Conservatives are eager to see Brett Kavanaugh placed on the Supreme Court in the hope that they can overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision that made abortion legal (with restrictions) across the U.S. But Roe is a mirage, and conservatives should avoid being taken in by the deception.
Overturning Roe allows the states to regulate abortion. Red states would likely impose further restrictions on abortion or make it illegal, and blue states would keep abortion available, but that’s not the issue. There are two reasons why pro-life conservatives shouldn’t focus on Roe.
Unlike most of what I’ve written about abortion, in this post I will not be telling conservatives why they’re wrong about abortion or arguing over definitions. I want to make a simple argument that relies on non-controversial facts that should be easy to accept. Pro-life America, if abortion is your enemy, pro-choicers should be your allies, and Roe shouldn’t be your target.
1. Illegal abortion just means that abortions will be done illegally
A popular conservative Christian radio host said in 2016,
Pro-lifers would like to see abortion abolished, but the only way to really abolish abortion ultimately is to make it illegal, and then the incidence of abortion would shrink to virtually nothing.
This is completely wrong. Abortion made illegal would mean that abortions would be still be done, just illegally. The rate of abortions in pre-Roe America was roughly twice the per capita rate of today, and most of those were illegal. The international data confirms the U.S. experience: “Abortion rates are highest [in countries] where the procedure is illegal” (more here).
We also have more alternatives now than in pre-Roe America, making illegal abortion much safer and more convenient. Medicine is available for inducing therapeutic miscarriage at home, safe and effective for first- and second-trimester abortions. An unintended pregnancy can be detected with a test kit and then treated at home if done promptly.
Forcing abortion underground by making it illegal backfires on conservatives. With no need for the woman to even leave the house, crisis pregnancy clinics would be out of business. That’s an opportunity lost to argue against abortion. No abortion clinics means no pointless regulations imposed by conservative legislatures, which would have the happy consequence of allowing abortions in red states to be done sooner than they are now.
There will still be the need for the rare late-term abortion (about 0.1 percent of abortions in the U.S. are performed after 21 weeks), so there will still be demand for surgical procedures. To Christians horrified by the thought of Kermit Gosnell’s filthy illegal abortion clinic, they must keep in mind that this is what may replace Planned Parenthood’s clean, safe, and regulated clinics if abortion is driven underground.
2. Abortion isn’t the problem; unintended pregnancy is the problem
There is no path to zero abortions. People will keep having sex, accidents will happen, and no amount of Christianity, moral badgering, or puritanical laws will eliminate all abortions. But I know a way to cut it by as much as 90 percent, which is a lot more than it’ll get cut by making it illegal. Abortions are just the symptom; the actual problem is unintended pregnancy.
Valerie Tarico has outlined a plan for reducing the number of abortions dramatically over twenty years, primarily by reducing unintended pregnancy. Conservatives, do you want to do something more concrete than just voting for the anti-abortion candidate? Do you want to reduce abortions, actually do something practical to cut the number by as much as 90 percent? In brief, here is the approach you should lobby for.
- Create programs to encourage and teach parents to overcome their discomfort with having frank and thorough discussions of sex, sexual health, sexual ethics, and contraception. The message should make clear that sexual desire is natural, not shameful.
- Schools must also cover this material, and children must be taught before they become sexually active. The curriculum must learn from the best U.S. and international programs. For example, abstinence-only training has had its chance, and it fails. Teen pregnancy rates are roughly proportional to the local religiosity, meaning more pregnancy where Christianity is strongest. We have a lot of room for improvement: “Among the 21 countries with complete statistics, the pregnancy rate among 15- to 19-year olds was the highest in the United States (57 pregnancies per 1,000 females) and the lowest rate was in Switzerland (8).”
- The Pill and condoms have the advantage of being familiar, but there are far more effective contraceptives today. Long-acting reversible contraceptives like IUDs and subdermal implants, once in place, require no user action. They’re also cheaper in the long run. Contraceptives should be cheap (subsidized if necessary) and easily available.
- Unplanned children (or worse, unwanted children) put a disproportionate strain on poor women, so reproductive health care should be subsidized to make it available to everyone.
- Financial concerns are a major factor in some women’s desire for abortion. Policies that create income equality and encourage family-friendly workplaces (with benefits like maternity leave and affordable child care) will reduce abortions due to financial need.
- Fetal health issues are another factor driving some abortions. Reduce these by providing and promoting prenatal care.
- Fund research for birth control for men.
Notice the emphasis with this plan: most of these points are aimed at avoiding unintended pregnancy or eliminating reasons for abortion. Conservative voters anxious about abortion should be able to get behind this plan.
I’ll add one more point: conservatives should remove virginity from its pedestal. Just because virginity was a big deal in the Old Testament doesn’t make it relevant today (the Old Testament also justified slavery and genocide, but we don’t celebrate those today). The Old Testament’s concept of virginity also wasn’t fair since it only imposed on women.
Sex isn’t like a fine wine that gets better the longer you wait for it. Sex on the wedding night is a lot more satisfying if the couple has had a chance to practice. Abstinence is fine for some, but for others, consensual premarital sex will be a part of growing up.
Conservative voters have been led around by politicians for decades, but note that these politicians aren’t motivated to get rid of abortions. If they did, how would they convince their electorate that the sky is falling and that only by voting for them can we avoid moral collapse? They need problems, and if they can’t find a real one, they’ll exaggerate a trivial one.
The pro-lifers who agree that this is the best way to reduce abortions should note an important benefit: they’re now working with pro-choice advocates. By bypassing abortion and focusing on the cause, both groups are working toward a shared goal. Once they get over the novelty and ignore calls from politicians who may prefer the impasse of the status-quo, it will be refreshing to work with an enormous new collection of allies.
Some pro-lifers won’t accept this approach because it may make premarital sex more likely, but this tips their hand. They’re not anti-abortion, they’re just advocating a prudish policy toward sex. But they can’t have it both ways. They need to pick whether they want the current approach—a high abortion rate to satisfy their instinct to be tough on sex—or a lenient policy toward premarital sex by making sex safer and far less likely to lead to unintended pregnancy.
Suppose we lived in a society where every teenager gets a car on their sixteenth birthday. You wouldn’t let kids get their own car without insisting on comprehensive driver’s education. Now return to our world, where it’s not a car that they get but a sexually mature body. We shouldn’t let kids get that adult body without comprehensive education on how it works and how to use it properly.
Pro-life America, if abortion is your enemy, pro-choicers should be your allies, and Roe shouldn’t be your target. Focus on the real problem.
More posts on abortion:
- 20 Arguments Against Abortion, Rebutted
- “I Do Abortions Because I Am a Christian”
- A Defense of Abortion Rights: The Spectrum Argument
- Spectrum Argument for Abortion, Revisited
- What the Pro-Life Position Ignores
- Five Intuitive Pro-Choice Arguments
- Don’t Like Abortion? Then Support Sex Education.
- Unraveling Bad Pro-Life Thinking
it would come as an instinctive reaction from women.
It would come with such force that men would be confused
by the average woman’s revulsion towards abortion.
— commenter Chuck Wolber
Image via Torsten Mangner, CC license