Hundreds of activists erupted into cheers at the Rhode Island Statehouse after the failure of an abortion-rights bill (CNS photo/Brian Fraga, Rhode Island Catholic)

These days it’s easy to give up hope that reasonable public discourse on abortion is possible. I admit to long suffering from what might be called abortion-politics fatigue, an ailment that flairs to acute levels as elections draw near and single-issue activists get louder, depicting their opponents as dangerous extremists. My condition, characterized by discouragement and bouts of cynicism, likely affects millions of voters given how out-of-sync abortion debates are with how most Americans approach the issue.

Social conservatives (who helped elect Donald Trump president because of his promise to appoint judges who would chip away at abortion rights and potentially overturn Roe v. Wade) are emboldened after the passage in Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, and Ohio of so-called fetal heartbeat bills that essentially ban abortions starting at six weeks after conception, a time when many women don’t know they are pregnant. Last week, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed a bill that would outlaw abortion at any stage in a woman’s pregnancy. Alabama’s law does not allow exceptions for pregnancies that result from rape or incest. Doctors who perform abortions could face ninety-nine years in prison. (Even anti-abortion Christian broadcaster Pat Robertson called it “an extreme law.”) Supporters of such legislation anoint themselves as paragons of prolife values even as they slash Medicaid, which pays for nearly half of all hospital deliveries, and do nothing to address the fact that the United States is alone among modern industrial nations in failing to guarantee paid family leave. USA Today columnist and CNN commentator Kirsten Powers, who in the past has challenged pro-choice organizations and argued for the Democratic Party to be more welcoming to prolife politicians, wrote last week:

Am I still a “pro-life” Christian? My faith is as strong as ever, but today I’d say I’m like many Americans who see themselves both as pro-choice and pro-life. What I do know for sure is that I care about all lives, and that includes the lives of women contemplating abortion. The anti-abortion movement pays lip service to caring for women, but what the recent spate of laws shows us is that in the end there is only one thing they care about: the embryo or fetus. The lives of young rape or incest victims are accepted as collateral damage, and women who want to protect their health are cast as sinister actors incapable of searching their own consciences for a way forward when a wanted pregnancy goes awry.

The Democratic Party and some progressive activists have responded to growing extremism on the right with their own orthodoxy, imposing purity tests on party members that are miles from the “safe, legal, and rare” framework coined by Bill Clinton in 1996, or even President Obama’s 2009 call for civility and common ground on abortion. “So let us work together to reduce the number of women seeking abortions, let’s reduce unintended pregnancies,” Obama said during his commencement address at the University of Notre Dame a decade ago. “Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded in sound science, but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.” This kind of sensible appeal is rare these days. In 2017, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez and Sen. Bernie Sanders were criticized by abortion-rights advocates for appearing at a rally for a Democratic mayoral candidate who had sponsored bills to restrict abortion. The backlash from pro-choice leaders was so intense that Perez quickly put out a statement asserting that abortion rights are “not negotiable” for Democrats, and that Democrats should speak with “one voice” on the issue. Nancy Pelosi jumped in with a reminder that a broad, inclusive agenda for progressives also means making room for those who don’t hold a monolithic view on abortion. “This is the Democratic party. This is not a rubber-stamp party,” Pelosi told the Washington Post. “I grew up Nancy D’Alesandro, in Baltimore, Maryland, in Little Italy, in a very devout Catholic family, fiercely patriotic, proud of our town and heritage, and staunchly Democratic,” she added, referring to the fact that she is the daughter and sister of former mayors of that city. “Most of those people—my family, extended family—are not pro-choice. You think I’m kicking them out of the Democratic Party?”

Pelosi’s approach feels out of fashion at a time when younger leaders in the Democratic Party and a new generation of activists on the left are quick to question even pro-choice politicians they fear are not pro-choice enough. In 2017, organizers for the Women’s March removed a prolife group called the New Wave Feminists from their website and list of partners after the Atlantic published an article about prolife women who were planning to attend. In a recent New York Times article detailing Joe Biden’s abortion record over the decades—which, early in his congressional career, included votes to limit abortion that he later changed his mind on—Ilyse Hogue, president of Naral Pro-Choice America, warned that Biden is “going to have to really get with the times.” After New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that removed nearly all restrictions on abortion and protected the right to abortion after the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy, One World Trade Center was illuminated in pink, a celebratory gesture that struck many as tone deaf. Then there was Rep. Brian Sims, a Democratic state representative from Philadelphia, who filmed himself bullying an elderly woman and three young girls peacefully protesting outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, a stunt that only strengthens the same political and cultural forces he opposes. 

As a Catholic progressive who believes in the sanctity of life—from the unborn in the womb to the undocumented immigrant to the dying person in hospice—I have resisted using the label “prolife” to define myself. The term has become a single-issue, partisan-identity marker associated with the marriage of political convenience between Catholics and evangelicals, and the rise of the religious right, in the 1980s. In the decades prior to Roe, the politics of abortion didn’t break down neatly along partisan lines. There were pro-choice Republicans and prolife Democrats, while the prolife movement was not even exclusively defined by a conservative political ideology.

“For the most part, the public rhetoric of the movement tended to be grounded in liberalism as seen through a mid-20th-century Catholic lens,” the historian Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn, told Emma Green of the Atlantic for her article “The Progressive Roots of the Pro-Life Movement”: “It’s New Deal, Great Society liberalism.” The politics of abortion began shifting in a noticeable way before the 1972 presidential election, when Richard Nixon (and his Catholic advisor Pat Buchanan) recognized its usefulness as a wedge issue to peel Catholic voters from the Democratic Party. Nixon won reelection with a majority of Catholic voters backing him, setting the stage for other Republicans around the country to unite Catholics (and later evangelicals) behind the party.

The challenge now is to create space for the millions of Americans who don’t see in either New York or Alabama’s abortion laws full recognition of human dignity.

Given the complexity of abortion, it’s not surprising that plenty of people are reluctant to adopt only “prolife” or “pro-choice” labels to describe their views. In a 2011 Public Religion Research Institute poll, seven in ten Americans said the term “pro-choice” described them somewhat or very well, while nearly two-thirds simultaneously said the term “prolife” described them somewhat or very well. In a 2015 Vox poll of 1,067 randomly selected adults, 39 percent selected both “pro-choice” and “prolife” as describing their views on abortion. Cathleen Kaveny underscored these tensions in Commonweal last year. “On the one hand, 3-D ultrasounds have strengthened our perception of the unborn as ‘one of us,’ while on the other, the #MeToo movement has heightened our understanding of the radical vulnerability of women’s bodily integrity,” Kaveny wrote. “If we hold these two propositions together, we are going to see abortion as a unique legal and moral problem, because it does not fall neatly under one normative description.”

The increasing rancor and tribalism of our partisan politics leaves little space for those who do try to hold those two propositions together. It didn’t have to be like this. There was a hopeful, all-too-brief period after Barack Obama’s election when there appeared to be some momentum toward breaking the stalemate. In the fall of 2008, Third Way, a centrist think tank in Washington, brought together moderate evangelicals and secular progressives to discuss divisive social issues. Influenced by Third Way’s efforts, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), a member of the Congressional pro-choice caucus, introduced a comprehensive abortion-reduction legislative package with Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), then a member of the Congressional prolife caucus. At a press conference touting the bill in the summer of 2009, leaders from Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America stood side by side with moderate Catholics and theologically conservative evangelicals. “It may not be an end to the culture war,” Amy Sullivan, a prominent religion commentator and evangelical wrote in the Washington Post, “but it looks a lot like a cease-fire.”

Then, less than two years later, battles over the Affordable Care Act reignited the culture-war flames. Michigan’s Bart Stupak, an anti-abortion Catholic and then a House Democrat, offered a controversial amendment that he argued simply codified the longstanding Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding for abortion. Catholic bishops and several moderate Democrats supported the provision, but many liberals viewed it as an obstacle that would restrict public money from being spent on any plans covering abortion. The Stupak amendment passed the House but was not included in final legislation. President Obama signed an executive order affirming a ban on federal funding of abortion. Catholic bishops still opposed the final health-care bill over abortion funding concerns even as other prominent Catholics, including Sr. Carol Keehan of the Catholic Health Association, rallied to support it. Ten of the seventeen anti-abortion Democrats who voted in favor of the ACA later lost their seats in the 2010 midterm elections. Whatever fragile coalition there was among moderates on either side of the abortion question dissolved amid the acrimony.

Common-ground efforts on abortion, at least in the political realm, seem even less likely today. The nearly 80 percent of evangelicals who voted for Trump did so largely because of his pledges to appoint prolife judges. The departure from the Supreme Court of Justice Anthony Kennedy—a swing vote who sided with the court’s liberal bloc on abortion cases—coupled with the appointments of Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh unburden conservatives of the motivation to build bridges with opposing voices. New fetal heartbeat bills and Alabama’s ban are unlikely to survive court challenges, but as tactical maneuvers they’re establishing the message that overturning Roe is possible. And Trump is drawing on his demagogic instinct to distort truth and sow fear. “New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth,” Trump said during his State of the Union address, ignoring the fact that the New York law allows abortion after twenty-four weeks of pregnancy only if “there is an absence of fetal viability, or the abortion is necessary to protect the patient’s life or health.” At a Wisconsin rally last month, he lied in far more graphic terms. “The baby is born,” he said. “The mother meets with the doctor. They take care of the baby. They wrap the baby beautifully. And then the doctor and the mother determine whether or not they will execute the baby.” Infanticide has not suddenly been legalized, as the president would like people to believe. Terminating a pregnancy at or after twenty-four weeks of gestation, widely viewed as the time of viability, almost always happens because of severe fetal anomalies or serious maternal health risks. Research shows these abortions make up less than 1 percent of all abortions. But this won’t stop the Republican Party from using tragic cases for political gain. The New York Times reported last week that anti-abortion political action committees are “vastly outspending Democrats on digital advertising on the issue, devoting hundreds of thousands of dollars so far this year on targeted Facebook campaigns that are reaching voters in battleground states.”

It’s not as if policies for reducing the likelihood of abortions are untenable. Politicians who disagree over the legality of abortion, for example, could come together on expanding the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which covers 9 million children from low-income families. Instead, last summer, the GOP-led House of Representatives revoked $7 billion in funding reserved for the program. Paid parental leave policies that are in line with those of other advanced countries, quality child care, tax policies that help struggling families rather than billionaires, and stronger laws to end pregnancy discrimination in the workplace—all would help create a culture in which abortion becomes less frequent. And despite the bitter and seemingly intractable differences between opposing sides on Roe, there is recent precedent for cooperation: in a 2014 Supreme Court case, pro-choice and prolife interests—including the progressive National Women’s Law Center and anti-abortion groups like Concerned Women for America and Democrats for Life—filed amicus briefs on behalf of a pregnant UPS worker who, advised by her doctor not to lift heavy packages, was refused light duty by the company, put on unpaid leave, and stripped of her health benefits.

Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy, who supports restrictions on abortion but has written widely on the need for common-ground solutions, argued in a Washington Post op-ed last week that “extremism in defense of the prenatal child ought to be paired with extremism in support of women.” Along with paid family leave, a more robust slate of policies is needed to support women and mothers, he wrote, including funding for universal prekindergarten, a graduated scale of direct subsidies for child care, dramatic reforms of the adoption industry, and increased funding for the foster care system. In a saner political moment, pro-choice and anti-abortion lawmakers would be capable of coming together on at least some of these ideas. We are not in that moment.

So at least for a time, those who believe a better discourse is possible will need to focus energy outside of traditional politics. Progressives shouldn’t adopt the culture-war tactics of their opponents, but there might be something to learn from the success of the religious right in recognizing that politics is often downstream from culture. While liberals have long focused on big elections and big court cases, decades ago social conservatives invested in local, grassroots initiatives far from Washington. During an election year especially, the work of creating at least some momentum behind a movement that respects the dignity of all life, and that cultivates mindsets that seek paths forward through complexity, will have to be done in towns, schools, houses of worship, and public squares where disagreement is respected and dialogue is honored. Twitter and cable news will generate heat and noise. Politicians will offer up false choices until there are reasons for them to do things better. The challenge now is to create space for the millions of Americans who don’t see in either New York or Alabama’s abortion laws full recognition of human dignity. Until the voices that can change this narrative are heard, the outcomes will continue to be predictably disappointing.

John Gehring is Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, an advocacy group in Washington, and a former associate director for media relations at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is author of The Francis Effect: A Radical Pope’s Challenge to the American Catholic Church (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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