The Susan B. Anthony List, and the pros and cons of single-issue politics

After you've read the New Yorker article Paul Moses recommended below, consider checking out Kelefa Sanneh's story in the October 27 issue on prolife politics, "The Intensity Gap."

Sanneh focuses on Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the prolife political advocacy group the Susan B. Anthony List, to explore how prolife convictions translate into election strategizing. Knowing that the magazine tends to presume a strong prochoice perspective on the part of its readers, I was wary, but although Sanneh's approach does assume some unfamiliarity with sincere prolife principles -- imagine if you will people who feel very strongly that abortion is wrong -- he is respectful and fair in his descriptions of how Dannenfelser and colleagues work and what their motives are. What emerges is a fascinating picture of how hard it is to make any principle, however strongly held, a measure of political success, and how compromising even single-issue politics can be.

If you're not worn out from having lived through it all, Sanneh's rundown of how we got from Roe v. Wade to the polarized state of abortion politics today is helpful and clear. "Like many other political issues," he writes, "the fight over abortion has grown increasingly partisan, which means that often you support the cause by supporting the party." Dannenfelser is forthright about her support for the GOP as such: "If we're close [to a Democratic majority in Congress]," she tells Sanneh, "I can't in good conscience, for the cause of life, support even a great prolife Democrat."

That is an uncomfortable position, but not an irrational one, as Sanneh demonstrates. If you are truly concerned with a particular single issue, it pays to be pragmatic about what progress on that issue will require, and in the case of abortion progress depends more on how a particular legislator can be pressured to vote than on what he or she professes to believe. People who should know better (mostly op-ed columnists) wax nostalgic about bipartisanship and cooperation, but give the SBA List credit for seeing how things really work (or fail to work) in Washington.

Furthermore, Sanneh finds, in this case, supporting the party -- that is, working to get Republicans elected, so that they may pass legislation that restricts abortion -- sometimes means not talking too much about abortion. Sanneh describes a push poll conducted by the SBA List (though he does not use the term) designed to appeal to voters' "general opposition to Obamacare." They have also sent out misleading "Public Health Alert" mailers -- spoiler, the "public health threat" children in your area face is abortion -- and then there's the "right to lie" case in Ohio, which is not exactly an uplifting story of principled political activism.

It's an uneasy marriage: the cause of protecting innocent life and the anything-but-innocent pursuit of political strategizing. But one must move beyond the purity of moral absolutes to make incremental progress through the law. Sanneh opens by describing a bill called "The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortions after twenty weeks of gestation." It was supported by Senator Lindsey Graham, who said, "At twenty weeks, people have been born and survived." That is not true, something Sanneh does not point out right away, although he does later explain that "the limit of twenty weeks was carefully chosen to be just short of viability, so that if the Supreme Court wants to uphold the law it will have to revise the regimen it created forty-one years ago" with Roe v. Wade. Like the mid-1990s attempts to pass a partial-birth-abortion ban, this is a carefully crafted political maneuver whose aims go beyond what is spelled out in the bill itself (especially when you consider, as Sanneh notes, that Graham promoted the bill knowing it would never come to a vote).

After reading Sanneh's piece, I am no more convinced of the soundness of a single-issue approach to voting than I was before. But I am persuaded that such an approach can be shrewd. It is possible for voters in New York state today to decide how to vote solely on the basis of abortion laws -- Cuomo favors liberalizing them further; Astorino favors restrictions; the partisan balance of the Senate could determine success either way. It is a case when supporting the cause could well mean supporting the party. The trouble, as ever, is that supporting the party involves casting a vote for a broad agenda, and there are many other issues at stake and many reasons to hesistate about supporting either major party. I was encouraged, at Mass this week, to cast my vote "for a culture of life," but I wish it were easier to check off that option on the ballot.

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Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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