In 2022, Pro-Life Is Too Progressive for America

In 2022, Pro-Life Is Too Progressive for America November 11, 2022

Roe V Wade newspaper headline on the US Constitution with the United States Supreme Court in background

Two weeks ago, I argued that my fellow pro-lifers need to start accurately framing the debate over abortion.

Pro-Life is Progressive

Pro-lifers should recognize, I contended, that our own orientation on this issue is the progressive one, and we should give due regard to the mostly good faith of the pro-choice side’s conservative arguments. This corrective to what has long been an inaccurate ideological framing of the abortion debate would be a first step toward both legal and cultural pro-life triumphs in the long run.

And, as exit polls from the 2022 midterms (the first post-Dobbs election) showed this week, a long run it will be.

Pro-Life In the Long Run

Broad support among mid-term voters for abortion’s legality in either all (29%) or some (30%) cases is not a reason for pro-lifers or the pro-life movement to lose heart or momentum. But it is a reality check, and one that the movement needs to increase its practical efficacy over time. To move hearts and minds, after all, you must first know where they stand.

What follows are some thoughts on how a more honest, empathetic, and historically grounded pro-life movement could philosophically and psychologically meet more Americans where they are. First, by acknowledging where people are. Second, by engaging reasonable pro-choice people as allies on areas where we agree. And third, by accepting that a societal shift of this magnitude will take time, and committing to the long run.

Acknowledge Reality

As a moderate Democrat that spends nearly all my time in deep blue spaces, I am often the most conservative person in groups of mostly progressive people. So, I’m prone to scolding my friends and fellow Democrats that we need to pay attention to facts, not just our feelings.

When it comes to abortion, this typically progressive trap (“I feel it; therefore, it is thus”) ensnares otherwise conservative people in an area where they are profoundly progressive.

Telling ourselves that there is broad support for draconian restrictions on abortion at 15 weeks (or that there was broad support for the overturn of Roe v. Wade) because most Americans (72%) favor the general illegality of abortion after about 14 weeks (i.e., after the first trimester) may feel good, but it is not true.

Although Americans mostly do not favor the unfettered access to abortion until the moment of birth currently en vogue among Democrats, they also do not welcome abortion bans.

To conclude anything else is to tell a comforting fairy tale, not a true story.

Still, now that the Dobbs ruling has been implemented, pro-lifers do have an opportunity to make cultural, moral, and scientific arguments about abortion that can move the needle on both abortion law and abortion culture, and to have those arguments matter.

So, let’s be sure to make the right arguments.

Today, eighty-eight percent of abortions (i.e., those that happen before 13 weeks) can be effectuated with a pill that cannot be effectively regulated. This means that winning hearts and minds matters far more than passing laws in the project of preserving pre-born lives. And, where passing laws does matter (as in the case of the remaining twelve percent of abortions), we need to recognize that even the laws can only be as solid as the hearts and minds of the forthcoming generations that grow up under them.

Engage Pro-Choice Reasoning

Generally opposing abortion after the first trimester in most cases is one thing. Welcoming a government ban on abortion after the first trimester and trusting the government to negotiate any exceptions is another. There is broad agreement for the first and broad agreement against the second.

Partly, this is because American conservatism has an unassailable libertarian streak. Many pro-life Americans, who are conservatives on other issues even as they are progressives on this one, should understand this well enough. Take Covid. It was one thing if people wanted to obtain Covid vaccines, wear masks, and mask their children. Many people that opposed Covid restrictions on the scientific and philosophical merits (myself included) calmly did all three. But it was another thing entirely to be mandated by government to do these things.

Many pro-choice Americans, like the conservatives on any issue, do not trust any federal or state government to have the final say in their intimate decisions. This is why we cannot so easily become like, say, France, and implement a national ban on abortion after the first trimester, for which exceptions are negotiated by governmental officials. Americans are not Europeans; we value individual freedom far more.

Writing off this conceptualization of abortion as just another individual decision—as all so much illogical “culture of death” propaganda—is easy (and, to an extent, accurate). But it is not useful. It shrinks rather than grows engagement in the pro-life cause, and thus diminishes pro-life possibilities in the long run.

Pro-Motherhood Is (an Easier Kind of) Progressive

Post-Dobbs, partial alliances with broadly pro-choice people on issues related to abortion but also to motherhood are now possible and essential. The pro-life movement has moved into a new era of wider possibilities; it needs new branding to meet the moment. Consider these two sub-issues: pro-poor support for motherhood and nonthreatening pro-life education.

Most Americans, including pro-choice Americans, do want pregnant women to feel that they can choose motherhood if they so desire, not that they are forced into abortion by economic necessity. Putting aside a larger conversation about the classist ways in which many in our journalistic and activist ranks (both left and right) think about parenthood, this is an opportunity to work against abortion under a slogan that is pro-family first. As in, not just “feminists for life,” but “Americans for motherhood.”

When we as Catholics do things like collect baby bottles full of money for donations to a women’s home, where mostly young single mothers that chose life learn to care for their babies, we often do so under the “pro-life” banner. But causes like this do not have to be branded solely “pro-life.” They could just as easily be re-branded “pro-motherhood.” And that, or something like it, should be our new slogan.

After all, support for struggling parents is not strictly an anti-abortion cause, especially not after Dobbs. Many pro-choice people that are broadly progressive claim to be pro-life out of pragmatism and resignation, because “we” (the pro-life movement, the country, etc) do not offer adequate support for parenthood.

Now that a baby bottle collection need not be rife with intra-volunteer arguments about Roe v. Wade, it’s an apt moment to move such initiatives out of the “pro-life” space, and start afresh amidst wider groups of good-hearted people that agree about motherhood but disagree about abortion. We can’t move hearts and minds if we do not find ways to ally with people that feel and think differently.

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice Questions

Most Americans do not want a woman to be free to declare, at 16 or 20 weeks of pregnancy, “you know, I just can’t go through with this now that my boyfriend and I split up” and find an abortion clinic. But they do want a woman at 16 or 20 weeks of pregnancy to be able to abort her baby if it is found to have serious birth defects.

Most second trimester abortions are examples of the first scenario, not the latter. And most Americans do not know that.

As pro-lifers, we should start with the low-hanging fruit and make uncomfortable realities like this one broadly known—less as combatants, and more as co-conspirators against these heart-wrenching situations.

Jumping straight to arguments about how the two scenarios are clinically and morally identical (and how the first trimester is no less objectionable anyway, because it’s fundamentally no different) is good for writing legal briefs (and we’ll need more of those in due time!) but it’s not good for fostering a forthcoming environment in which such laws can be received in a spirit of understanding.

This is a time for drawing reasonable pro-choice people (and that’s about half of them) into our orbit by inspiring them to ask questions to which their own side does not have good answers. It is not a time to alienate reasonable pro-choice people by preaching at them with the (accurate, but deeply inconvenient) totality of our answers.

Commit to the Long Run

If anyone had told me ten years ago that, in the summer of 2022, the Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade and five months later the mid-term elections would be essentially a draw, I would have asked that person what planet this happened on.

Granted, if I’d also been told that Democrats had, for the preceding two years, presided over: scary spikes in crime and record-high inflation that changed people’s daily lives for the worse; indefensibly shuttered schools and massive losses in learning; and the attempted indoctrination of ever-younger school children with the kind of whacko gender theory that I knew firsthand was laughable at best even in a graduate school context, my surprise would have been tempered.

But, I would still have been quite pleasantly surprised. Not because I care about the GOP per se—I have voted Republican in just one of my four presidential elections to date—but because I care about the approximately 2,500 innocent lives lost to abortion each day in the United States.

The hue and cry in the aftermath of Roe’s fall, had it happened in, say, my birth year of 1987, would have been politically insurmountable. In 2022, such is not the case. That is because, all of the above notwithstanding, the pro-life movement has made incremental progress over my thirty-five years, not just legally but also culturally.

When morality and science are aligned on a single side of a question, as in this case, the truth will eventually set us free. But eventually can be a long time coming.

In 1958, four percent of Americans approved of interracial marriage. In 2021, ninety-four percent approved.

American progress on issues of race has been halting and often fleeting: emancipation followed by reconstruction; followed by Jim Crow, de jure segregation, lynching, and rampant police and judicial misconduct; followed by de jure integration, de facto segregation, and white flight; followed by an ongoing societal failure to protect the mostly poor, predominantly African American victims of violent crime (and of abortion); followed by an ongoing perpetuation of the soft bigotry of low expectations that attempts to achieve “equity” by lowering the ceiling, rather than “equality” by raising the floor.

It’s not all a happy story, nor is it a finished story.

But it is a story of truly awesome, inspiring progress—not just against the American history of race-based slavery, but also against the global and historical norms of tribalism and subjugation of societal others.

Like barbarism and heartlessness against societal others, barbarism and heartlessness against the unborn is the historical rule.

If we want to be an exception—to make progress in the face of nature (as in, red of tooth and claw) and of individualism (as in, personal convenience)—we must begin by acknowledging that this is an incredibly tall order. And we must be unbowed in the knowledge that it will take time.

This is partly because narratives and arcs that move people take time to develop and mature. And it’s partly because—to be perfectly blunt—the passage of time also includes the passing on of human beings.

People that shared antebellum Southern statesman John C. Calhoun’s views on slavery and racial integration were never going to just moderate their opinions. Fortunately, his cohort wasn’t around in 1954 for Brown v. Board, because they had passed away before the end of the nineteenth-century.

Yes, there were rabid racists and segregationists still around and wreaking havoc well into the twentieth century. Yes, there are some around even today. But, in 2022, there are not enough of the John C. Calhoun variety to run a moderate-sized chain restaurant, let alone a nation.

Of the 59% of Americans that are broadly pro-choice, 30% think that abortion should be legal “in most cases” and 29% think that abortion should be legal “in all cases.” The 30% can be engaged in a pro-motherhood rebranding, as per the above. The 29% are incorrigible and unreasonable, and cannot be taken seriously except as a quantifiable obstacle to progress.

As we move into a future of ever-advancing ultrasound technology and pre-term baby care—not to mention, by thirty years from now, receding knowledge among the general population of what Roe v. Wade even was—these extremist ranks are unlikely to be replenished. After all, there was still plenty of old-school racism around in 1984 (support for interracial marriage was at 43%) but there was not any significant agitation for the reversal of Brown v. Board.

Broad progress on every progressive cause—racial integration, women’s rights, gay marriage, and so on—occurs when people’s sympathy for the marginalized people in question begins to outweigh their own convenience.

Unborn babies are the most morally and societally demanding marginalized group on any progressive agenda. They cannot speak for themselves; it’s profoundly inconvenient to acknowledge their personhood; and we cannot see or empathize with the harm being perpetrated against them.

This is a reason to mourn: countless innocent lives will continue to be lost each day for the foreseeable future. But it is not a reason to be discouraged. It is a catalyst to adopt new tactics for a new era—and to redouble our patience, persistence, and prayer.

Yes, pro-life is too progressive for America in 2022. But if we play our cards right, America in 2052 may be more than ready.

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