On Sunday night, comedian Michelle Wolf delivered a segment on abortion in her late-night comedy show The Break. After sparking all kinds of conservative outrage at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in April for comparing Sarah Huckabee Sanders to Aunt Lydia from the popular dystopian show The Handmaid’s Tale, Wolf has hardly added more nuance to her political beliefs.
“It’s so ironic that Trump could be the guy that ends legal abortion,” Wolf quipped in the segment. “That dude has been responsible for more abortions since the invention of back alleys.” Wolf continues, before rebutting the very notion that abortion concerns life at all. “Some people say abortion is killing a baby — it’s not. It’s stopping a baby from happening. It’s like Back to the Future and abortion is a DeLorean,” she says to a rapt audience.
If this were the case, abortion would be relatively uncontroversial. The way Wolf presents it makes abortion sound like the equivalent of the morning-after pill, Plan B, which prevents either fertilization from taking place or implantation of the zygote in the womb. Although Plan B still draws ire from many who point out that preventing implantation ends a human life, it’s not nearly as hotly contested as abortion. Every abortion procedure undeniably stops fetal growth, which, if left undisturbed, would result in a child being born after about 40 weeks.
It gets worse. Wolf says, “I know some people call themselves pro-life, but pro-life is a propaganda term that isn’t real, like healthy ice cream and handsome testicles.” According to Wolf, those opposed to abortion aren’t actually concerned that it ends a life, and there’s no genuine philosophical objection to ending a pregnancy. But reputable polling on abortion shows that even people who identify as pro-choice support restrictions on abortion that would make little sense if there weren’t a human life at stake.
According to a 2011 Gallup poll, nearly 80 percent of pro-choice people believe it’s reasonable to outlaw abortion in the third trimester, while a slight majority of them (52 percent) believe it’s permissible to ban second-trimester abortions as well. As a recent piece in The Federalist notes, many people on both sides of the issue also see harm in selective abortions for fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome. In other words, people on both sides already believe that certain aspects of the pro-life argument make intuitive sense, and that drawing some boundaries for when abortion is permissible is entirely reasonable.
“These people are anti-abortion, which means they’re anti-woman,” Wolf’s comedy segment went on. “If these people were actually pro-life, they would be fighting hard for health care, child care, education, gun control and protecting the environment.” Intersectionality arguments such as this one are often flawed. Wolf claims that in order to be genuinely pro-life — which she just claimed is impossible in any event — one must support a smorgasbord of leftist initiatives. She conveniently ignores the fact that conservatives do not in fact support allowing people to die at the hands of gun-wielding mad men — we just wish to protect constitutionally guaranteed rights, and we doubt that legislation will prevent people with bad intentions from obtaining the weapons they need to do evil. Nor do conservatives believe that the preferred policies of the Left on the slew of issues Wolf names will actually result in human flourishing.
Not only is Wolf’s logic flawed in a number of ways, but she also calls stigma against abortion “bullsh**” and she notes that abortions are “super common” — an unfortunate truth, and one of the few things she gets right. “One of the original slogans for the women’s movement was ‘abortion on demand’ and that’s exactly what it should be — as easy and safe as pushing the on-demand button in the middle of your remote to order Paddington 2,” Wolf says. She seems to believe that the stigma surrounding abortion is completely baseless, an opinion similar to proponents of the “Shout Your Abortion” social-media movement, in which women are encouraged to proudly share their abortion stories in order to combat stigma.
Wolf doesn’t realize that these aren’t winning talking points. Progress in the abortion debate can only be made when the Left recognizes the seriousness of the issues at play. Abortion involves complex ethical dilemmas and trade-offs; no matter how hard people try to brand it as no different than getting a tooth pulled, it will always be weightier than that.
Wolf is attempting to remove the complexity from the abortion debate in order to make it an easier one for her side to win. But in the long run, this won’t work, because her talking points assume that pro-life and centrist people are either uncaring or stupid or both. When it comes to issues of literal life and death, Wolf miscalculates. Very few people yearn for a world in which abortion is thought of as nothing more serious than popping a Tylenol.
When Wolf and her cohort begin to treat these issues with more intellectual honesty, we can talk. But until then, those in her audience who take her seriously will become increasingly unprepared to debate these significant issues with the rest of the country.