Lowering the temperature of the abortion debate

Why do pro-choice people think of the right-to-life folks as a bunch of ignorant, hate-filled, anti-feminist sexual-purity fanatics? Because that’s who the RTL’s have accepted as their leadership.

Jane Galt is right that the country would be better off if the abortion debate sparked less hatred on both sides. Moreover, she’s right that one key to reducing the ferocity of the debate would be for the pro-choice folks to admit that ending a pregnancy does pose what can plausibly be considered a moral problem, and that therefore it’s possible to support limits on abortion for reasons other than hateful or dim-witted anti-feminism. (She proposes that the “pro-life” side make a similar adjustment in its beliefs about the purposes of the pro-choicers.)

But I think Jane misses one reason why many pro-choicers believe what they believe about the “pro-lifers:” the institutional leadership of the “pro-life” movement is indeed dim-wittedly anti-feminist, with a fixation on sexual purity. That’s true of the Catholic bishops, of the Protestant Christian-right folks such as Focus on the Family, and of the more-or-less secular conservatives such as Phillis Schlafly.

Not only do they oppose all abortion, even in cases of rape or incest or where the fetus is non-viable, but they oppose Plan B, which prevents implantation of a zygote ovulation. (If “every abortion stops a beating heart,” then Plan B isn’t causing abortion; but you can’t convince the Conference of Bishops or Focus on the Family of that.) Most of them oppose contraception as well as abortion, oppose condom distribution, and insist on abstinence-only approaches both to family planning and to STD control, not only in the US but worldwide. They’re fighting the HPV vaccine, and thus a chance to reduce the rate of cervical cancer. They even oppose, still in the name of “life,” stem-cell research (though on that point they lose many of their otherwise tame politicians). And, just for good measure, they almost unanimously opposed the Equal Rights Amendment, gender equity in the workplace, and Title IX, and support continued legal discrimination against gays.

Is this true of all “pro-life” voters? By no means. It isn’t true of Jane, for example. But it’s true of their leadership, and the absence of anything like a moderate “pro-life” group suggests that the leadership hasn’t entirely misjudged at least the core of the movement’s supporters. In the absence of an organized feminist, pro-contraception, pro-condom, pro-stem-cell, pro-gay “right to life” movement, it’s not unreasonable for the pro-choicers to identify their opponents generally with the worst of their opponents.

It’s true that the abortion issue causes many people who aren’t anti-feminist sexual-purity fanatics to side with those who are, and that it would be politically wise for the liberal side of the controversy to try to peel off some of the “soft” pro-lifers. That, indeed is the point of the “safe, legal, and rare” formulation and the attempt to package better sex education and more availability of contraception as anti-abortion measures. But until the folks who are against abortion but don’t subscribe to the rest of the “pro-life” nonsense get themselves organized and make their voices heard, it’s hard to blame the pro-choice movement for dealing with the opposition they actually face, not the opposition that Jane wishes they faced.


1. Technical error. A reader points me to this explanation of how Plan B works. I’ve changed “implantation” to “ovulation” above.

2. A “pro-life” reader rebukes me for rudely putting “pro-life” in scare quotes.

In general, people are entitled to the labels they choose for themselves, and others should use those labels, within reason. For example, unless I’m reflecting on the language itself, I’m happy to go along with the convention that uses the label “conservative” for the current ruling clique of radical reactionaries, who have nothing but contempt for our traditional form of government (with the Congress having primacy among three branches of government including an independent judiciary). Since they have successfully appropriated the label “conservative,” that’s mostly what I call them.

(As libertarians love to point out, if liberalism is typified by Locke and Mill, then “liberal” is a somewhat misleading label for the faction to which I belong, which mixes liberalism on some issues with democratic, social-democratic, and progressive tendencies, and which on many issues is actually conservative, sometimes wisely and sometimes not.)

But “pro-life” is a nasty bit of question-begging, designed to imply that those who are for choice on abortion are “anti-life.” I refuse to go along. Sorry if that hurts someone’s feelings, but calling a tail a leg doesn’t make it one, even if all the tails get together and call themselves the leg movement.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com