By Dave Andrusko
Ross Douthat is a brilliant columnist appearing in (of all places) the New York Times. I find that I often agree with about 90% of his argument, only to part ways at some of his conclusions. Such was the case with “Divided by Abortion, United by Feminism.”
Douthat relies on a fascinating piece written last year by Jon Shields of Claremont McKenna College (another author you may find largely convincing only to part ways at various points). In this case Shields, writing in “Contemporary Sociology,” gently takes apart arguably the single most important book ever written about the abortion debate: Kristin Luker’s “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood.”
Many years ago we devoted multiple stories in an issue of NRL News to tackling Luker’s hugely influential thesis. Her book is one of the very few I’ve ever read twice.
In Luker’s famous conclusion, “While on the surface it is the embryo’s fate that seems to be at stake, the abortion debate is actually about the meaning of women’s lives” (emphasis in original). In other words, pro-lifers were drawn into activism (in Shields’ formulation of Luker’s argument) “because legal abortion is a referendum on their traditional view of motherhood. Abortion devalues women’s traditional roles as homemakers and mothers, which pro-lifers regard as natural and fulfilling.”
Of course there were and there are pro-life activists whose understanding of motherhood is “traditional.” But as we pointed lo those many years ago, that explanation was inadequate to answer a host of questions that arose instantly, beginning with the obvious fact that the Movement was already very divergent as far back in the 1970s and 1980s. The so-called “politics of motherhood” simply was not a driving force that explains why most people gave up huge chunks of their lives to fight for unborn babies.
Of course Douthat is more interested about what is taking place today, not 27 years ago when Luker’s book appeared. Shield’s conclusion, using results to a question from the National Election Survey (taken since 1980), is that “the average moderately pro-life citizen is a stronger supporter of gender equality than even the typical strongly pro-choice citizen was in the early 1980s.” Among the younger generation, Shields writes, any “divide over women’s roles nearly disappears entirely.”
This is good to know, but what has that to do with Douthat’s major interest in this column: why the debate over abortion persists undiminished even as other cultural flashpoint issues wane?
Douthat’s own answer is “The pro-life cause has proved unexpectedly resilient, in other words, not because millions of Americans are nostalgists for a world of stricter gender norms, but because they have convinced themselves that the opportunities the feminist revolution won for women can be sustained without unrestricted access to abortion.”
Yes and no, and there’s more to it. Younger pro-lifers (of whom there were a gazillion at the March for Life) simply do not buy into the crux of the pro-feminist orthodox: women as victims–before, now, and probably forever.
And because they do not see themselves as helpless pawns, they find the notion that abortion is “central to women’s autonomy” off-putting, strange, and deeply at odds with their sense that a wider universe exists of which their own planet is a part, not the whole.
That nostalgia for victimhood is why you see such an incredible tussle within the pro-abortion community over PPFA’s seeming bold (but in reality reactionary) rhetorical makeover: from “pro-choice” to “it’s all so complicated/who decides?”
Douthat believes that is (my words, not his) ingenious. Here’s his conclusion. The best “pro-choice rebuttal” to all those young people you see at the March for Life—and I would add all those who are doing the unglamorous daily labor in NRLC’s 50 state affiliates and in its Washington, DC office that is essential to win—is to charge them [us] with being
“too utopian, too radical, too naïve. This means that the abortion rights movement, once utopian in its own fashion, is now at its most effective when it speaks the language of necessary evils, warning Americans that while it might be pretty to think so, the equality they take for granted simply can’t be separated from a practice they find troubling.”
Really? I think not.
You can engage the culture in ways almost as numerous as the hairs on your head. What younger—particularly but not exclusively female—pro-lifers are proclaiming boldly is that however pro-abortionists reformulate their “brand,” it remains firmly stuck in a 1970s rut.
They simply refuse to accept the either/or premise—my life OR my child’s life–which undergirds every argument pro-abortionists make. And because they don’t, pro-life women are extremely dangerous to pro-abortionists.
The irony is, of course, that our benighted opposition habitually accuses us of choosing “simplistic” answers. But what can be less complicated, less nuanced—in other words, more simplistic–than to say that killing a defenseless unborn child “solves” a woman’s problems?
It is our Movement that takes not the road less traveled by pro-abortionists but the road they never travel: finding win-win solutions for women in crisis situations.
I suppose you could call this “idealistic” or “naïve.” But what could possibly have been more idealistic or naïve in the early 20th Century than to believe that African-Americans would ever be afforded equal rights?
It is unfortunately true that until the end of time we will hear that injustice “X” must be tolerated as a “necessary evil.” Why? If it is eliminated, look how hard what follows will be on [fill in the blank].
It is only after the fact, after the light has illuminated a dark patch that we come to realize that we never should have treated these people so unjustly in the first place. That it was WRONG!
And at that point—the “aha moment”— justice will well up like water,and righteousness like a mighty stream.
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