I’ve been thinking a lot about the wave of recent laws criminalizing abortion. Despite memes from my liberal friends, the divide on this issue is not gender. 60% of women and 57% of men in america are pro-choice – the difference is within the margin of polling error. Meanwhile, many of the most dedicated pro-life activists are female. That includes Kay Ivey, the Governor of Alabama who just signed one of the most restrictive abortion bans in the country.
The fact is, the abortion rights debate isn’t about gender, it’s about religion and the role that the majority religion (Christianity) should play in shaping public policy for everyone. The moment you stop falsely framing the issue as men vs women and instead think of it as people whose religion shapes their politics vs people with secular values, the lines get a lot clearer. This framework also gives us a path forwards – if we want to win over religious opposition we need to make a compelling case that criminalizing abortion is not the best way to deal with the issue.
What’s interesting is that when pressed, many pro-life activists will say they don’t believe women should actually be jailed for seeking abortions, they just want to stop abortions from happening and don’t know of a better way to do so. In point of fact, the data shows that criminalizing abortion does not significantly impact abortion rates, it just makes the most abortion far more dangerous by pushing it into unlicensed underground clinics. In point of fact, the single most effective way to reduce abortion isn’t to make it illegal, it’s to make it unnecessary by reducing unplanned pregnancies and removing economic coercion from the equation. That’s something progressives and conservatives should both support.
Countries that have strong social safety nets and easily accessible contraception have the lowest abortion rates, even though in virtually all of those countries abortion is free and easily accessible. That shouldn’t surprise anyone, the leading cause that women cite when seeking abortion services in the US is economic insecurity (~ 40% of cases). Making the pill available without a prescription (as it is in most of the world) and funding robust welfare programs is the single most effective way to reduce abortion rates.
Conservatives must no longer be able to get away with demonizing poor women – and particularly women of color – who choose to keep an unplanned pregnancy. Especially not when they simultaneously call women who choose not to keep a pregnancy murderers!
I’ve found this argument highly effective when talking to pro-life family members and friends. For grassroots organizers, this is a critical opportunity to reinforce economically progressive attitudes that are surprisingly common among many socially conservative Christians.* There is a real opportunity here for coalition building on economic issues and breaking out of the two-party framework.
The other key point is that criminalizing abortion doesn’t actually stop abortion from happening, it just makes the abortions that do happen more likely to kill woman. You don’t have to like abortion to recognize that this is an unacceptable outcome. In a parallel example, you don’t have to like drugs to realize that the War on Drugs and the criminalization of drug users has been a complete disaster. For people whose sincere goal is to reduce the number of abortions, there are much better paths to do so than criminalizing abortion.
Having said that, within the “Pro-life” movement there is a second much more dangerous faction. These folks are the Christian Nationalists that would love to reinstate sodomy laws criminalizing homosexuality, ban birth control, and believe that sex which isn’t intended for reproduction is sinful. They combine strong religiously motivated beliefs with the will to legislate those beliefs, and they’ve been wildly successful pushing utterly ineffective “abstinence only” sex ed programs and keeping the pill and other contraceptives relatively difficult to obtain in the US. Both of these “victories” have actually increased the number of abortions that occur in the US.
So what do you call a “pro-life” activist who supports policies that increase the number of abortions? Not Pro life! This hypocrisy needs to be front and center in debates with these folks. Keeping the spotlight right there is key to delegitimizing them. They cannot be reasoned with, only defeated at the ballot box, and trying to find a compromise is a waste of time. Democrats need to stop attempting to do so.
To summarize, if we want to win lasting reproductive freedom we need to stop framing abortion rights as men vs women because American men and women are virtually tied in their support for reproductive freedoms. Instead, frame it as part of a larger social justice movement to provide strong social safety nets and make sure that all children are wanted. Women who want to continue pregnancy should never be compelled to have an abortion because of economic necessity, and women who want to terminate a pregnancy should never be prevented from doing so by someone else’s religion.
The Pro-choice movement must be pro CHOICE – and that means de-stigmatizing single mothers and fighting for the support networks and welfare programs that would give working class women and families a real choice for the first time in American history. As always, movements for progressive causes must be intersectional and account for the impacts of class and race to succeed.
Waffling back and forth on rape clauses and special circumstances as Democrats are doing is a losing strategy. A clear, consistent, principled stand is the path to victory. The pro-choice movement must become truly pro-choice. Perhaps ironically, such a pro-choice movement would prevent far more abortions than the mis-named “pro life” movement’s attempts at criminalization ever could. That’s the only compromise with pro-lifers that’s worth striking and is one that I believe a surprising number of them would agree to.
* There’s an important tangent here about the large number of voters in America who are socially conservative but economically progressive. Many of these people vote Republican based on social values because the mainstream Democratic Party stopped advocating for the working class decades ago, but will make an exception and vote for economic populists given the opportunity. This is part of why politicians like Sen. Sanders do so surprisingly well among Republican voters. I’ll save that for another article though…