Special Report

Living in the Roe v. Wade World

Pace David Frum, pro-lifers have no choice but to wage all-out cultural war, thanks to the Supreme Court.

By 10.27.11

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Would the pro-life movement be more successful if it ceased to exist?

David Frum, who never hesitates to violate conservative orthodoxy, seems to think so.

In a column for CNN and a follow-up post for his own FrumForum, Frum suggests that today's bitter struggle over abortion may be analogous to the one that surrounded alcohol during the years leading up to Prohibition. Frum believes that, just as drinking eventually became disentangled from other hot-button issues and ultimately became politically irrelevant, so too might abortion one day be a forgotten issue. In his follow-up post, Frum argues that such a development would, counterintuitively, lead to a decrease in abortions, as today's political factions worked together to mitigate the circumstances that lead to unwanted pregnancies, instead of waging cultural war on each other. In other words, the pro-life movement should abandon its attempts to criminalize abortion, and instead get to work on harm reduction. It will save more lives that way.

One wonders about the wisdom of questioning the pro-life movement's direction even as its current strategy begins to bear fruit: as Frum acknowledges, the percent of pregnancies that end in abortion is decreasing, and while of a number of factors could be responsible, it should be noted that pro-life attitudes are increasingly prevalent. Furthermore, the approach of restricting abortion wherever and however possible has paid off for pro-lifers so far: state level regulations on access to abortions have been shown to reduce abortion rates, while anecdotal evidence suggests a similar potential for stricter regulations on the provision of abortions. And so far, thankfully, these new laws have not generated a spike in the number of women dying during back-alley procedures.

Furthermore, the comparison between the Prohibition and pro-life movements is suspect. Whatever the evils of drinking, the taking of a human life -- which pro-lifers understand abortion to be -- is a more immediate problem. It would probably be too much, also, to ask pro-lifers to overlook that the culture war over alcohol didn't end in a cease-fire. It ended with the Prohibitionists losing. Possibly, as Frum suggests, drinking and alcoholism are lesser ills today than they were during the early part of the century, but they remain significant societal problems.

Nevertheless, Frum's thought experiment sheds light on contemporary debates about abortion and the aims of the pro-life movement. It's illustrative because of what it omits: any mention of Roe v. Wade.

Without Roe v. Wade in place, Frum is almost certainly right that deescalation of the abortion debate would benefit the pro-life cause. A majority of states would immediately restrict or simply ban abortion procedures, leading to a steep drop-off in the number of abortions performed. Blue states, on the other hand, wouldn't be any more liberal in their abortion laws than they are now. Pro-lifers wouldn't hesitate to make that tradeoff.

Because Roe v. Wade precludes a significant role for state legislatures, however, pro-lifers are left with no choice but to wage an all-out effort against pro-choice politicians at the national level. Other than hard-won state-level regulations that make it harder to obtain or provide abortions at the margins, abortion opponents have no recourse but to try to influence presidential politics.

And here the political calculus leads to an extreme strategy: pro-lifers can't settle for a pro-choice candidate who fits all their other priorities, because that president could cause enormous damage by appointing the wrong judges, thereby setting back the pro-life cause by years, or even decades. As a result, the pro-life faction of the Republican Party requires extraordinary demonstrations of loyalty from GOP presidential hopefuls, in a way that other single-issue voters do not -- to the dismay of Republicans (such as the Spectator's own Ross Kaminsky) less concerned with unborn babies and more concerned with electoral success.

Trying to understand American abortion politics without examining the impact of Roe v. Wade is a pointless exercise. The comparison to Prohibition is similarly fruitless, unless one tries to imagine the scenario in which the Prohibition movement faced the obstacle of a court ruling that upheld an absolute right to alcohol. Needless to say, things would have turned out differently.

Yet contrasting the pro-life movement with the Dry movement is helpful at least to the extent that it illustrates just how pervasive abortion politics have become. Just as debates over drinking got caught up in other cultural and social divides of the Prohibition age, abortion politics today are part and parcel with a host of other red/blue conflicts. It's no accident that pro-life environmentalists are relatively rare, as are pro-choice opponents of gay marriage, even though there is no obvious reason why that should be the case.

Frum is probably right to think that this division need not exist. Indeed, there was a time in American politics when it did not, and abortion wasn't a partisan issue -- when Jesse Jackson and Ted Kennedy, famously, decried abortion in terms only heard from committed right-wingers today. Within a few years of its decision, though, Roe v. Wade had changed that, and the various political actors sorted themselves out by party and ideology, with only a few notable exceptions.

Hopefully, the budding cultural shift away from tolerance of abortion will eventually lead to the end of abortion-based politics in the U.S., and the pro-life movement will be as much of a nonentity as the Dry movement is today. In the meantime, however, the problem isn't pro-lifers' zeal to criminalize abortion. It's Roe v. Wade.

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About the Author

Joseph Lawler, former managing editor of The American Spectator, is editor of Real Clear Policy. Follow him on twitter: @josephlawler.