After three decades of intense political debate, what more is there to say about abortion? Even most seasoned observers assume that anybody who cares to has taken one side or the other by now and that any book devoted to the subject would only rehash the same familiar arguments. To approach all such efforts with a “why bother?” attitude would be a mistake with regard to William Saletan’s Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (University of California Press, 327 pages, $29.95).
The book’s title alone will shock the average conservative, who likely looks at the present national environment on abortion with despair and even some disgust: Somewhere in the vicinity of 40 million abortions have been performed in the United States over the last thirty years. Choice that ends fetal life continues to be exercised more than 1 million times per year, and the Roe v. Wade legal regime that ratifies all this remains entrenched into the foreseeable future. But Saletan, Slate‘s clever chief political correspondent, doesn’t use the words “pro-life” and “conservative” interchangeably.
Instead, he sees abortion policy as being largely dictated by a group he calls “pro-choice conservatives.” Saletan’s thesis is that the rationale for legal abortion has shifted away from the feminist ideals of protecting women’s control over their bodies and childrearing as a means of securing their full participation in society to more conservative grounds like limited government, privacy and upholding middle-class family values.
You can hear what he is talking about when pro-choice arguments veer away from the movement’s favorite slogan about “a woman’s right to choose.” Soon it becomes “a decision to be made by a woman and her doctor.” Before long, her clergy and family are involved. What was once the individual choice of one woman ends up being billed as something that is going to be decided by a virtual ethics panel comprised of important people in her life, carefully weighing each moral issue before coming up with a King Solomon-like verdict. The important thing is that the government has no say, especially those nosy politicians with their wicked pro-life ways.
Such rhetoric has always coexisted with more radical feminist pronouncements in pro-choice polemics. But it doesn’t take much effort to notice the incongruities between the two. Parents, husbands and boyfriends are exactly the sorts of people feminist pro-choices have long wanted specifically removed from undue influence over the abortion decision. So too with clergy — get your rosaries off my ovaries and all that. But the pro-choice conservative position simply would like to prevent such parties from influencing government policy; the issue isn’t a woman’s choice per se but whether the government will be involved in restricting abortion.
By Saletan’s account, the largely feminist activists of NARAL first allowed themselves to be co-opted by pro-choice conservatives during a 1986 battle over a referendum in Arkansas that would have banned taxpayer funding of abortion. The state was Democratic but conservative. Its governor, Bill Clinton of “safe, legal and rare” fame, was pro-choice but opposed to taxpayer-funded abortions and publicly in agreement with the ballot question’s “stated purpose.” The pro-life administration of Ronald Reagan was in its sixth year and had just named anti-Roe Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court and promoted Roe dissenter William Rehnquist to chief justice. What were the pro-choices to do?
Win by swinging right, as it turned out. Initiative opponents ran an ad asking parents to contemplate what would happen if their 14-year old daughter were raped and became pregnant as a result. Would they like the government to step in, take decision-making authority on what happens next away from “you (the parent), your doctor, your preacher, your daughter” and arrogate it for itself? Never mind that the initiative was about taxpayer funding, not banning abortion. Note that the daughter figures last in the hierarchy of people who ought to be making the decision in the absence of government coercion. Note also the emphasis on rape victims rather than women pregnant by other means seeking elective abortions. The Arkansas initiative was narrowly defeated, but only by suppressing the feminist pro-choice position in favor of arguments designed to appeal to conservatives.
“So what?” you might now be tempted to ask. “The liberals won anyway. So what does it matter?” Saletan would argue that their victory came at the expense of the original motives of the pro-choice feminists. As pro-choice conservatives helped propel such Democratic candidates as Douglas Wilder and Harris Wofford to victory while contributing to the defeat of Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court (in his view — in my opinion, this is his least persuasive example), they framed their pro-choice position on increasingly conservative grounds. They supported parental notification (and in some cases consent) laws and ended up opposing taxpayer funding.
Pro-lifers responded by co-opting pro-choice conservatives on these issues and jettisoning large parts of their own agenda, beginning with opposition to abortion in cases of rape and ending by remaining only nominally in favor of a general abortion ban. Although Saletan is clearly less sympathetic to pro-lifers, he notes that they too moved away from first principles in the process. By 1992, he argues, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates had operationally converged on abortion.
BEARING RIGHT CONTAINS a lot of overlooked insights into the abortion debate and overall is remarkably dispassionate and free of rancor. Saletan deserves points just for sticking with the terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice”: “Every attempt at unbiased language — for example, reserving the term anti-abortion to describe those who would outlaw the practice, or calling them ‘anti-abortion-rights’ instead of ‘pro-right-to-life’ — adds a new bias. The least biased solution is to let each side choose its own name.” I unsuccessfully made this same argument as a freshman in a college journalism course.
Nevertheless, Saletan’s focus on “pro-choice conservatives” is an oversimplification. First, he argues that they are defined by a hostility to government activism, yet they are the same group that voted to continue taxpayer funding of abortion in Arkansas (a policy this group elsewhere by definition opposes) and favors incremental restrictions like a ban on partial-birth abortion. A more likely explanation is that much of the electorate is deeply conflicted about abortion. They agree with pro-lifers that it is wrong, but are either reluctant to appear judgmental or fearful of the consequences of banning it — for their daughters, their sisters, other pregnant women and themselves as taxpayers. The real swing bloc in the abortion debate is that great confused middle that stretches from those who are pro-choice with restrictions on the left to those who are pro-life with exceptions on the right.
Saletan also demonstrates a certain naïveté about the extent of pro-choice idealism. Legal abortion has always to some extent relied on the fears of people who did not want their daughters getting pregnant unexpectedly, their tax bills rising due to increased welfare costs or their sexual behavior interrupted by their partner’s pregnancy. Planned Parenthood was criticized for eugenic tendencies before it even supported legalizing abortion.
Finally, Bearing Right exaggerates the extent to which abortion policy has been set democratically. Since Roe the courts have been decisive, which may be a reason overlooked by Saletan as to why both sides of the debate only tinker at the margins of the issue in election campaigns.
Conservatives would do well to read Saletan’s book as an intelligent analysis of contemporary abortion politics. But they should define what they consider winning far more ambitiously than he does.
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