How abortion broke our politics
How did we get here? Stephen Brill recently asked this familiar question in his article in his TIME magazine piece “How Baby Boomers Broke America”. He no doubt makes a number of great observations about the evolution of the workforce and economy, but I ask a more specific question: how did our politics get so broken? There are many potential answers to this question: some would blame talk radio, cable news, the internet, and money in politics. But in my view, our downward decline to where our politics currently reside started in 1973. It was the year the Supreme Court, with a single decision, made abortion legal nationwide.
You might be a little skeptical of my theory. Certainly, abortion is a divisive social issue that inflames passions- but how could it break our politics? And while it would be easy to blame “both sides”, I profer that the social conservative movement is largely responsible for pushing its base to take the most extreme take on the issue, which has helped to shape the ideological divide that separates us today.
When Democrats and feminists took up the pro-choice position, they were no longer seen by conservatives as companions who respectfully disagreed on policy. They were now baby killers, amoral people who cared more about convenience than protecting the life of the innocent. It’s a worldview that paints America as a country that enshrines the slaughter of innocents at the top level of its law. Why would anyone think Roy Moore was a better Senate candidate than Doug Jones? It makes sense if you see Doug Jones as supporting baby-killers.
Furthermore, why would evangelicals and movement conservatives rally behind Donald Trump, a man who had no obvious loyalty to any party, religion, or ideology? Even his position on abortion was muddled at first- he only gained the loyalty of these groups when he announced he would pick his Supreme Court nominees according to how likely they were to overturn Roe v. Wade. But any amount of moral shortcomings he exhibited was absolved at that point because being crass and insulting is still much more moral than endorsing infanticide.
The Supreme Court itself can be considered a microcosm of my point. Without Roe v. Wade as precedent, would Merrick Garland be one of the nine justices right now? I say yes. During the 2016 Republican primary debate, immediately following the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia, every Republican candidate stood up on stage and stated they wanted to deny President Obama any new Supreme Court nomination. They got standing ovations for what historically would be a flagrant and groundbreaking violation of norms.
Without Roe v. Wade, there would be much less passion and little justification to deny Obama his rightful pick, and the Republican Senate would have jumped at the chance to seat Garland, who was a moderate compromise pick that could potentially serve some of their interests.
Now we can zoom out and look at the bigger picture. Pro-choice liberals have attempted to match the “baby killer” rhetoric with “woman hating” rhetoric of their own. There’s little doubt, however, that the left has had a harder time matching the passion on this issue. It has spread to many other issues in turn- gun control advocates almost seem eager to claim that pro-gun people have “blood on their hands.” This rhetoric has also deepened cultural, racial, and religious divides.
During the healthcare debates, we saw claims that Republicans wanted granny to “die quickly” while Republicans raised the ante with hysteria over “death panels.” Pro-lifers don’t take any moral argument their opponents make seriously about Donald Trump because progressives believe the mass murder of babies is just fine; pro-choicers are convinced their opponents just want to turn America into The Handmaid’s Tale. On and on we go.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we’re all stuck in the trenches. There’s plenty of evidence that most Americans have nuanced and complicated views on abortion that are not reflected by our media or politicians. Many moderates want to put the focus on funding expanded sex education and women’s healthcare centers (yes, places like Planned Parenthood) to minimize the number of unwanted pregnancies.
But if the pro-life crowd believes that abortion is murder in all but a few cases, then any number of abortions done for non-life-threatening reasons is too high. Many ardent pro-choicers are generally against discouraging abortion, claiming you are shaming women for seeking a legal treatment. We’ll never get a nationwide referendum on the specific issue, so on and on we go.
The recent retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh by President Trump threatens to end this stalemate. Some have already pronounced Roe v. Wade dead, while others have pointed out it might not be that easy. Either way, it’s very likely that the scope of Roe v. Wade will be narrowed if not overturned altogether if Kavanaugh is seated.
As someone who considers themselves more pro-choice than not, my suggestion may surprise you. Let Roe v. Wade go.
Ironically, it might be one of the best long-term strategies for Democrats. Sending the issue back to the states would allow many blue, populous states to keep abortion unrestricted. Many of the reddest states have already passed so many hurdles in front of an abortion that Roe might as well not exist. As many as six states house only one abortion clinic, and in many other states, they are rare and difficult to access.
Purple states will have the ability to craft their own compromise legislation and states that choose to ban it all but a few rare instances will have to deal with the consequences (some of which Ireland found too severe before they overturned their own abortion ban). Democrats can also use the overturn of that precedent in the future to justify the overturning of decisions they don’t like, such as DC v. Heller and Citizens United v. FEC.
Republicans will no longer be able to use the issue of abortion to unite their disparate factions, while Democrats will be able to switch places and use reproductive rights as their unifying issue.
At least one thing is clear: the current status quo is not one that is going to get better by itself. Abortion is likely going to be a divisive issue just as it has been for the last hundred years. Maybe in the next hundred, rather than trying to win the issue, we can finally admit its complexity and compromise.