Why Women Rebel against Pro-Life
The abortion issue isn't going away, and will destroy Republicans
With Ron DeSantis about to sign a six-week abortion ban and sink his chances of winning a general election, it’s useful to think a bit about why this issue has been such a loser for Republicans.
I didn’t predict that the effect of Dobbs would be anywhere near this extreme, based on the priors that the parties were already sorted and no single issue was likely to have a major electoral impact. After the 2022 midterms, I changed my mind, and the idea that the pro-life position is an albatross around the necks of Republicans was recently confirmed in Wisconsin.
The degree to which this is a strong issue for Democrats can be seen in what has happened in Michigan. The state voted for Trump in 2016, had a Republican governor until 2019, and a Republican legislature until last year’s midterms. Michigan now has Democratic women in the positions of governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and senate majority leader. To say that the Democrats in the state have run on abortion would be an understatement. As an article in New York shows, an absolute and uncompromising position on reproductive health has been central to Democratic messaging. On Twitter, some have assured me that all this proves is that “conviction wins,” but that’s delusional. Conviction on things most people agree with wins, while conviction in favor of unpopular positions doesn’t. This is why Republicans all over the country are desperate to change the subject.
As conservatives like to point out when arguing against the trans movement, women have unique challenges that are rooted in biology. Pregnancy and reproductive health are central to a woman’s existence. For all but the deeply religious, government regulation in this area appears to be a major infringement on individual liberty and a barrier to full citizenship rights. While conservatives pat themselves on the back for fighting to preserve the integrity of female weightlifting, womankind clearly has other priorities.
Anyone who has been through the process of having a child knows that for a pregnant woman, the entire experience is something of a walk over a tightrope. For most, it begins with a take home test, and if it comes back positive there is still something of a 10-20 percent chance of a miscarriage. Once that hurdle is cleared, women go for regular ultrasounds, where they try to make sure that everything looks right, and most women have tests done for fetal abnormalities. Some pregnancies are relatively easy, while others can leave a woman bed-ridden for months. Although we have brought the numbers down, the risk of death due to childbirth is still around 30 per 100,000 in the US, meaning that pregnancy might still be the most dangerous thing many women will ever do in a modern first world country. Of course, there can be, and usually are, pregnancy complications short of death, and many women report long-term physical, emotional, or cognitive damage. When the baby is born, doctors conduct more tests, and this includes finding out whether the child is blind or deaf.
In addition to the physical dangers involved and natural concerns about the health of the baby, one thing I’ve sometimes thought about is the invasion of privacy throughout the process. People talk about the pain, the cramps, morning sickness, carrying extra weight around. But think that, assuming all goes well, a woman has to at the end of all this lay down, spread her legs, and allow perhaps a dozen or so strangers to spend hours, perhaps days, undertaking a procedure involving the most intimate parts of her body in the most vulnerable moments of her life. There is no equivalent for men.
This is a frightening process every step of the way. The anti-abortion movement calls on the state to be an active participant here in the name of “protecting life.” The most extreme among them believe that life must be protected from the moment of conception, which means that there is an instant some days after she has had sex where the woman’s uterus becomes a potential crime scene she’s carrying around with her. Whenever I’ve talked to a person who believes this, they don’t try to convert me to their religion but tell me that it is possible to come to agree with them through secular reasoning. If this is true, it’s a remarkable coincidence that the only people who take the extreme pro-life position have certain very specific theological commitments, or are Republicans with strong tribal loyalties.
Perhaps you’re a moderate, and think that 6-week, or 15-week bans, with exceptions for rape and incest, are reasonable on policy grounds and can blunt the electoral impact of the abortion issue. This is highly unlikely. First of all, it’s important to note that, as of 2019, around 91% of abortions occurred under 13 weeks, with less than 1% over 21 weeks. There isn’t a lot of data on why women get abortions late in pregnancy, but in at least some cases it’s because something has gone horribly wrong.
The moderate pro-life position says it is the government that gets to determine how bad things have to get for the mother and unborn child before the woman is allowed to decide whether to continue her pregnancy. Think of an exception for the “health of the mother.” Does a 10% chance of risk of death qualify? 20%? What about loss of bladder control? Does it have to be a sure thing or simply a high enough risk? What probability does she have to have of ending up in a wheelchair? Moreover, what role should the quality of life the child is expected to have play in this? None, say pro-lifers, because worrying about this is “eugenics.” Like leftists who throw that word around, I’ve never seen an actual argument here, except something like it’s wrong to believe health is preferable to sickness? Little wonder most Americans don’t want people with such values to have any say over their reproductive decisions.
Pro-life activists know that exceptions can create loopholes, which is why they push to get rid of them completely, or make them as narrow as possible. Even if you had the perfect rule, you’d have to trust the doctor to know the current state of the law, and not simply decline to perform a procedure due to the risk of prosecution. An abortion ban with exceptions is seen by most Americans as simply laying down a marker saying that a woman’s health and ability to make her own decisions are now subject to bureaucratic negotiations.
This is why it isn’t all that relevant to point to polls showing that sometimes there can be support for late term bans. People tend to gravitate towards “moderate” positions as a kind of default. When they’ve been forced to confront what moderate pro-life positions mean in practice, they’ve recoiled. In Montana, which voted for Trump by 16 points in 2020, citizens rejected a measure that would have required doctors to perform medical care on infants that are born alive. After DeSantis signed the 15-week ban in Florida, a poll showed that 57% of voters opposed it, compared to 34% in favor. The Montana case is only the most extreme example of one referendum result after another confirming that people don’t want what pro-lifers are selling. They understand that giving government any role in regulating pregnancy is a slippery slope. As I’ve previously written,
I would add that the public is also legitimately concerned about slippery slopes here. After Dobbs came down, voters could see Republican politicians who had recently declared their solemn belief that life begins at conception suddenly switch to talking about only passing 15-week bans. Nobody is fooled. People understand that there is a religiously-motivated base of voters within the Republican coalition that wants to ban all abortions, and will never be satisfied with intermediate steps. One can say something similar about the pro-choice side. But if you make Americans choose between a slippery slope that leads to treating every miscarriage as a potential crime scene and one that leads to infanticide, they’re going to choose the latter.
For similar reasons, it doesn’t matter that in much of Europe there are late-term bans. People are much more likely to accept the status quo then they are to accept new restrictions placed by government. And most European countries don’t have religious fundamentalists with political power, always trying to push as far as they can on this issue.
Up to this point, I’ve said that abortion involves the “government” regulating pregnancy. Yet I believe that part of the reason women react so strongly to abortions bans is that they have certain intuitions about the kinds of men who want to take their choices away from them in this area of life. Much of the pro-life activist community is female, but conservative legislators are usually males that tend to be perceived as low status by wealthier and more educated Americans. They’re the kind of men who women are used to trying to avoid around the office and at family gatherings, and they’re freaked out by the thought of them taking too much of an interest in their sex lives. If you read feminist writers on this, the sense of disgust at these low status men is palpable. Here’s Jessica Valenti.
What makes this all so much worse is that men like these actually do think they know better than we do. In spite of their absolute mediocrity and near-unbelievable idiocy, these men truly believe they are the ones best suited to make decisions about our bodies and futures.
Kacsmaryk, with his self-satisfied smirk and Proud Boy haircut, is just the latest in a long line of men brimming with misogyny and undeserved power. Men like him have existed forever and they continue to be everywhere.
A few weeks ago, I watched a Tennessee Republican proudly declare that the state’s abortion ban will “protect the lives of babies,” and that “if we can protect the lives of mothers, we’re going to do that as much as possible.” This from a man so dense that in the very same speech, he said that babies grow in women’s “bellies.” That’s who is telling our daughters what they can and can’t do with their bodies and lives. The guy who talks about pregnancy like a fucking toddler.
We all know men like this: ridiculous and cruel, convinced of their own superior intelligence against all evidence to the contrary. But instead of simply being the biggest asshole in class or the former boss we recall while grimacing, they’re the judges, politicians and lobbyists who get to decide our futures. It’s humiliating, really.
I’d normally brush off this kind of critique as simply engaging in ad hominem attacks. Calling someone a white male usually isn’t an argument. But here it lands. Half of humanity bears the physical burdens and risks of continuing the species, and if we’re going to defer to the choices of women on any issue, it should be this one. The image of the fat, greasy, backwoods country lawyer in suspenders talking about the “baby in your belly, young lady” fills most women with revulsion.
Pro-life women are perceived differently. Most people expect women to be sentimental about issues involving children. Seeing a close up of an ultrasound, and noticing that it sort of looks like a baby, naturally invokes compassion in many of them. For a man to take an interest in a fetus that is not his own, in contrast, strikes people as weird, and likely to be less driven by compassion than a desire to punish and harm women. This may not be what’s driving all male pro-lifers, but it is clearly motivating a substantial portion of low status men.
Of course, the pro-life movement has its own moral intuitions. For decades, it has been sharing photos of bloody and dismembered fetuses. This certainly isn’t pleasant to look at, but most people simply don’t care all that much. They worry more about maintaining control over their own lives, and granting autonomy to their sisters and daughters, than saving the supposed “children” of strangers whose circumstances they know nothing about. Given that there’s no evidence we’re on the verge of a religious revival, the pro-life movement doesn’t have an answer to this.
For these reasons, I don’t think our politics will “move on” from abortion anytime soon. Even if, say, the national leaders of the Republican Party, wanted to focus on other things, they can’t control what judges, state legislators or individual members of congress do, and there is a class of fanatical activists that will keep pushing forward. Most culture war issues tend towards 50/50 because people don’t have direct experience with the topic involved and can revert to partisan cues. Few Americans are trans, find themselves victimized by an illegal immigrant, or get shot by police. These issues are abstractions most of the time. Pregnancy and childbirth can never be. A woman’s time on this planet is shaped and defined by decisions made about her reproductive health. You won’t be able to propagandize them into wanting to hand final authority over such choices to the state.
Conservatives like to troll liberals by asking “What is a woman?” In the next few election cycles, they’re going to find out.
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