What’s Really Behind Opposition to Abortion?

What’s Really Behind Opposition to Abortion? February 14, 2019

Earlier this month, I came across an article on Salon titled Festival of phony outrage: No, conservatives don’t actually care about late-term abortion. The argument is that evangelicals only care about late term abortion insomuch as they can use it to portray women as incapable of making their own decisions. The endgame, after all, is to ban all abortion, not just (or even primarily) late term abortion. And this is true.

Reading this article brought to mind a related issue—namely, that conservatives’ positions on abortion stems not simply from their claim that abortion is murder (a position evangelicals did not hold until the 1970s), but also from a more holistic position on women’s role in the world.

In his State of the Union address, Donald Trump declared that “all Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.” But, as right-wing conservative commentator Dennis Praeger wrote following the address, “not ‘all Americans’ are ‘proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before’.”

We all acknowledge that with enough money and/or familial support, a woman can raise fine children and maintain a happy home and a loving marriage. Nevertheless, we also know that doing all three is difficult enough when a woman devotes full time to those three goals. But when a woman works outside the home, devoting full time to home and family is impossible.

Those who oppose abortion also tend to hold traditional gender ideals. They see the home and children as the natural sphere for women. They see women in the workforce as a bad thing. When this is the perspective a person is coming from, abortion is suspect even if it isn’t murder. Abortion, after all, takes women from her natural sphere of motherhood and the home.

Some abortion opponents also want to ban the pill and other forms of women-controlled birth control, arguing that these drugs are “abortifacient.” But this is not the only reason behind these individuals’ uneasiness with the most popular forms of birth control: birth control gets in the way of women being in the home raising babies.

The belief that abortion is murder may play a significant role in conservatives opposition to abortion (especially in their rhetoric), but it is not necessary for them to believe abortion is murder for them to oppose it. Indeed, evangelicals opposed both birth control and abortion long before they viewed it as murder—because it took women out of their god-given sphere of the home and childbearing.

Women who used birth control were sluts who wanted to sleep around instead of choosing a husband and tending a home like they were supposed to. Women who had abortions were selfish, putting their careers ahead of motherhood and the home. If a woman waited to have sex until her wedding night and quit her job when she married to end her home and children, there would be no need for either birth control or abortion.

This framework missed the reality that the campaign to legalize birth control was as much about the poverty-stricken women who couldn’t afford a seventh or eighth mouth to feed as it was about the flapper who preferred the freedom of singleness to marriage and the home. Far easier to sneer at the flapper for forgoing motherhood and condemn contraception on that basis than to grapple with reality.

How do you change someone’s mind on abortion? Ever since I changed my own mind after being raised in an anti-abortion family and community, I’ve toyed with that question. I initially felt that it required convincing people that abortion is not, in fact, murder. Most abortions happen around the 8th week, when the embryo it looks like a shrimp—etc. The response I got to that was that it has a soul from the moment of conception. I could walk it back and try to show by science why that idea is silly—is there one soul or two in an embryo that splits, resulting in twins? But on some level, this is a religious belief.

Strategy number two was always to show the harm caused by denying women access to abortion—and to show that there were ways to decrease the number of abortions that were more effective than banning it. Namely, birth control. If every woman had access to affordable, effective birth control, you would see a lower number of unplanned pregnancies, and thus a lower number of abortions.

This strategy is somewhat more effective, but it still runs into a problem—those conservatives who believe women’s role is in the home tending children tend to also oppose birth control. They don’t want highly effective freely available birth control out there. Those who oppose abortion primarily because it’s murder, and not because women are supposed to be in the home tending babies, are likely to listen to this argument and agree that cutting down on the number of unplanned pregnancies is a good idea.

Those who oppose abortion not merely because they believe it is murder but also (or primarily) because they believe women’s role is to be in the home tending children are unlikely to get onboard with giving women better access to birth control. If women would just marry, stay home, and raise kids, after all—or so the argument goes—neither birth control nor abortion would be necessary.

I suspect that growing concern about Millennials’ low marriage and fertility rate can be understood similarly. It’s not just about having a birth rate that is below replacement rate (our rate of in-migration is high enough to compensate for this). It’s about what that low birth rate means—that women are not in the home raising children like they’re supposed to be. Women uncontrolled are a dangerous thing.

The takeaway here is that changing people’s minds on abortion requires combating traditional ideas about women’s role in life. Or, in other words—surprise, surprise—it requires feminism.

Anti-abortion activists who believe that women’s role is in the home are unlikely to change their minds on abortion. After all, their opposition to abortion is about more than a belief that it is murder. Those that view women as independent actors who should have the right to make their own decisions about other areas of their lives—their careers, their relationships—are the ones who will be open to listening.

One last thing to consider: birth control was initially marketed not as something that would allow women to forgo motherhood but rather as a way to help mothers plan their families. It is possible that there are ways to copy this messaging today—and to apply it to abortion. Stories of women who had late term abortions due to a much wanted pregnancy going badly wrong provide an example of a way to use this same framework today. There may be other ways to use this framework as well—ways to argue in favor of birth control and abortion, from a focus on women who are in the home, and want children.

Some may ask why we should care about changing minds to begin with, and they do have a point—we shouldn’t have to ask for our rights. But we also need to be pragmatic. In many states, those who favor abortion access will be outvoted if Roe falls and abortion access turns on state-level votes. We need to think about our messaging in preparation for such state-level fights.

I dearly wish “these are our rights, so let us have them” worked in debates like these. Unfortunately, in many cases, it won’t.

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