The day Dobbs was handed down, I happened to be lunching with a new friend who was upset and angry over the decision. She’s a libertarian and strongly pro-choice. I said “Sorry,” and meant it. Not that I agreed it was a bad decision (I was in the mushy middle with Justice Roberts), but just that I understood her feelings and sympathized. She, in turn, has lately come to see that pro-lifers have many good arguments, even if, at the end of the day, she didn’t find them compelling enough to change her mind.
That mutually respectful conversation on a fraught topic probably belongs in a museum in today’s bitterly divided country, but both of us have changed over the past six years. Alarmed and repelled by the extremism and illiberalism gripping both sides of the political spectrum, we’ve consciously sought to be countercultural—to find common ground with those we previously shunned or dismissed. We’re part of a cross-partisan group that meets semiannually to consider how best to defend liberal democracy from its many enemies.
Because I’ve become something of a centrist, my views about abortion have changed a bit (probably just enough to make both sides angry with me). Still, as someone who spent decades in the pro-life world but who has many new pro-choice allies, perhaps I can shed some light on our predicament by highlighting what I think are blind spots or misunderstandings on both sides, and also some possible areas of agreement.
Pro-choicers err if they think that the other side is not truly concerned about unborn life but merely seizes upon this issue to keep women subservient. In fact, among Americans 50 and older, women outnumber men among those who identify as pro-life. It’s hard to credit that all of those American women, most of whom came of age in a feminist, post-Roe era, are motivated by a desire to subjugate themselves.
Further, looking at polls and arguing that most people are pro-choice is misleading. Polls on abortion are of limited utility because people interpret labels differently. As another friend put it to me recently: “I’m pro-life and my wife is pro-choice but when it comes to legal limits on abortion, we’re in exactly the same place.” Nor are beliefs about when life begins dispositive. One in three Americans believes that life begins at conception but that the decision to abort must be the woman’s alone. Most Americans, like most Europeans, are comfortable with liberal access to abortion in the first 12 weeks, and progressively uneasy with access later in pregnancy.
As someone who has been part of the pro-life movement, I can say with some confidence that what motivates many pro-lifers is a deep conviction that they are standing up for the most vulnerable members of the human family—the unborn. Far from taking a right away, they think they are simply recognizing the rights of an oppressed minority. Some even see themselves as the successors to the anti-slavery movement.
Some pro-choice advocates can slide into a troubling nonchalance about life itself. A July 4 letter to the editor of the New York Times put it this way:
The extreme laws triggered by the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade are predicated on the religious belief in a soul at conception. With the large percentage of pregnancies ending in miscarriage, the God these lawmakers believe in certainly works in mysterious ways.
But that elides the question of agency. Nature delivers all kinds of miseries that take the lives of infants and others, from crib death to earthquakes to meningitis. That doesn’t mean we take infanticide in stride. Intentionally taking a life is a grave matter. It may in very rare circumstances be justified, but it is never something to shrug off.
On the other hand, pro-lifers who focus exclusively on saving the lives of unborn babies overlook the insurmountable reality that pregnant mothers and babies cannot be unlinked. There is no analog to pregnancy; no other situation in which one person’s right to life depends upon another being a physical host for nine months and undergoing the rigors of labor and birth. A baby’s welfare depends completely on the mother’s desire to protect and nurture that life. If, to cite just one of many possible examples, she is negligent by drinking to excess while pregnant, she is likely to give birth to a baby with fetal alcohol syndrome. FAS is associated with brain damage, deformities, heart and kidney defects, and scores of other pathologies. Forcing a woman to carry a pregnancy she doesn’t want carries risks for both mother and child.
For the past decade, I’ve been involved in a private charity that provides assistance to Jewish women with crisis pregnancies (there is an abundance of such Christian groups). Members of the founding board of directors were both pro-life and pro-choice but united by the desire to provide alternatives. We didn’t lobby to change laws. We just helped women who wanted our aid. Some had been abandoned by husbands or boyfriends. Many had financial strains and other children. Some were in abusive relationships. All were incredibly grateful to find support during a difficult time. Some pro-life organizations have done similar work, but much more is needed, especially post Dobbs. It’s impossible to say how many women who abort would not do so if they had financial and other support, but it’s something both sides can agree is an unmixed good.
Another thing the pro-life movement could expend some energy considering is the kind of women who were having abortions in the past couple of decades. While abortions in aggregate fell dramatically since 1990, the percentage of poor or near-poor women obtaining abortions increased just as sharply. According to the Alan B. Guttmacher Institute, the share of poor women obtaining abortions rose from 27 percent in 2000 to 49 percent in 2014, and 75 percent of women terminating pregnancies were poor or low-income. Among the most common reasons women give for seeking abortions is financial inability to raise a(nother) child. Poor women are also five times more likely than their wealthier sisters to have an unintended pregnancy. More laws criminalizing abortion will inevitably mean more children born into poverty. Pro-lifers will say that a life of poverty is better than no life at all, but realistically, we have to consider that a child unwillingly carried to term (unless placed for adoption) is also more likely to be abused and neglected than a wanted child. An enhanced safety net for poor parents seems a necessary response to a post-Dobbs world. It won’t prevent every sad outcome, but pro-lifers thinking of the babies who will now not be aborted as well as pro-choicers thinking of the women who will bear them should be able to agree on quickly relieving the financial stress on poor mothers (and, in some cases, poor fathers).
Another possible area of agreement is contraception. Whatever their religious beliefs, age, sex, or party, 92 percent of Americans approve of contraception. Yet about half of women who seek abortions say they didn’t use birth control in the month before they conceived.
Why don’t poor women use contraception as well as middle and upper class women? Probably in part because they come from less organized homes and aren’t as likely to have a family doctor. Without career plans, they may not feel they have as much to lose from an unplanned pregnancy as wealthier women. Cost is also a factor. Forty percent of poor women would switch to a different form of birth control if price were not a factor. Condoms are cheap but unreliable, with a failure rate of about 13 percent. To obtain pills or other hormonal contraceptives, most states still require a doctor visit.
We can easily do better. As the R Street Institute has urged, all 50 states can make birth control pills available over the counter (18 states currently permit pharmacists to dispense them). The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians have endorsed OTC sale of hormonal contraceptives including pills, vaginal rings, patches, and long-acting injections. ACOG confirms that they are safe for all age groups and do not require a physical exam. Women with health insurance (including Medicaid) can obtain them free of charge. Here’s something to raise an eyebrow: Both Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have expressed support for making contraceptives available over the counter.
Finally, men have a role in every pregnancy and must be required to take responsibility. DNA testing makes denying paternity impossible and men should be legally required to support their children, with their full-time presence and marriage to the child’s mother where possible, but in any case with their money and time. The era of the shotgun wedding is gone and most feminists think that’s progress because it was fused to the stigma of unwed pregnancy. And maybe we’re all indeed better off. But in our stigma-free age, we still have women still carrying the burdens of unwed pregnancy and single motherhood and men often skipping off with no consequences at all. A little rebalancing of burdens would seem to be an area of agreement for pro-lifers and pro-choicers.
Is it remotely likely that we’ll find some common ground in our response to Dobbs? Probably not. But consider that members of Congress were recently able to craft gun control legislation after decades of political rigor mortis. We must keep looking for paths to compromise or we will have a bleak future.