William B. Turner
Abortion rights have been a sticking point in a few races where otherwise promising Democrats have run in conservative districts and, either from personal conviction or political calculation, have publicly expressed doubt about abortion rights. It is neither possible nor desirable to police the position of every candidate on every issue.
A key reason to have political parties – at their best, the reason to have them – is to aggregate people who agree on specific policy issues so they can cooperate to elect candidates who will enact their policy preferences. Policy should drive politics. Otherwise, we end up with the modern Republican Party, which is only about politics for its own sake and has no clear policy agenda, as witness their current, so called president.
As is too often the case, abortion rights gets reduced to two, dichotomous positions, “pro choice” versus “anti choice.” This is overly reductive, but it does capture the gravamen of the issue – should women be able to decide for themselves whether to have an abortion, or should government have the power to prohibit them from getting a (safe) abortion if they want one? To be clear, it is the “pro choice” position that leaves all women free to follow their own consciences on this matter. The real issue is not whether abortions will occur – vice president Pence is in la la land when he predicts the end of abortion in the United States – but whether government will try to coerce women’s choices in the matter.
As is also often the case, abortion rights scrambles the stereotyped understanding of our current politics writ large. Supposedly, since major civil rights legislation passed mostly under Democratic leadership, the Democratic Party is overly fond of using the power of government to solve problems and their solutions infringe on the freedom of individuals to make their own choices. This, at least, is the fashionable, “conservative” critique of Democrats and liberals more generally.
But what more intrusive use of the power of government could there be than to tell a competent adult, or anyone who is physiologically capable of bearing a child, that she may not avail herself of a particular medical procedure because doing so violates some other person’s, or group’s, ideological preferences? Sex combined with medical procedures adds up to the most personal, private decisions anyone can make. There is no other domain of human choices where we even consider allowing such government intrusion in the United States. Socialized medicine, indeed.
Opponents of abortion rights like to couch their position in terms of concern for well being of the fetus that undoubtedly will die in any abortion, but this is transparently contrived. It is a set piece of this debate for defenders of abortion rights to point out that opponents not only oppose the right to abortion, they also usually oppose public expenditures to support pregnant women and their children. In other words, they want to create the worst of both worlds – force women who have unwanted pregnancies to deliver the babies, but offer them no support either during the pregnancy or for the eighteen years or so afterwards when they will need help raising the child. Texas, a famously “conservative” state that recently saw the Supreme Court strike down a number of regulations on abortion clinics that the state had tried to justify as protecting women’s health, has the highest maternal mortality rate in the developed world. Opponents of abortion, whatever their fictive concern for fetuses, have no concern for the health and well being of women.
Insofar as the Republican Party does have any sort of coherent policy program, this would seem to sum it up: make life as difficult as possible for ordinary people. Hint: rich people will always be able to get abortions if they want them, no matter what the law says.
The real agenda behind opposition to abortion rights is the impulse to try to control women, their sex, and their sexuality.
Liberals and progressives will always argue amongst ourselves about which issue to prioritize. For some people, abortion will be first on their list, for some people it might be last.
But it needs to be on the list.
Certainly, there are women who oppose abortion rights. There were always slaves on the plantation who were willing to do the master’s work for him, including whipping other slaves. The most insidious feature of oppression is its ability to infect even the minds of the oppressed. People do what they have to do in order to survive.
But as an abstract policy proposition, women need to be as free as possible to make their own choices about sex and sexuality. This is fundamental. It is so in theoretical terms – “conservatives” love to bleat about “freedom” (hint: real conservatives don’t give a fig about freedom), but their concern for “freedom” magically disappears when the freedom they want to eliminate is the freedom of women to enjoy their capacity for sexual pleasure.
There are lots of ways in which the men (!) who founded our republic failed to live up to the stirring philosophy they articulated as justifying their revolution from England. Owning slaves is the most glaring.
Their complete failure to include women in any of the decisions about the founding of the Republic and in the concrete making of political decisions is arguably number two. There is no intelligible way to articulate the natural rights on which our Republic rests that allows for the exclusion of women. That the Founders did exclude women almost entirely from politics, only officially allowing them to vote in all elections in 1920, some 131 years after the founding, was not the result of any philosophical consideration, but merely an entirely unjustified holdover of existing English custom and law of the sort that the Constitution explicitly did away with in other instances (no titles of nobility, no bills of attainder, insulating federal judges from political pressure, limiting the executive to four year terms). It is not a huge exaggeration to say that the Constitution from start to finish is a wholesale repudiation of English government.
But the Founders kept the systematic discrimination against women, and for no good reason. Had women had the opportunity to participate actively in the founding of the Republic, they would likely have built into the Constitution some legal mechanism for respecting and protecting their choices about reproduction at least, if not explicitly about sex and sexuality.
So achieving the highest ideals of the Republic entails protecting the right of every woman to make her own choices about abortion.
As a practical matter, women have clearly taken a keen interest in every aspect of public policy. We have had multiple women serve as Secretary of State. We have had multiple women serve in both Houses of Congress and as federal judges. We have had a woman chair the Federal Reserve. Only the fluke outcome of a very weird, still hotly contested, election prevented us from choosing, in 2016, our first woman president, who would certainly be doing a better job right now than is the incumbent, our so called president.
It is not reasonable to try to confine women’s interest in policy and politics solely to issues of reproduction. They still do, however, have an elevated interest in the topic, simply by dint of being the persons who have the babies. Men should absolutely do their fair share of the work of raising children, but we are yet a long way from parity in that field, so women’s voices are and should be louder on issues of reproduction and child care. Granting, again, that some women are vocal opponents of abortion rights, still, in the main, anyone who wants to ensure maximum participation of women in politics and policy making, which liberals and progressives should want, will support abortion rights as a way that is important in multiple respects of showing respect for women and the desire to have them as equal participants.
It may be possible, in the abstract, to formulate a liberal/progressive political agenda in the modern United States that entirely excludes women, their issues, and their preferences from all consideration, but it really isn’t because that would be completely pointless. You might as well be a Republican.
Abortion rights branch out into all manner of other areas. Any thoughtful advocate of LGBT equality will also defend abortion rights because the impulse to control women’s sex and sexuality obviously includes condemning women who have primary relationships with other women, and spills over into condemnation of men who have primary relationships with other men, and of persons who choose not to abide by the culture’s dictates regarding gender identity and presentation.
We didn’t choose this. All manner of experts in the late 19th century decided that sexuality, and by implication sexual practice, are key to understanding individual human identity and thus highly fraught matters for making individual choices, and thus for “freedom.” We didn’t choose the terms of the debate, but we are dead set on winning it.
It is perhaps an exaggeration to say that any intelligible liberal/progressive agenda has to revolve around abortion rights, but certainly abortion rights ramify outward in all directions and impact policy choices in multiple other areas.
Liberals and progressives have to defend the right to abortion.