A Poisoned Chalice?

The skids seem to be well-greased for Alito’s appointment to the Supreme Court, and (less certainly) for a reversal or drastic restriction of Roe v. Wade. Goethe famously warned “be careful what you wish for in youth, for you will certainly achieve it in old age” and the consequences for the right will be extremely interesting to watch. Analogic thought experiment: my other criminologist friend Mark (Moore, that is) once opined that a step forward in the Second Amendment wars might be to charter the NRA by act of Congress to issue permits for any weapon to any person it saw fit. When the first red-eyed lunatic came to the counter asking for a machine-gun license, and the NRA realized whose signature would be on it when he shot up a school, the tenor of the discussion might change a lot.

Reversing Roe v. Wade puts abortion into the hands of legislatures, and everything we know from polls shows that Americans do not want to go back to the coathanger era. Abortion has been useful for the Christian right as long as the speechifying and viewing with alarm didn’t put actual women at risk, but when candidates’ posturing moves into the reality zone, the mind goes into metaphor overload…millstone around neck, hoist with own petard, hooboy.


(1) Several readers point out that access to abortion has been nearly choked off in a couple of states already, and that we can expect much more of that without Roe v. Wade. They’re right, I didn’t mean either to minimize the practical importance of the Supreme Court holding nor to suggest anyone should think the political advantages of discomfiting the right wing would be without cost, or worth the cost. I don’t think Californians and New Yorkers will go back to the old rules, but several states may well enact flat prohibitions. Of course, it’s poor women who can’t afford to travel, not well-cared-for ladies on Desperate Housewives Lane and their daughters, who lose their real access to abortions when the screws are tightened, and everything–from the kind of tax cuts they like to the kind of programs they like to cut–indicates that Republicans are pretty much OK with harnessing the poor to tow their favorite abstractions up the hill.

Roe v. Wade saved two generations from oppression and fear and raised the proportion of their kids who were wanted and raised by loving parents. Reversing it will be a Really Bad Thing, even if it occasions a bracing cold shower of political reality for a lot of abortion opponents.

(2) I think but cannot prove that a fair amount of anti-abortion rhetoric is cant or cynical, but using the word posturing in the original post shouldn’t imply that I don’t recognize a sincere and reflective judgment on the part of some, even most, abortion foes that a fetus is a person and an abortion is a murder. This position is wrong in my view but not evil, morally corrupt, or intellectually impossible.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.