Twenty-one percent of the American electorate are one-issue voters who will only pull the lever for a candidate who sees abortion in the same way they do. I am among them. I believe that a fetus is a human being with all the rights that I possess (well, I can vote and they can’t).
It follows that abortion is murder and, therefore, by far the greatest moral failing of our times. It’s not the only moral failing, of course. I do not want to diminish the grave importance of eliminating racial discrimination or supporting environmental stewardship or any other important issue. But 700,000 murders every year, performed by doctors at the behest of parents, overwhelms any other moral or political consideration on the ballot each November.
Yale University has long been a hotbed of the pro-choice movement. Griswold v. Connecticut, the case that eventually undid Connecticut’s contraception laws (and laid the groundwork for direct assaults on abortion bans) centered around a Planned Parenthood clinic right here in New Haven. Nowadays, Yale Law School hosts the likes of Reva Siegel, a paragon among pro-choice legal scholars.
So I knew what I was getting into when I enrolled in the Reproductive Rights and Justice Seminar at Yale Law School, a whole semester dedicated to just this issue, surrounded by pro-choice students, reading pro-choice arguments. I knew I would be spending hours each week reading pro-choice apologia and listening to justifications for abortion.
The Value of Listening to Your Opposites
Most of my conservative friends asked me why I would put myself through it. To be honest, I did it in part because they asked me why. It does not take a keen political mind to notice that conservatives and liberals have stopped talking to each other. Our Facebook feeds keep us in comfortable echo chambers and, instead of reading what the other side thinks, we read what our side thinks about what the other side thinks.
But in politics, none of our opponents are as evil as we believe them to be. Pro-choice advocates do not hate babies. Something, however, motivates them to believe as they do. There is some value or set of values behind their votes; something that leads millions of men and women to condone (or at least ignore) the destruction of human life. Do I have any common ground with these people? Well, if I did, it would come out in this seminar. And it did.
In a small room with a professor and about a dozen students, I was the only male. I was the only conservative. I did not allow my personal views to make it into the discussion very often. I was not attempting to be some sleeper agent, nor did I pretend to be a fiery pro-choice advocate. I was there to listen. Besides, standing up every 15 minutes to shout, “But it’s a baby!” would not have served either the professor’s purposes or my own.
The professor was knowledgeable and inviting, the consummate leader of a seminar. She often presented both sides of the argument. She pressed the students to consider their own logical conclusions and forced us to confront our own assumptions. My classmates, too, were impressive. Where I half-expected lazy thinking, I found precise logic and nuance. Where I expected coldness, I found warmth and concern for children and women and families. This is what I learned.
1. Pro-Choice Advocates Notice When Opponents Compromise
During a discussion, one of the students called out, “We all know that anti-abortion laws are about controlling women’s sexuality.” The women around the table responded with affirming nods and “mm-hmms.” I was flabbergasted. I had heard this line before, but assumed that only the crassest political hacks could believe it. I have no interest in anyone’s sex life. But here was a room full of smart women who all thought otherwise.
The student went on. “That’s why rape and incest exceptions exist. Those are the situations where the woman has no choice.” I let that sink in. It is true. Those are instances where we say the mother did not give consent. That is where pro-life advocates fold the quickest. If the fetus is a child, why are we willing to give up its life because the mother was not a willing party to its creation? To an outsider, it would appear plain that pro-life advocates who are willing to make these exceptions only care about the life of the fetus if the mother chooses to have sex. What we really care about is not the created being, but the fornication.
What answer can we give? If we say we are only willing to grant these exceptions as a matter of political compromise, then we admit there are good reasons to value the mother’s trauma over the baby’s life. Because many of us draw the line here—at consensual sex—we say essentially that the mother’s promiscuity determines whether we will stand to protect the child. That is not a good look.
If we say that we do not want to force an unwilling woman to go through the stress, anxiety, and danger of childbirth without having some choice in the matter, then are we really holding the fetus’s life always as valuable as anyone else’s? Or, as one student said in class, “What is so popular about the emotional stress from rape and incest? What is special about those situations as opposed to the stresses of poverty or abandonment?”
2. Pro-Choice Advocates Care About Women
It is not just a ploy. One of the readings in class was a testimony by Norma McCorvey, the one-time plaintiff in Roe v. Wade turned pro-life activist. Parts of McCorvey’s testimony touched on the moral lie of abortion, the great subterfuge that surrounds the euphemistic language about “terminating pregnancies” and “products of conception.” Those parts hardly registered with the class.
McCorvey also talked about how her lawyers treated her. She claimed that when the case was finally decided, she heard about it through the newspapers, not from her attorneys. Several women in the class were appalled. If true, instead of serving this woman, her lawyers were using her as a pawn in their own cause. My classmates were upset about this even though it was a cause they deeply believed in.
Time and again their concern turned towards the disadvantaged. They viewed every law from the prism of the most vulnerable. If the government is not going to fund medical procedure X, then how are women in prison going to get it if they need it? If Catholic hospitals can opt out of procedure Y, must minority women in the Southwest drive four hours away to see a doctor?
Their concern is not just a proxy for crass political calculation. For example, we learned that surrogacy contracts often require the surrogate to have an abortion if the donor couple no longer wants the child. This might happen because of a divorce or because a disease has been detected in the fetus. Some students were disgusted by this, but not because of the cheap value it puts on the fetus’s life. Instead, they saw these contracts as interfering with the woman’s freedom: “I’m concerned about the surrogate who is made to have an abortion she doesn’t want.” (Thankfully, such clauses have never been upheld in court, but the pressure they must put on women is immense.)
But there was a line that cannot be crossed. The class read various testimonies and statistics about women who regret their abortions and wanted to speak out against it. “Isn’t this feminist?” the professor asked. This is, after all, women speaking up for themselves. But the reception was mixed. One student replied that, “You have to look at content and how it affects other women.” This was essentially code for saying: I will only support you when you agree with me.
Another lamented that, “One difficulty with dismantling the patriarchy is that women and men perpetuate it.” That is, if you speak out against what these women see as the true cause of their sex, then your own personal womanhood will not save you.
3. Some Pro-Choice Advocates Are Really Afraid of Pregnancy
These are women who have the world ahead of them. For earthly success, it is hard to do much better than a slot at Yale Law School. Potential is a hard thing to measure, but one of Yale Law School’s alumna came within a few thousand votes of the presidency just last November. You can’t blame these women for dreaming big.
A pregnancy can really change that. Sure, many women juggle the stresses of raising a child and the brutal grind of elite success in America. But that doesn’t make it sound any easier. After one set of assignments, a student came into class and announced, “These readings terrified me. I never want to get pregnant.”
Yes, we have answers to this fear that make sense to us. They sound like, “Then wait until you are married.” As someone who got married young and comes home to a small army of children every day, I think this is pretty great advice. But these women grew up with a different mindset. They prize their sexual autonomy as an important element of their identity and one of the great pleasures of life. Frankly, who can blame them? Everything in our culture tells these women that the worst thing you can do with a sex drive is repress it.
So when they are faced with the specter of Roe v. Wade being overturned, consider the scenarios that go through their head. “What if I get pregnant? What if I get raped? What about my friend who is barely making it as it is? What if she gets pregnant?” For more than 40 years now, our society has offered them an out: abortion. This is not an easy out or a simple decision, but it does mean that if everything goes against a woman’s plan for her future, she can reset the clock. We—I—want to get rid of that safety valve. They see that as an attack, and that makes sense.
The political climate is more turbulent today than it has been in some time, so it is foolish to make predictions. But there is a good chance Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch is one of us. If the pro-life movement finds itself poised to make significant gains in the near future, we must keep in mind the real trepidation that our countrywomen feel. It is not enough to simply dismiss them.
4. Pro-Choice Advocates Have Their Doubts
These pro-choice women are not a monolith. Although they are united, there are a thousand lines of disagreement within the pro-choice camp. It even starts with the name. Some think “pro-choice” is not inclusive enough and represents a movement concerned primarily with the troubles of rich, white women. Many prefer “reproductive justice.”
The differences of opinion don’t stop at the name. One student expressed doubt about whether there was a “fundamental constitutional right to abortion” at all. She thought it was good public policy to allow abortions, but she was not sure the Constitution was the right source of authority.
Another student felt that the pro-choice movement was more radical than she wanted it to be. Live Action videos force Planned Parenthood to defend the practice of harvesting a fetus’s organs. This was a step further than a woman’s right to control her own body. And abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s parade of horrors in Pennsylvania give the pro-life crowd an avenue to restrict abortion further: medical standards.
As a result of these attacks, abortion supporters found themselves arguing against higher safety and sanitation requirements. That is an awkward position to be in, and the women in my class know it. “The pro-choice movement has been pushed into extreme positions all the time.” These “all or nothing” positions continually push any real moral choices out of the picture. When they think about it dispassionately, maybe abortion is a weightier decision than its advocates proclaim.
When the professor pushed hard on the distinction between “fetus” and “baby,” many admitted the demarcation was unclear. “Where do we draw the line? Cutting the umbilical cord?” But this uncertainty was not enough to break any of them. Without a clear moral truth to cling to, the students fell back on something solid: bodily integrity. Nobody has a right to tell them what to do with their own bodies. Bodily integrity was the fortress that stopped the doubts from getting too strong.
For some time now, the pro-life movement has tried to push on that moral murkiness. We talk about heartbeats and pain and fetal development. At some point, we need a stronger answer to the pro-choice fallback position. We need to make an argument that bodily integrity is not absolute. We do want to make women undergo childbirth even when they do not want to. We have to be able to address our assault on bodily integrity in a way that appeals to people who do not share our views about sexual morality or the beginning of life. Until we help them get past the mental and emotional hurdle of bodily integrity, they will not be able to directly confront the moral consequences of abortion. It is the tower to which they run.
5. The 2016 Election Terrified Them
We had class the day after Donald Trump won the election for president of the United States. I was two minutes late that day (there was a lot of emotion in the hallways at Yale). When I walked in, it was just like a funeral. Faces downcast. Worry in every expression.
This was supposed to be a day of triumph—their triumph. The first woman president. Many of these women had put in countless hours over the past year and a half to make President Hillary Clinton a reality. They had reservations at their favorite restaurants to celebrate what was supposed to be their day. But now? They didn’t have a plan for this. “I was so sure we were going to win that I did not even look at Trump’s list of Supreme Court nominees.”
What had happened? Nobody had a good answer. Some of them were in no mood to give Trump’s voters the benefit of the doubt. “I think this election was about women in power.” That is, Trump was elected because of sexism. Others directed their anger more broadly. “I feel betrayed by . . . [Sanders supporters] who voted for Trump or stayed home.” What happens if Trump gets two nominations to the Supreme Court? Three? Trump may or may not care about abortion issues, but people around him certainly do.
They were in shock, but this shock will not last long. Before class was over, these smart, resilient women were looking for a way forward. They were searching their souls for a way to pick up the pieces. They had a lot of ideas. “How do we separate the pro-life voter from the Rust Belt voter?” “Now is the time to expand the movement.” “We need to stop just talking about ‘choice’ and find common ground with more people.” “Maybe we should turn away from the courts for a while and look to make in-roads in the culture.”
All across America, pro-choice advocates are having these discussions. If this election does turn out to be a victory for pro-life America, we need to be ready for the counterattack. It will come, and, if the plan comes from the creative and capable women I met last semester, it’s going to be a good one.
But if they can find opportunities in this turbulent and polarized political climate, so can we. If we want to win some of these women over, if we want to keep picking at their doubts and building on shared values, I suggest we start by listening to them.