Politics & Policy

Irksome Existences

Pro-life activists outside the Supreme Court, June 26, 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty)
Whether of unborn children or pro-lifers, Katha Pollitt opposes them.

Editor’s Note: The following article is adapted from one that appeared in the November 17, 2014 issue of National Review.

We live in a country with roughly a million abortions a year. It is credibly estimated that around a third of American women have an abortion by age 45. Two years ago the country reelected a president who ran more emphatically in support of abortion than any of his predecessors: No “safe, legal, and rare” for Barack Obama. Yet supporters of abortion feel besieged.

Katha Pollitt, a left-wing columnist and author of the new book Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, writes that the momentum is on the side of abortion opponents. Most of the book’s reviewers are gushing over it, and echoing the sentiment. (Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, writing in NR, bucked the trend.) In the New York Times, in Time, in Elle, in the Chicago Tribune, they’re praising its “intellectual rigor” and “moral clarity” and calling it “revelatory.”

And they’re telling us about their own abortions. Hanna Rosin opens her review in Slate with the words, “I had an abortion. I was not in a libertine college-girl phase, although frankly it’s none of your business.” (She was married with two kids, not that I recall asking.) Laurie Abraham in Elle tells us that she had two abortions, each time after not using contraception, which she first feels guilty about and then feels guilty about feeling guilty about, since the abortions paved the way for some very important and socially beneficial journalism. Clara Jeffery doesn’t have any abortions to share with New York Times readers but has helped friends get them.

These writers, naturally, detest pro-lifers like me. Pollitt says that we view women as “potting soil,” and Jeffery likes the line so much she uses it herself. They are vexed, as well, by the “muddled middle,” so squeamish, so conflicted, about abortion. It bothers them that even pro-choicers speak of abortion as regrettable and tragic, or concentrate on the fraction of cases that involve rape or threats to the mother’s health. Pollitt actually complains that people say that abortion should be chosen only after serious consideration.

The reason for all this ambivalence, writes Rosin, is that “we have all essentially been brainwashed by a small minority of pro-life activists.” Which is why, Pollitt explains, relying on a pro-choice research group, more than half of women live in states that are “hostile” to abortion. “What this means is that although abortion has been legal for four full decades, for many women in America it might as well not be.”

This same writer, mind you, also notes that more than one in five American pregnancies end in abortion. None of her fans find anything discordant in this storyline. As for brainwashing, survey research actually finds a great deal of stability in the public’s views of abortion. Most people have never approved of the abortions these writers wish to destigmatize, or even thought they should be legal.

The NORC at the University of Chicago, an opinion-research center, has tracked these attitudes for decades, asking whether abortion should be “available” for married women who do not want to have more kids, or unmarried women who do not wish to marry the father of their child. Support for abortion in such cases has moved in a narrow range, peaking below 50 percent in 1973, when Roe v. Wade was handed down. Support started dropping, that is, when the pro-life movement was barely organized, much less able to brainwash the populace.

It is true that those pro-lifers who are intensely committed to banning almost all abortions are a small minority of the public. It is also true that those pro-choicers who want abortion to be legal throughout pregnancy are a small minority. (This second minority has managed to get the Supreme Court to say that every state in the country has to follow something close to its preferred public policy.) Neither of these facts is especially surprising.

Both minorities can, of course, claim a logical consistency that the muddled middle lacks. Pollitt claims, and her pro-choice reviewers echo, that a living human organism lacks any moral standing because it is “the size of a lima bean.” (There’s that fabled moral clarity and intellectual rigor.) It certainly follows from that premise that no one should have a problem with using abortion as a substitute for contraception.

But the muddled middle has never thought about abortion that way. It doesn’t, as a rule, want to think about abortion at all, confounding both minorities. It is tired of the debate and wishes it would go away. That aversion itself, however, suggests that Americans instinctively, without listening closely to either minority, view abortion as different from an appendectomy.

The pro-choice writers wish the debate would go away too, but their frustration with it has a different character from that of the muddled middle. It reflects impatience rather than exhaustion: impatience with the continued existence of pro-lifers.

The debate was supposed to end in 1973 with Roe, which the New York Times called on its front page “a historic resolution of a fiercely controversial issue.” Or, at least, in 1992, when the Court told the public that it was calling on “the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division.”

Yet no matter how many times the abortion debate has been said to be over, no matter how many times pro-lifers have been invited or commanded to disappear into history, they have kept making their case. They have kept telling the muddled middle that its qualms are right, even if they have not usually converted those qualms into convictions.

The hard-core pro-choicers who make up Pollitt’s fan base can hardly believe that there are people who think that a human fetus, even an embryo, has a right to life. They don’t believe it, quite: The idea is so crazy to them that they come up with convoluted theories about pro-lifers’ real motivations, which are of course not our stated ones. They can’t believe that the fight still continues.

“Only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to totally ban abortion,” writes Rosin, “but that loud minority has beaten the rest of us into submission with their fetus posters and their absolutism and their infiltration of American politics.” Infiltration? Pro-lifers don’t have to infiltrate the political system because, as citizens, we are and are supposed to be part of it, posters and all. This is an impatience that cannot recognize its own illiberalism.

Rosin writes as well that, “frankly, in 2014, it should be no big deal that in a movie a young woman has an abortion and it’s no big deal.” (The movie, Obvious Child, was no big deal at the box office.) “We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.”

Some views, these writers think, are so obviously wrong, so destructive of human rights, that they have no place in our society. We should not have to hear the case for barbarism, or have to make the case against it.

I know just how they feel.

— Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor of National Review. This article is adapted from one that appeared in the November 17, 2014, issue of National Review.


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