How Can the Pro-Life and Pro-Choice Sides Coexist in a Post-Roe World?
A conversation with The Dispatch’s David French and The Bulwark’s Cathy Young
This conversation was recorded a few days before yesterday’s Supreme Court abortion ruling. The transcript has been updated and lightly edited for clarity.
The Supreme Court has handed down a ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization. As widely expected, the ruling was a victory for the pro-life side and a setback for the pro-choice side, curtailing the relatively generous protections for reproductive rights that Roe v. Wade awarded half a century ago. But the outcome won't settle the matter, because this is one issue on which both sides have arguably an irreconcilable conflict of principles. Pro-life folks consider abortion akin to murder, and the pro-choice side considers forcing a woman to carry a fetus to term against her will a fundamental abrogation of her bodily autonomy.
On most other issues, the two sides have in theory some higher principles to which they can refer to make some headway with each other without compromising their fundamental convictions. Take free speech, for example: Even First Amendment absolutists will agree that stopping hate speech is a worthy goal. Hence, if there were some way to do so without curtailing free speech rights, they would happily join the anti-hate speech campaign without feeling they were compromising their principles.
Although both sides of the abortion debate can agree on reducing abortions through voluntary means, keeping them legal is an affront to the pro-life side in a way that keeping speech legal is not an affront to the anti-hate speech side. Likewise, stopping a single woman against her will from having an abortion seems to the pro-choice side an intolerable negation of her will and her control over her own body.
If Roe launched the first round of culture wars in America, the new ruling likely will trigger the second round. The question is, How do the two sides pursue their causes and advance their convictions within the broader liberal commitment to toleration? We may not be able to agree on the fundamental issues, but we still have to coexist. That means agreeing on acceptable tactics and rules of engagement. What are those?
I have here two individuals who couldn't be better suited to discuss these questions. They are both prolific and well-known writers. They're both classical liberals, and they are both unafraid to take on their own side, even as they are people of deep conviction.
They are David French, a senior editor at The Dispatch, a columnist for The Atlantic, a theologically conservative, traditional Christian and a former attorney who has argued high-profile religious liberty cases.
My second guest is Cathy Young, who was born in Russia, has written extensively about rape and feminism, is the author of two books and writes for many publications such as Newsday, Reason Magazine, and The Bulwark. Welcome to the podcast, Cathy and David.
Cathy Young: Hi, it's good to be here.
David French: Thanks so much.
Shikha: Before we get into the heart of the issue, I’m going to ask all three of us to state where we stand. What are the basic convictions that we are starting from? What are our priors? Cathy, I'll have you go first.
Cathy: I do believe abortion is a crucially important issue of bodily autonomy for women. Reproductive rights in general, I think, are key to women's personal freedom. At the same time, I do recognize that especially as the pregnancy continues and the fetus gets closer to viability, there is a legitimate moral interest for the community and the government, as an expression of community sentiment, in protecting the fetus. Thus, in many cases, especially again later in the pregnancy, there does need to be a balance between the woman's freedom and the moral status of the fetus.
Regulation is appropriate in the later stages of the pregnancy. At the same time, I do feel very strongly that essentially a right to terminate a pregnancy, at least in the early stages, really does have to be there as an essential issue of personal freedom for women.
Shikha: I guess I go further than you. I'm, in fact, an abortion radical—perhaps that might be the term that David would use for me. Not to put too fine point on it, I am pro-choice, and I believe that birth is a matter that's entirely for the mother to decide, without any interference from the government at any stage of the pregnancy.
That is not because I think abortion is an affirmatively good thing. I'm not recommending abortions on YouTube, as some feminists tend to do. But as someone who is deeply suspicious of state power and deeply protective of individual autonomy, I believe that this choice, precisely because it is so personal and so tragic, is where the state should have the least role to play.
My view, I admit, is outside the mainstream if the polls on this are to be believed. There are currently close to about 900,000 abortions in the country every year. The vast majority—90%—are in the first trimester, and then 10% are in the second and third. If you believe the numbers, only about 2% of the abortions are in the final trimester. Most people, like you, Cathy, have a comfort level with first-term abortions, but as the pregnancy proceeds, they tend to get more squeamish.
In one sense, you can see why that is the case. Most people don't think that life begins the day after conception, but later. I recall a piece, David, where you said that the public actually makes a distinction between “good abortions” and “bad abortions.” The “good abortions” were ones, you said, where in the public's mind, the woman gets an abortion under extremely extenuating circumstances—where they are single, they are poor, they are in an abusive relationship, they are young, they are teenagers, and the burden of pregnancy and birth is way too much. And those are acceptable abortions to most people.
But unacceptable abortions are those that are taken for extremely frivolous reasons: I can't get into my tight-fitting gown at my best friend's wedding, so I'm going to have an abortion. That's a “bad abortion.”
I would say that all actually late-term abortions are in a sense “good abortions,” because no mother undertakes those abortions lightly. We all know how much mothers grieve at a time when they have a miscarriage, and especially, advanced in pregnancy, they form a very deep relationship with their unborn child. The only reasons they have late-term abortions is because of their own health or because a fetal abnormality is discovered in the fetus after the 20-week fetal checkup. And they end up making this tragic choice.
My view is that it's precisely under those tragic circumstances that you don't need state interference. That's precisely when the mother needs to be able to make her own decision. Abortion is an issue which is like no other. Abortion is often compared to murder. But in a murder, the state has an interest in representing the victim because the perpetrator is not going to do so. Whereas in abortion, the mother actually has a deep interest in the fetus and a deep interest in her own self, in her own health.
She is best placed to balance both. She has a vital interest at stake in both. She's best placed to make that decision, and the state is not equally well placed. The worst atrocities against the unborn are actually perpetrated by the state. Think of China: A state that can ban abortions can also require abortions, because the state's interests are mutable, they change; the mother's interests are immutable, they are always the same. For that reason, I'm actually opposed to any controls on abortion.
David: My point of view is pretty simple to state: An unborn baby is a human being in a temporarily dependent state who possesses immense independent worth. From a legal perspective, a just nation will recognize that worth and protect that life. At the same time, I know the only way to truly and comprehensively protect life is to build and foster a culture in which mothers and fathers greet that new life with joy, not with fear—with delight, not with despair.
A just nation would have laws that protect that life and also would have a law and a culture that facilitates that life. It's essentially grounded fundamentally in the recognition of the fundamental humanity of the unborn child—that the unborn child is a separate human being from the mother, though dependent, obviously, on the mother.
The scientific basis for that's really, really clear. From the very beginning, from conception, you're talking about a separate human being, with separate DNA from the mother that, absent natural miscarriage or outside intervention, will grow to be the babies that you see born every day in this country.
The goal of the pro-life movement is to recognize that it's not just about law; it's about recognizing the humanity and the immense worth of that [unborn] life from a holistic standpoint, doing what can reasonably be done to make sure that when it comes into this world, it's going to be welcomed with joy.
One thing I'd say on the late-term issue: The Guttmacher Institute, for example, has looked at the reasons for late-term abortion. Guttmacher is pro-choice, formerly the research arm of Planned Parenthood, but it's independent now. For late-term abortions, it is not mostly because of fetal anomaly or life endangerment. The general profiles of women who sought later-term abortions, about 80%, were women raising children alone, depressed or using illicit substances, in conflict with a male partner, who had trouble deciding and then had access problems, or were young and had never given birth.
One of the things that we tend to do, I think, is sort of project circumstances in which somebody might make this choice on the others, when the reality is that sometimes even late-term abortions are for reasons that are not those that you just laid out, or often a majority of the time.
Shikha: That's interesting. Perhaps I'm projecting, but it is extremely difficult for me to wrap my head around the idea that mothers in the eighth month of their pregnancy, or even seventh month of their pregnancy, just decide that the baby is inconvenient, and so, therefore, they are going to abort. It requires a rather dark view of mothers to, I guess, believe that. You may be right, but it's still a very tragic choice for a mother.
David: You don't have to have a dark view of mothers in general, because it's only a very small number of mothers who choose late-term abortions. The question is, What is the view of the women who choose late-term abortions, which is a tiny fraction of overall?
Shikha: Very tiny fraction, right.
Cathy: Well, also just in response to what David said, I think these aren't necessarily women who seek an abortion for what we would regard as frivolous reasons. It's not, as you said, I needed to go to a wedding and I want to fit into a nice-looking dress. It's more like my boyfriend just left me, and it's just going throw my life completely out of whack to have this baby now.
I do think that in many of those cases, I agree with people in David's camp, so to speak—that what's really needed is more social support and more cultural support for this woman to have the baby and not have her life go completely haywire, and for her to have certain supports.
I just wanted to give one example of a story that I read in The Washington Post. I don't think it dealt with a really, really late-term abortion, but it was definitely a second-term, and maybe one that would be illegal under this Mississippi law that's at stake in the Roe case and that cuts off access at 15 weeks.
This is a woman who was pregnant and initially she and her husband were really happy about it. Then when she was in her second term, her husband got arrested over some sort of minor altercation, and there was a possibility that he was going to go to jail. She decided that there was just no way that they could have this baby now, because it would potentially force all sorts of economic calamities on the family. She might have to drop out of school.
Because it was a second-trimester abortion, she had to drive to a different state. She was sufficiently late in her pregnancy that she couldn't get an abortion in the state that she was in. She was feeling some regret, because initially they had wanted that baby. She was definitely feeling conflicted about it, and the tragic kind of kicker, so to speak, was that after she had the abortion, she got a call from her husband saying that the legal case had been resolved.
This is where you really could argue that maybe more counseling would have been good. Maybe somebody should have sat down with her and explored the options of what you can do if you have this baby and your husband does go to jail, and so on.
Would it be a good idea to have more restrictions, though, so that she couldn't legally have an abortion in that situation? I don't know. This is where I think a lot of people would say, "Yes, this is maybe something that we should discourage." That can also see the position that ultimately if this is what you want, you should be able to do that.
Shikha: I don't think you would get any disagreement, even from most people in the pro-choice camp, about the need for support for mothers. I think one big reason women do end up having abortions is when they feel that they are going to be saddled with the responsibilities of child-rearing without any support, especially in the case of an absconding partner. That's actually the one thing that both sides can squarely agree on.
Feminism Versus Womanhood: Evolving Positions
Shikha: They can work together to reduce voluntary abortions. There's no conflict there. But I guess the bigger question is, Is this woman representative of the reality of most mothers? Should laws be responsive to the reality that most mothers face? Yes, we should have counseling. I'm even not opposed to pregnancy crisis centers. I think that's all well and good.
The problem only arises is the state is eventually going to force her to make one decision or another? That's where the rub is. There I think there is a chasm between the two sides.
Cathy, I'm interested in hearing from you and then David on exactly how your positions have evolved on this issue if they have evolved, or are they what they were? What do you grant to the other side and what don’t you still grant to the other side?
Cathy: Before I started interacting with good faith people like David, like many feminists my tendency to believe that the pro-life side is interested primarily in well, not necessarily keeping women barefoot and pregnant, but that the primary impetus was to restore very traditional gender roles and reverse women's liberation.
I think I was influenced partly, Kristin Luker, a sociologist, who wrote a very influential book in 1984 exploring the political views of pro-life and pro-choice activists. It was seminal in determining many people's views of the pro-life movement. She concluded that pro-life activists were primarily very traditional Catholics—she looked more at Catholics than Evangelicals—who she felt were not driven so much by their beliefs about the humanity of the fetus as their belief that motherhood is the essence of womanhood. Therefore, a woman who rejects motherhood is defying the most essential part of being a woman and upending this traditional order of things that they were interested in preserving. The women in the pro-life movement had this very intense attachment to their identity as mothers and therefore have felt almost personally threatened when someone else said, “I don't want to be a mother.”
I tended to largely accept that view and I think that is still true for some people but I really do think that it's much more complicated than that. I think that there are many, many women and men for whom it really is very essentially about the view that the fetus has the moral stature of a human being and that's really what it boils down to. In that sense, I am definitely much more willing to see things from the pro-life perspective and to respect that.
I'm also more willing to look at the nuances of where—and I know that you disagree with me on this—but the stage of the pregnancy and what different approaches can be appropriate at those different stages. I guess I've evolved toward nuance.
Shikha: No, actually it's funny you should say that because that's exactly where I am. I started with this ultra-feminist view that the pro-life lobby was only interested in controlling women's bodies. It was a pretext to turn back the clock and return women to traditional gender roles and that's all there was to it. I've come to the conclusion that no, the pro-life side is very morally serious and we do it a disservice to not take its view seriously.
I will say this though that I come from India a very traditional, very puritanical society. In India for a woman to have a child out of wedlock is a fate worse than death. She brings dishonor on herself. She brings dishonor on her family. Abortion is an attractive choice under those circumstances, even though abortions are deeply discouraged. Despite what you hear about sex-selective abortions, which is a real phenomenon and a very troubling phenomenon that actually caused me to take the pro-life side much, much more seriously.
Even setting that aside, abortion is still discouraged in India partly for this reason that if abortion were to become encouraged, women would become much more sexually promiscuous. In America, here you have a sexually liberated society where people have sex outside of marriage and more sex outside of marriage means more pregnancies outside of marriage, which means more abortions. The pro-life community has to walk this very, very tight rope on the one hand if it stigmatizes childbirth out of wedlock that means it'll encourage abortions.
On the other hand, if it doesn't stigmatize abortions then that means it's encouraging pregnancies and therefore more abortions. David, what do you think?
David: I've always been able to grasp the pro-choice position because I've always been in a minority in my pro-life position. One of the things that is a constant in American life since Roe is that my pro-life position is held by a pretty small minority of Americans on a percentage basis. For that matter, the most pro-choice position is held by a pretty small minority of Americans. The big clump of people are really in the middle somewhere where they say there's a point at which they just grow so uncomfortable with it that they're going to support restrictions.
I've always been in a position where I've had to explain myself to people who disagree. One thing that was really formative for me, I came of age in the 1970s and 80s, graduated from high school in 1987. If you look at the arc of abortion in the United States, the late ‘70s to early ‘80s are the peak abortion rates. This is when abortion was more than twice as common than it is right now. It really was at that time much more than it is now. Abortion is a form of birth control. What I saw with my own eyes with classmates and peers was something a lot more complicated than empowered young women making choices with their own bodies. What I saw was boyfriends relentlessly pressuring girlfriends to abort children that they did not want to abort. I saw parents relentlessly pressuring daughters to abort when they didn't want to abort. What I saw was not something that was this celebration of autonomy but was often an additional instrument of pressure and control.
In essence, what's happening was you had these men who were saying I like the idea of sex without responsibility. If the instant responsibility intrudes—whether it was through failure of birth control or refusal to use birth control— well, we've got an out here and I can tell my girlfriend to get an abortion. I've known a number of people who got abortions in those circumstances and it was a shattering experience for them.
That's one of the reasons why I feel like a lot of the argument about abortion makes presumptions about where people are and what people think about them that are not necessarily completely accurate. That really made an impression on me: the intense pressure that I saw applied to people in my high school class and people I knew from college. Then also the other thing to go back to this point, on the one hand, this point about unwed pregnancy, for example, I think that there has been a lot of positive movement on the part of the pro-life movement, just in my lifetime.
When I was in college it was very common and it's still to some degree common, for example, in Christian colleges, if somebody was pregnant out of wedlock, there was going to be punishment imposed on that person. People would get abortions to avoid the punishment that they would receive from the institution that they loved and that contained their friend group.
A lot of that is beginning to change and has been changing for some time. I was talking to a pro-life leader in California who said the message of the pro-life movement is every pregnancy is a blessing. That's a change and I think that's a very positive change from a world that said, there's something inherently wrong with unwed childbearing to there's something very right about bringing a child into this world. I think that that shift has been very important to the overall downward arc of the abortion rate in the U.S.
Now in the last four years, it went back up again, it went up again during the Trump administration's first presidency, by the way, since Jimmy Carter, where abortion rate went up and we can talk about why that might be. I think it's been instrumental in that, that decrease in the abortion rate is due to increased access to contraception, for sure. It's due to the sex recession, there's fewer people having sex. It's also due to the fact that more people who have unplanned pregnancies carry them to term now. That's just a fact.
I think that's been a very positive cultural change as a result in many ways of particularly the traditional religious community changing the way it's viewing unplanned pregnancies and out-of-wedlock childbearing.
I don't have the stats right in front of me—roughly half of unplanned pregnancies, for example, would be ended by abortion and now it's much less than half of unplanned pregnancies are ended by abortion.
Lessons of the Pro-Life Victory
Shikha: Yes. This actually raises another question, which is like you, as you said, David, that the pro-life movement has made enormous strides in shifting public opinion over the last 50 years. Since Roe v. Wade was passed in 1972 there's been a sea change in how Americans view this issue. By the same token, the pro-choice side has lost a lot of ground.
Let's talk a little bit about the tactics that the pro-life side deployed that were legitimate and consistent with our liberal commitment. I've actually been amazed at how much impact the pro-life side has had on actually libertarians, which is the side that I come from. I can't tell you how many libertarians over the course of the 25 years that I've been watching this issue have started saying in the last 10 years that there are now “squishes” on abortion.
Now, I think Roe was not a terrible ruling. Its conclusion was not radical in a sense that it was not out of the mainstream. In the first term, it created an unrestricted right to abortion. In the second term, it gave states some leeway to regulate abortion, and then in the third term, it actually states could ban abortion.
Yet the genius of the pro-life side is that it used arguments that were both moral and that were political and savvy that cast Roe v. Wade as a radical ruling. Roe v. Wade got depicted as “abortion on demand,” just because the first trimester, there were no restrictions on abortion. But they [pro-lifers] dug up all kinds of excellent facts and figures that gave a lot of people pause. For instance, European countries, which are far more progressive in many ways, yet regulate abortion far more than the United States. Well, that's a fact worth having on the table when we are discussing this issue.
They have engaged in a lot of, what I call, “creative jurisprudence”— arguments to show that the pro-choice lobby should not just be concerned about the outcome, but the way that outcome is reached. Roe v. Wade and the judicial activism that it entailed the arguments for a living constitution. They were all taken on by the pro-life community. It deepened our understanding of jurisprudence and how that should be conducted in a liberal polity.
Also, the very strategic long game that they have played: they have moved the courts, they have put sympathetic judges on courts and who then got appointed to the Supreme Court. In that sense, I think that the pro-life side has played by the rules of a liberal polity in coming to where it is.
Cathy: Right. The pro-life side has this shift in rhetoric, away from the misogynistic stuff that you sometimes would get like even in the '80s where for certain people in the religious conservative community it was “keep your legs closed, you slut,” that sort of thing.
I remember that there was coverage of some pro-life protest where some guy was holding up a sign that said, “You have a choice, don't screw.” That is just stuff that really, really puts people off and really makes them feel like, "Yes, you know these are guys who really just want to punish women for having sex, essentially." I think moving away from that I do think that the pro-life movement has largely moved away from what was a very constructive tactic.
I think emphasizing support for women who find themselves in a bad position all of that has been really good. I don't really know how much headway the pro-life movement has made in shifting public opinion toward a really full-on pro-life position. I think it's maybe shifted the needle to the way that I've become more sympathetic to regulation in the later stages of the pregnancy. Although, I was never really very, very hardcore pro-choice on the later stages. I was always striving toward a more nuanced position. I think I always believed that there was a moral issue involved that's not just whatever I want to do with my body.
I also think, by the way, some of the evolution has happened because of reasons that were not really related to the pro-life movement so much as to technology that included ultrasound images of fetuses. It's now totally normal to see images of your future baby in the utero in a way it wasn’t 30 years ago. It's normal to have medical procedures performed on that baby in the utero. It's really difficult to argue that, yes, we can have medical intervention to fix certain medical problems with that being in the womb, but then you can decide to kill it, not to put too fine a point on it.
I think that evolution in technology really has made a difference, again, as pertains to later stages of the pregnancy. But the pro-life movement's willingness to be more accommodating toward feminism, in a sense, has helped. We've seen a pro-life feminist movement arising in the last couple of decades. I think that's been a really interesting development. In that sense, I think the pro-life movement, ironically, given its deep connections to conservatism, politically, has made some headway by reinventing itself as more socially progressive.
Libertine Versus Libertarian: Why Abortion Rates Rose During the Trump Presidency
Shikha: Yes. David, you had mentioned that abortions had gone up during the Trump years. What went wrong for the pro-life movement and what had it been doing right?
David: Oh, boy. This data from Guttmacher just came out and also CDC data, which wasn't quite as complete as the Guttmacher data, but it's now pretty clear that abortions went up. Several schools of thought, one is just purely instrumental that says they went up because chemical abortions are becoming more common and chemical abortions are just easier to obtain. I'm not sure that that is a full explanation for why a 40-year trend reversed. That seems to be pretty big news that a 40-year trend reversed. I'm going to say something that might tick some people off, but I think that's what you get when you have a post-Christian right. I think this is what you get.
One of the arguments of the pro-life community is very much rooted in this notion of love and responsibility. Love and responsibility! Love and responsibility! You love the child and you are responsible for the child. The new right, this is not it. The new right is far more libertine, which is a very big distinction from libertarian. I'm not a libertarian, but I'm libertarian-ish. I'm a strongly libertarian-leaning conservative, but I'm not libertine.
If you're around the Trump right, it is extremely libertine. You're talking about an ethos that is really indulging the id. It's an ethos that indulges the id of the right. I just don't believe that a pro-life ethic is consistent with libertinism, because, the bottom line, what you're asking for people to do is if they have an unplanned pregnancy is something huge.
You're asking them to do something incredibly difficult and responsible. If you've created an ethos that says, "You do what you want to do and morality be damned,” then well they say: "Now morality kicks in when you're pregnant." I just don't think that that's a consistent message. I think the right has become more libertine. Now it's authoritarian, but it's also libertine.
Shikha: Do we know that the increase in abortion is mainly on the right rather than the left?
David: We don't. There's no way to really know. This is just a theory. I have long made that the argument that libertinism is incompatible with a pro-life ethic. What I have seen is a growth on my side of the aisle in libertinism. Interestingly enough, it has coincided with the growth of authoritarianism, which actually makes a degree of sense, because authoritarianism, like libertinism, is a self-indulgent philosophy. It's: “Me, me, me, I, I, I…I want to control. I want to rule. I want to do what I want to do and you don't get to do what you want to do.”
I think that could be a partial explanation. I'm not quite sure how you test that. It's also true that a number of other measures of social health degraded during the Trump years pretty substantially. More murders, more drug overdoses, more suicides. There was a general decay in the social health of the country over the last four years. These things are all connected.
One thing on pro-life, I would describe the success of the pro-life movement as less attitudinal and more behavioral -- what ideas do you have politically or legally about abortion, and more behavioral. What do you do about pregnancy? There is a fascinating study by Notre Dame researchers for the several hundred demographically representative Americans and just talked to them about abortion. Didn't ask the normal suite of poll questions, because abortion is notoriously difficult to poll. But just had conversations with them. What they found is not one of the hundreds of people that they interviewed, who went from extreme, the very edge of pro-life to the very edge of pro-choice, not one described abortion as a positive good. In other words, something that they would want to do themselves. Here, you had a number of pro-choice individuals who are very much pro-choice from a legal perspective, but when it came to what they would want to do were behaviorally, functionally pro-life.
I think that that's where the pro-life movement has made most of its progress. It has not and been adjusting. If you look at pro-abortion polling, it's been pretty constant for a long time, but the abortion rate has gone down, down, down, down, down, until these last four years where it's ticked up very slightly. That's where I think the pro-life movement has made its headway is much more behaviorally and less attitudinally.
Shikha: I think women have been made uncomfortable with abortion. Making the choice of abortion has become more uncomfortable. This is actually the other nuance that I've become much more attuned to because of the pro-life position is that how these normative social rules affect people's choices and affect the decisions and their comfort level with those decisions. I think you're absolutely right that that has had a huge impact.
My own theory as to why abortion rates may have gone up in the last four years during the Trump era is that Trump was such a disgrace. He was such amoral, sociopathic person that people reversed. If he's pro-life, then the pro-choice position must be the correct position. I'd be very curious to see where the abortion rate went up, the right or the left? If I am right, then I think you would see some increase on the left as well, not just the right.
Cathy: I do wonder in terms of the increase in the abortion rate, and this is really just a hunch, but I wonder if it's partly a sense in the Trump era that things were going off the rails for us as a nation. I have spoken to several people in recent years and these are not crazy environmentalists who think that it's immoral to bring a child into the world when we have global warming and so on. These are normal people who basically say, "The way the world is right now, I just really don't know if I want to bring a child into it."
I wonder if that may have contributed to the rising abortion rate, the general sense that the time is out of joint, so to speak, to quote Shakespeare.
David: At some point, you got to say cultural wrecking balls wreck cultures. He's a cultural wrecking ball. Rarely have you seen such a dramatic negative change in so many cultural markers in such a short amount of time as we watched over the last four years.
How to Lose Friends and Alienate People
Shikha: Looking forward to the pro-choice side, Cathy, after the Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs comes out, it's going to be a setback for the pro-choice side. It's going to trigger a new round of culture wars. Perhaps this time the energy coming from the pro-choice side, although I'm not so sure.
David, you wrote a great piece on abortion absolutism [versus abolition]. There is also the side on the right, which is not going to be satisfied with this ruling because they want every abortion gone now, this minute! They will find this ruling tame, but it'll embolden their side to go for the next slice of the salami here. Either way, this issue is going to be with us regardless of whatever the ruling is. The question Cathy is, the pro-choice side, what tactics that it should not engage in, and what can it learn from the pro-life side in how it advanced it's cause?
Cathy: Well, I think one tactic that really both sides should avoid is demonizing its opponents. I'm spitting into the wind right now because demonizing your opponents is basically like the political currency of the moment. One thing I really, really like to see the pro-choice movement ditch is the whole Handmaid's Tale motif, because to me, that is just so stupid. If you look, even with minimal common sense, at what the Handmaid's Tale trope represents, we know that women are not being strapped into whatever and forcibly impregnated, which is the scenario and the Handmaid's Tale.
We know that that is not what's happening. We know that women are not losing the right to vote and read and write. To say that, oh my God, it's this dystopia where women are reduced to subhuman status. If you look at Poland, for instance, where they have probably some of the strictest anti-abortion laws anywhere right now, at least in the Western world, they also had two female prime ministers during the time that they had those laws.
Interestingly, if you look at some of the global indexes of gender equality, Poland is actually pretty much on par with the United States in terms of where women are in the workplace, and so on. This idea that if you restrict abortion, you're just sending women back to the kitchen, I really think that that is something that the pro-choice movement really needs to move away from because among other things, it's really too easily factually refuted.
Also, this notion that any woman who is a pro-life advocate is this self-hating misogynist, it's really very insulting to women. It's this idea that if your position differs from the feminist movement you don't really have your own mind. And you're an instrument of this male cabal that is using you. That's been used a lot. I've really just been appalled by some of the rhetoric that's been used toward Amy Coney Barrett.
As much as I may disagree with a lot of her ideas, this attempt to represent her as the doormat who is just doing the bidding of powerful men, this is an immensely successful woman, who by the looks of it, has an extremely supportive husband, who is a full partner on the domestic front, so to speak. The way that she has been derided for having a lot of kids, and that has been used to portray her as, again, this slave to the patriarchy. That is something that I think the pro-choice movement really, really needs to avoid, because it's really going to backfire.
Shikha: David, what do you think about-- I know, you may not want to help the other side on this, but what would you say they should not do or do?
David: The whole Shout Your Abortion stuff or The Handmade stuff or the protesting at the homes of Supreme Court justices. I think that there is a very online, pro-choice bubble that finds all that in-your-face activism to be quite compelling, and nobody else does. The vast majority of people who are looking at the abortion issue are not looking at abortion from a sense of happiness. They're not relishing the idea of abortion. The more that a movement can actually mirror the views and attitudes of the majority of its supporters, the better off it is.
That's the same with the pro-life movement. The pro-life movement, there's this subset of the pro-life movement that's called Abortion Abolitionists. I hate that they've appropriated that term abolitionist, but they call themselves Abortion Abolitionists. They're remarkably out of step with the core of the pro-life movement. They are for prosecuting women who have abortions. They are against any exception in abortion laws, including exceptions for the life or physical health of the mother.
They're well out of step and they're trying to sort of posture themselves as, "We're the authentic, true—If you really had the guts to be pro-life, you would be this." They're well outside of the mainstream of the pro-life movement, and are going to be repulsive to persuadable Americans. In much the same way “The Shout Your Abortion” types are repulsive to mainstream Americans, because they're just not reflecting the way people think about this.
This is a disease that spreads on Twitter, where you can get into these online communities and believe you're more than you are, and believe you're stronger than you are, and believe there's more consensus than you actually have. I think it's a symptom that's not just common in the argument over abortion, although perhaps, most salient because abortion is such an emotional issue. It's a symptom of an underlying disease that is spreading throughout our country, which is these hyper-partisan communities are beginning to wall themselves off from what's called the exhausted majority of Americans, the two-thirds who really, really dislikes the way we do politics now.
Pro-Life Movement: The Road to a Police State?
Shikha: Right. Yes, I agree with much of what you both have said. Cathy I take your point about not turning this into a Handmaid's Tale kind of dystopia. You mentioned Poland. Poland, actually, is in some ways a cautionary tale against the super-restrictive abortion policies that the pro-life movement, in fact, may want. There was a story in The New York Times not too long ago where it used to be the case that Poland allowed an exception for fetal abnormalities when it came to abortion and it did away with those. Abortion was completely banned except for three exceptions, one of which was, rape, mother’s life, and fetal abnormalities, and then they got rid of the fetal abnormalities exception.
The result was that doctors have to now make these wrenching decisions about whether to abort a fetus, even when the mother's life is in danger, because the fetus' heart is beating. There was this horrendous story about a woman who had an abnormal fetus was actually determined to carry it to term, but 22 weeks in, her water breaks. She goes into the hospital and she's getting abdominal sepsis, and the doctors would not perform surgery to get the fetus out because the fetus’ heart was still beating.
It became a really big case in Poland. My fear with a certain direction of the pro-life movement is this over-criminalization, going down the criminalization path. In Poland now, hospitals are required to have pregnancy logs to ensure that an inordinate number of women are not reporting miscarriages because that would be a proxy for abortion. Those are the kinds of super-intrusive statist tactics that I fear when it comes to the pro-life side. That if it gets really serious about taking it to the next level, that's the direction in which we are headed.
Cathy: I completely agree with you. The worst thing that the pro-life movement could do, both for America and for itself, would be to overreach by, first of all, not being satisfied with the likely overturn of Roe and just focusing on state-level laws, but to try to move for a national ban on abortion, which some people are talking about.
That would make the pro-life movement look incredibly hypocritical. So many people were saying, "We are just concerned about this imposition that Roe was on the states because suddenly democracy was abrogated and the states were not allowed to set their own abortion policy." Then to turn around and say, "Oh, well, now we're going to push for a federal ban on abortion." I mean, that's basically admitting that for the past however many years you were talking about federalism, you were really just being a hypocrite who doesn't like the fact that the federal imposition was from the other side. That's one thing.
The other is along similar lines, going after people who cross state lines to get abortions. Trying to crack down on the delivery of abortion pills by mail. A lot of these measures that some people are talking about are incredibly intrusive and way beyond just banning abortion as we traditionally know it. This is going to be a really aggressive intrusion into monitoring people's private lives.
The end of the line is where Ceausescu’s Romania was where you had to report on your periods, if you were a woman of childbearing age to make sure that you didn't get an abortion. If things started heading in that direction, I think a lot of people are going to realize that the pro-life movement, if it has these absolutist goals, is going to have to essentially deploy a police state to get us there.
By the way, I didn't even know this term abortion abolitionist, but I just thought it's really ironic that all these groups are adopting and hijacking the term abolitionist. Maybe we should have a moratorium on hijacking the term. That's just really ironic. It's like you have prison abolitionists and police abolitionists and whatnot. It's just crazy. I can see why everyone wants to hijack that term because that was like the unquestionably noble movement in American history, but come on.
Shikha: David, do you have any qualms about this criminalization direction that the pro-life lobby may be tempted to go, going forward?
David: The pro-life movement should not seek to prosecute mothers. Period. This is something that has been a hallmark of the pro-life movement forever.
Shikha: What about doctors and what about having hospitals keep logs about the number of pregnancies? How about the private right to sue that Texas has now implemented?
David: I don't like the Texas law. I don't like this bounty hunting aspect of it. Providing people who have not been harmed with a right to file a lawsuit and recover damages for harm they didn't suffer and attorney's fees to support a case based on the harm they didn't suffer. I think that's quite dangerous. You don't even have to think for five seconds to know how it can be a threat to constitutional rights writ large in this country if that approach is replicated.
I would want to see a state pass a ban on abortions with the exception of the life or health of the mother. However, this idea that you can end abortion by banning abortion is fundamentally flawed. In 1973, the abortion rate was higher in this country than it is right now, according to Guttmacher data. That was with abortion banned in most states. When abortion was banned in most states, the abortion rate was higher than it is now where abortion is currently legal in all 50 states to varying degrees. There is no way to have a fully realized pro-life movement that depends entirely on the law, or even principally on the law, because abortion is simply too easy to obtain, especially now than in years past because of chemical abortions.
The actual process of ending abortion has to— has to— be primarily cultural. If these abolitionists believe, well, we can do it legally, and we can just pass laws and be strong and powerful in enforcing these laws, they're just flat out wrong about that. In many ways, the idea of creating the kind of police state that would be necessary to create, to log and document all pregnancies and then document their ultimate outcome. One of the issues you have is a problem of proof. How do you prove that someone has obtained an abortion?
That's not as easy as you like to say that it would be. The kind of police state you would need to create, it's just a no-go. It's just a no-go in this country. Reasonable laws are, I think, a matter of justice, but ending abortion is a matter of culture. If the pro-life movement loses sight of that, it's just going to lose its way entirely.
Shikha: This is very interesting. I think you made a summation over here that we can all agree on, that abortions, reducing them through changing cultural norms is perfectly acceptable, but by siccing the police state on women is not the way to go in a liberal polity.
If we, all three of us can sit over here and come to a consensus on how we are going to advance our views, I think maybe there is some hope for this country.
David French: ‘Good’ Abortions, ‘Bad’ Abortions, and the Battle For Honesty and Charity
David French: For Abortion Abolition, Against Abortion Absolutism
Shikha Dalmia: How the Pro-Life Lobby Is Hurting the Cause of Life
Shikha Dalmia: The GOP’s Abortion Conundrum
Cathy Young: Abortion and Gender Wars
Cathy Young: Reversing Roe Would Deepen Cultural Divide
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
David repeatedly talks about what the pro-life movement stands for as if he speaks for it, but he does not. I don’t think a discussion of tactics on “both sides” is complete without an accounting of the enduring and pervasive history of violence and harassment in the pro-life movement https://jacobin.com/2022/05/antiabortion-movement-violence-pro-life-roe-v-wade-womens-rights
They engaged in tactics like protesting *at the middle school* of the child of the landlord of a clinic https://thinkprogress.org/in-protest-outside-middle-school-anti-abortion-activists-target-daughter-of-abortion-clinics-1fb71cf3a3c0/
I think this conversation reflects a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of all three of you. You three are commentators and intellectuals. You have mistakenly assumed that if you gathered three who held differing beliefs, you’d have covered the important ground of the controversy. But that’s simply not so. One can be pro-choice but not feel especially strong about it as a priority among other issues, for example. A discussion among people for whom this is their number one issue, and where the ugly reality of activist tactics and actual red state laws on the books or being proposed was openly discussed (rather than dismissing them with “I’m against that” and looking no deeper) might have been more productive or interesting.
As it is, it does not surprise me that the three of you were able to speak politely about it. But I’m not sure what was learned from it.
I appreciate the thoughtful arguments of all three participants. I would probably even go further and say that the labels "pro-choice" and "pro-life" are misleading; my preferred labels would be "Supporter of Abortion Right" (SRA) and "Opponent of Abortion Right" (ORA). In that regard, majority of SRA are not celebrating any abortion, they just feel that sometimes this option needs to be open, as nicely articulated by Cathy.
I am wondering about a different question. The Alito opinion is essentially contemptuous not just of the Roe decision but of all the actions of the Supreme Court in the second half of the XX century. Furthermore, the opinion talks about historical traditions -- and the Justices are happy to consider the experiences of the XVII century England as "relevant" but discard the experiences of the XX century America and Europe as "irrelevant". David has a well-thought argument why abortion is different from everything else. Alito mentions the same -- but can he be trusted (given that he and his collaborators deceived the senators on this same topic on multiple occasions)?
My question to David and other honest people on his side of the divide is then as follows. Can the "classical liberal" pro-lifers (or ORAs) articulate a political and philosophical arguments how we can live under modern liberal democracy where abortion is prohibited? In other words -- the Supreme Court is happy to have us all live under the same laws as in 1890-s Kansas (male dominance with some rights for women, no restrictions on gun carry, no worker rights, no welfare or other safety provisions, no progressive taxation, anti-immigrant animus, soft -- and sometimes hard -- racism, freedom of speech subject to the whims of the local sheriff, enforced religious participation, etc.) Most Americans never lived under such a regime. Is this something that ORAs are willing to countenance for this country? If not, where is a political force that can fight for liberal democracy without abortions?