choice advocates should rally behind efforts to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies. But the ultimate reason why decisions about abortion must rest with women is because the right decision about America is that we trust each other to make our own hard choices.
Jeremy Paul is professor of law and former dean at Northeastern University School of Law, where he teaches constitutional law.