Kevin Drum, the CalPundit, has an interesting but, in my view, over-optimistic reading of the potential impact of the stem-cell debate on the politics of abortion.

His argument: Abortion opponents have chosen to hide their fear of changing sexual mores under the slogan “Abortion is murder.” If abortion is murder (and, in particular, if early abortion is murder), then stem-cell research, which kills a blastocyst, is likewise murder. But people, even ardent conservatives, aren’t going to tolerate anything that gets in the way of treating Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. (When told that Ronald Reagan never would have supported stem-cell research, as Nancy Reagan is now doing, Mike Deaver reportedly said, “Ronald Reagan didn’t have to take care of Ronald Reagan for the last ten years.”) So, Kevin reasons, people are going to have to decide that a fertilized egg isn’t a person, and therefore that abortion isn’t murder, whereupon the pro-life movement will fade away.

This seems to me to embody the standard mistake of intellectuals thinking about politics: it assumes that voters, and politicians, actually care about whether their opinions make sense, even as tested by the minimal rule of consistency. They don’t. That’s the difference between intellectuals (well, some intellectuals: don’t get me started about the PoMo’s) and normal people. Normal people believe whatever feels good, and if two contradictory opinions both feel good, they’re happy to hold both of them at once. (Look at the poll numbers about belief in Heaven versus belief in Hell, even among those who claim to think the Bible literally true.) The very same groups that sell bumper stickers saying “Every abortion stops a beating heart” oppose RU-486, which ends a pregnancy before a heartbeat develops.

What Orwell satirized as “double-think,” and imagined had to be deliberately inculcated, is in fact quite natural. Kevin’s piece notes that people who say “Abortion is murder” don’t want women who have abortions punished as murderers. He doesn’t note, but Richard John Neuhaus does, that many people who say “Abortion is murder” make an exception for, e.g., rape cases.

…somewhat more than 50 percent of respondents agree that abortion “is the same thing as murder.” Yet cognitive and moral dissonance continues to be conspicuous. The question is variously phrased in different surveys, but the noteworthy fact is that over half of those who say that abortion is tantamount to murder also say that abortion should be legal in difficult circumstances. One may wonder whether people really intend to say that murder should sometimes be legal.

My prediction: the stem-cell researchers will win, and it won’t have any impact on abortion politics unless the Right-to-Lifers declare jihad on the question and start trashing reliably anti-abortion and anti-sex politicians such as Orrin Hatch because they’re off the reservation on stem cells. (Which they won’t: Kevin is right that, on an emotional and political level, this is mostly about sex — and, I would add, uppity women — not about killing fetuses. So if Orrin Hatch wants to kill fetuses not produced by sex, the Right-to-Lifers will mostly give him a pass.)

The hatred of loose women, and fear of women’s independence, that drive the anti-abortion forces won’t go away just because we start to allow the harvesting of stem cells from blastocysts. I bet Nancy Reagan still thinks abortion is murder.

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: