Thomas Edsall, Thoughtless on Abortion Politics

by Ramesh Ponnuru

In the New York Times, Thomas Edsall takes up an interesting question–why has opposition to abortion endured while opposition to same-sex marriage has waned–and answers it in the most thoughtless possible way. “In an effort to explore the politics of abortion rights I contacted a disparate group of contemporary experts,” he writes, who uniformly tell him that the reason for the persistence of opposition to abortion is the male desire to control women’s sexuality and fertility.

Edsall does not quote or mention a single pro-lifer as among his experts. He trumpets the diversity of his group because it includes men and, in particular, Steven Pinker, who has sometimes had disputes with feminists. On this question, however, Pinker is very much on one side, having written an essay about why we shouldn’t be judgmental about infanticide.

Neither Edsall nor any of his quoted experts confronts or mentions the voluminous evidence that there is no gender gap in opposition to abortion: Women and men in the United States oppose it, and support it, at the same rates.

Edsall goes through the evidence that attitudes toward sex and toward women’s careers have changed, without asking the obvious question: If opposition to premarital sex and women’s careers has declined, why hasn’t opposition to abortion declined along with them? Isn’t that a pretty stark contradiction to Edsall’s thesis? None of his experts seem to have pointed the problem out to him.

Finally, Edsall doesn’t even try to think through the logic of his whole same-sex marriage/abortion thesis. If the drive to restrict abortion endures because men want to control women’s sexuality and make them bear children, why isn’t it leading men to keep trying to suppress lesbianism too?

I have concentrated here on Edsall’s main line of argument, but it’s worth noting that he gets peripheral points wrong. The holding of Roe v. Wade, for example, extended beyond the first trimester.

In a 2006 review of an Edsall book for NR, I wrote, “​Edsall is a justly respected political journalist. His liberalism does not create the normal political blinders.” I’m sorry to see that I overstated things.