Abortion as Political Profit: the Unspoken Consensus

Abortion as Political Profit: the Unspoken Consensus September 17, 2015

There is a timely yet potentially endangered bill making its way from the House to the Senate, intended, as its name suggests, to protect the pain-capable unborn past 20 weeks.  (It is not my purpose here to analyze the bill at length, but as an aside it is interesting to note that the rape and incest exceptions still require an attempt to allow the survival of the child.)

While protection of the vulnerable is always timely, this is particularly so in light of the recent attention put on Planned Parenthood’s role in the procurement of fetal organs (for anyone needing an overview, Sam Sawyer has been providing excellent in-depth coverage in America), which has become something of a teachable moment in terms of the inescapable humanity of fetal lives, whether exploited for profit or ideology or simply to anesthetize the conscience.  Which motive provides the best explanation is a question of secondary importance at most.  It was already known to supporters and opponents alike that abortion, like many other forms of violence, is a lucrative business.  Just how lucrative, or even how legal, the practices of such a business are is less significant than the commodification of human lives – and deaths – in the first place.

Pro-life legislation is of course endangered due to politics-as-usual, and not only in the more immediately obvious ways, since violence such as abortion is profitable not only financially but also politically.  For Democrats, most obviously, it is a highly visible litmus test of party orthodoxy.  Some individuals and organizations, most notably Democrats for Life, are making an admirable albeit Sisyphean effort to change this, but the extent to which they are ostracized by their party’s rank-and-file only underscores the immense political advantage of toeing the party line – and the political punishment for those who don’t.

What is less often acknowledged, for reasons that serve both parties’ interests, is that Republican officials have their own vested interest in the lack of visible inroads against the problem of abortion. They depend on its entrenchment, as Charles Camosy points out in a recent LA Times op-ed, to fuel “the kind of anger that can fire up their base during campaign season.”  In terms of gaining or maintaining political advantage, it is currently far more profitable for Republicans to pay lip service to the pro-life cause without actually accomplishing anything.

This is what happens when political advantage over the other side – that is, partisanship – becomes an end in itself, which is exactly the state to which US political discourse has increasingly devolved.  Hence the unspoken bipartisan consensus to preserve the status quo on abortion, ironically so as each side depends on it to defeat the other.  Sadly, there is no pro-life party.

What this means is that the abolition of abortion, or anything remotely close to that, cannot be left to elected officials.  It does not in any way mean that we shouldn’t support more life-affirming legislation whenever possible, but rather that we should indeed support everything that makes a culture of life possible, such as parental leave (which Camosy argues may be necessary for the passage of the bill in question, besides being a good idea in itself), greater paternal accountability, and resources to help those who are pregnant and/or parenting.  This kind of broadening of pro-life efforts is in any case a far better option than merely putting our trust in princes (to paraphrase Psalm 146), especially while we are forced to choose more often than not between leaders whose own interest hangs on either empty promises or an open show of hostility toward a vulnerable population of human beings.

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  • Brian Martin

    Brilliant. The Republican party makes a great show of opposing abortion, but even when they have the political clout to do do so, do very little to substantively reduce the number of abortions. Abortion rates have decreased among well educated financially stable women, and increased among poor women. it seems likely that if there were a true desire to reduce abortions further, there would be an effort to reduce the perceived economic need for abortion as birth control. Unfortunately, conservative interest in issues of Life often end at birth. My 16 year old daughter attends a Catholic High school, and when the subject of Life comes up, gets very frustrated because at her school, Pro-Life means anti abortion…period.

  • Edward Burton

    Amen, Brian. I would be willing to wager that the overwhelming majority of abortions would cease, if giving birth were never an ipso facto financial disaster for the parents. One must be pro-the-life of the whole family, including substantially increased minimum wage, paid maternal leave, and other improvements to the financial life of families with children.

    • Julia Smucker

      Pro the life of the whole family, yes! I like that way of putting it.

  • Magdalena

    Eye-roll worthy post. You could say the same about other aspects of pro-life. The ones who claim to be “pro worker” have done exactly nothing to halt the rise in income inequality or the steady decimation of labor. The black family continues to be especially squeezed by this.

    I think labor and African Americans who have been particularly ignored and used by their alleged champions are beginning to notice that their issues are only important when it comes time to turn out the vote.

    • Julia Smucker

      I completely agree, the same wedge-issue posturing applies to a whole range of issues. There is, as I said, no truly pro-life party – nor is there a pro-peace or pro-worker party.

      So, what exactly is the disagreement that merits the eye-roll?

      • Brian Martin

        Well Julia, our priest had a sermon last Sunday about comparing ourselves to others as an excuse or justification for our own action or lack of it…as in I may do this but those people do THIS. My read of Magdalena’s comment is that she is attempting to diminish your point about the pro-life republicans by pointing out the other side’s weakness.
        It is, however, possible that I misread her comment.

      • Magdalena

        What is eye roll worthy (and sorry for being harsh) is that it repeats cliches about the pro life movement. Essentially that they are neutered as a political force because they are so wholly owned by one faction.

        While it may be a point with some insights, it is a cop out to say “there is no pro-life party.” Sure there is. Just like there is a party that is friendlier to workers, undocumented immigrants etc. Although I use the broad definition of pro life myself, in a political context it is usually advanced by people struggling to deal with the discomfort caused by the realization that pro life (as traditionally defined) is not a personal priority for them, and feeling a sting of guilt about it.

        In my experience the whole “a pox on both their houses, we’re being played, let’s work on these broader related initiatives instead” is just a way of side stepping important fundamental issues. I say this again as someone who has made the same arguments myself whether it is pro life, justice reform, the environment.

        • Julia Smucker

          Well, if we share a concern for all of these things, being pro-all-life, I would hope we can agree it’s a both/and: we need just, life-affirming laws AND broader related initiatives.

          What I think needs to be taken with a grain of salt, or often a shaker-full, is the promises of those seeking political office, especially when the promises themselves are more politically profitable than the delivery. Our convictions about human life and dignity should of course inform our voting, but we shouldn’t rely too heavily on those promises.