On Tuesday, Ramesh Ponnuru did a fine job refuting many of the arguments Christine Stansell made in her recent New Republic article about the politics of abortion. The New Republic sometimes offers interesting insights and commentary about the national political scene. However, Stansell’s unhinged attack on the Susan B. Anthony List is something one would expect from a NOW or NARAL publication.
There are a couple additional points worth mentioning here. First, throughout her article, Stansell fails to realize that sometimes things change. It is probably fair to say that the pro-life movement has become more active since the 1980s. However, since the 1980s, the pro-life position has made significant gains in terms of public support. And the political scene reflects this. The pro-choice governors who were once thought to be the future of the Republican party (Whitman, Weld, Wilson) have vanished from the political scene. Additionally, when Arlen Specter sought the Republican nomination for president in 1996, he unapologetically made his pro-choice stance a key selling point. No Republican candidate attempted something similar in 2000, 2008, or 2012.
Additionally, Democrats have made some efforts to reach out to pro-life voters. Neither Barack Obama nor John Kerry even mentioned support for legal abortion during their respective acceptance speeches at the 2004 and 2008 Democratic convention. When asked about abortion, President Obama seems dodgy and evasive. Instead of presenting the pro-choice position in a shrill, uncompromising way, he usually talks about the need to reduce abortion and ways of finding common ground. Furthermore, many Democrats have (unpersuasively) made the argument that more generous welfare programs are an effective strategy for reducing abortion.
Considering the gains that pro-lifers have made in the court of public opinion, it is unsurprising that pro-life groups are becoming more aggressive. That having been said, most of the items in the Susan B. Anthony List pledge are consistent with longstanding goals of the pro-life movement. After all, pro-lifers have always wanted presidents to appoint pro-lifers to executive branch agencies and nominate judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is a relatively new issue. However, it is safe to say that most Americans oppose late-term abortions. Finally, the LiveAction videos which have caught Planned Parenthood employees engaged in a range of misdeeds have given momentum to efforts to defund Planned Parenthood.
Stansell ends her article by dismissing what she considers the pro-life “pseudohistory” of the feminist movement. She suggests that the important history is that of the pro-life takeover of the Republican party. However, there is another history that Stansell chose to ignore. When the National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966, it was in favor of abortion rights. However, support for abortion was a relatively low priority. NOW was primarily concerned with workplace discrimination and expanding opportunities for women. It was not until the late 1960s when Larry Lader and others involved with Zero Population Growth convinced feminist groups to make support for legal abortion a top priority.
Since that time, the feminist movement in the United States has become wedded to abortion rights. Furthermore, the leadership of the Democratic party has gone to tremendous lengths to block even modest restrictions on abortion. A Democratic president vetoed a ban on partial-birth abortion. Senate Democrats have filibustered Republican judicial nominees who would have very likely received majority support. However, considering the shrill tone of her article, it is unsurprising that this history fails to receive a mention from Stansell.
— Michael J. New is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at The University of Alabama and a Fellow at The Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.