Katha Pollitt’s recent book, “Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights,” has generated widely-shared pro-choice essays that argue along with Pollitt that abortion must be affirmed as a social good, not a necessary evil. These arguments reject the defensive tone of mainstream pro-choice discourse, exemplified by the Clinton-era “safe, legal, and rare” formulation, as the undignified “awfulization” of abortion.
These pieces, such as Sady Doyle’s “Abortion Isn’t a Necessary Evil. It’s Great” for In These Times and Hanna Rosin’s “Abortion is Great” for Slate, have generated a great deal of scorn from the pro-life community. The derision is appropriate; the “abortion as social good” argument cruelly sidesteps the humanity of the unborn. Yet, I’d like to argue, this emerging pro-choice strategy may be the best option they have.
Guard the Golden Forceps
Imagine abortion politics as a giant game of capture the flag, but instead the pro-choice side is guarding a golden forceps. There’s a buffer around the forceps provided by a tall fence: Roe v. Wade. Pro-lifers have made different amounts of progress toward the target in different places: In a few places, they’ve largely abandoned the field; in many others, they’ve set up camp just outside the fence; and in the most weakly-defended regions, they’ve (arguably) established forward positions inside the buffer zone.
In most places, though, skirmishes are happening not off in the wilderness, but right at the Roe v. Wade frontier. This is not what pro-choicers expected, let alone hoped for, in the wake of the discovery of a constitutional right to abortion. The “Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue” New York Times headline is apocryphal, but the sentiment it expresses is not: Roe was supposed to remove abortion from the contentious realm of politics. That we now continue to dispute its borders is, to any pro-choicer with a proper sense of history, an acute disappointment.
It’s not surprising there are people trying to scale the Roe fence. Surely the pro-choice movement expected the zealous always to be clamoring at the gates. What must be dispiriting to pro-choicers is not only how many now identify with the pro-life cause, but how indifferent the public is to their attempts to annex the Roe buffer zone.
People Don’t Fight for a Necessary Evil
The prospect of a pro-life movement constantly and fearlessly testing the limits of Roe is hateful to any serious pro-choicer who believes the right to abortion should be robust and uncontroversial. But this future is exactly what the defensive rhetoric of abortion as necessary evil promises. Average people will not be willing to push back the pro-life barbarians-at-the-gates in the name of a “necessary evil.” They need a more impressive banner to fly.
This is a good time to pause to consider why so many people now identify as pro-life or, at the very least, are ambivalent about what Roe has wrought. There are many intertwining threads to this story, including of course the outstanding and tireless work of pro-life advocates, but for our purposes one stands out above the rest: the advancement of the technology of medical imaging.
Several weeks ago my wife underwent an unscheduled ultrasound after a mild scare early in pregnancy. In a moment of great relief, at less than eight weeks we could see our second child’s heartbeat. As recently as my early college years less than a decade ago, students could with a straight face parrot the old lines about the unborn as “clumps of cells” or, worse, “more like a tumor than a person.” Now that almost everybody has seen an advanced ultrasound image, at least on television if not in person, it can no longer be held by serious people that abortion does not end a life. Any attempt to restore the Roe-era unscientific view of unborn life would be an exercise in Big Lie-style propaganda that the pro-choice movement cannot realistically execute.
The pro-choice movement can’t turn the clock back on science; it must instead work within the new reality that people widely understand that abortion ends a human life. The only move, then, that can possibly reverse pro-life gains is to roll the hard six: They must convince their fellow Americans that legal abortion is an outstanding social good that outweighs the lives of the unborn. This is the project of Pollitt, Doyle, and Rosin, and it represents the only hope for substantial pro-choice gains.
People Are Willing to Do Evil in the Name of Social Good
Before we scoff, remember this: It is a commonplace for people and societies to accept the manifestly unjust in the service of an apparently greater social good. And this isn’t just the result of Communism or Nazism or some other exotic –ism that is distant from us in place and time. In the early twentieth century, Americans accepted the forced sterilization of the “unfit” for the greater good of our society. In the early twenty-first century we accept the mass incarceration of the marginalized (including, until just a month ago in California, their sterilization) for just the same reason.
We indulge either in an unrealistically rosy vision of human nature or in a kind of conservative Whig history—in which the eugenic mindset happily fades from consciousness as part of human progress—if we think the “abortion as social good” gambit is doomed. As Michael Brendan Dougherty put it in The Week:
All the ingredients still exist for a more explicit return to eugenics in our culture and politics: inequality, fear, detestation of the other. But if it comes back, it is unlikely to come in the explicitly racialist terms of the biodiversity-obsessed right. Liberal societies have the antibodies against that.
Instead, it will come to us in terms of ‘quality of life,’ and ‘health and safety.’ We will be urged that every child deserves the best society can grant, and stigmatize those for whom ‘the world is a difficult place.’ And thereby we legitimize the destruction of those who would merely “live” in society rather than thrive in it.
As Dougherty points out, we would be foolish to forget the words of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg that Roe was motivated at least in part by the desire to diminish “populations we don’t want to have too many of,” and more foolish still to forget that the recent runaway bestseller “Freakonomics” dabbled with the concept of abortion-as-crime-control.
Pro-Choice Supporters Target the Moral High Ground
Further, I have argued recently that innovations in the definition of marriage and assisted reproductive technologies are encouraging us to view children as the objects rather than the subjects of rights, as consumer goods rather than persons. The extension of the logic of the market to human persons themselves—especially the vulnerable and invisible (to the naked eye)—threatens to make their value and dignity contingent rather than inherent. The stage is set for sacrificing them for a greater good, whether that good is modern women’s lib or, more likely, delicately-phrased social hygiene.
So Pollitt and Doyle and Rosin are correct: The pro-choice movement’s best hope for total victory rather than perpetual stalemate is to attempt to reclaim the moral high ground—to assert without shame that legal abortion is necessary for essential social goods to flourish. Pro-lifers should react to this emerging strategy with contempt because it is contemptible. But it is contemptible primarily in its substance, not in its political wisdom. Our contempt must be ordered not just toward marginalizing particular commentators, but toward marginalizing the idea that the taking of innocent life can ever be justified by a greater good. This is not a new idea, and it is not unrealistic that it will catch on once again.
Yes, “abortion as a social good” is a sign of increasing pro-choice desperation. But this may be the last chance for at least a generation to rally enough people to repel pro-lifers from the borders of Roe. As such, we must take it seriously and challenge it on its despicable merits, always making the case that has brought us to this siege of the golden forceps to begin with: All life is precious, its dignity inherent, its value incommensurable, its beauty unparalleled.