“There must be a way to make abortion rights be about love,” the journalist Anthea McTeirnan said to me when we met in Dublin in 2015, just before Ireland’s referendum on marriage equality. Same-sex marriage was going to win big, she believed, because the campaign was all about love and compassion and inclusion, not just abstract legal rights. People could see that their friends and neighbors and relatives simply wanted to express their commitment to their partners the way straight people do. The campaign reflected that spirit, full of joy and humor; its guiding spirit was the sweet and popular drag queen and bar owner Panti Bliss. And, as it turned out, McTeirnan was right: That May, the referendum won by 62 to 38 percent, making Ireland the first country in the world to legalize same-sex marriage through a popular vote.
Can abortion rights be framed as a story about love? I’ve been thinking about McTeirnan’s words in the wake of the May 25 referendum on repealing the Irish Constitution’s Eighth Amendment, which equated the life of a pregnant woman with that of “the unborn” and banned abortion under almost every circumstance. Everyone I spoke with thought that the results of the referendum would be close. Thus, the magnitude of support for repealing the Eighth Amendment—66 to 34 percent—came as a huge surprise. It was almost an exact reversal of the results in the 1983 referendum that passed the Eighth Amendment in the first place.
It’s easy to talk about marriage equality in terms of love; abortion and love is a harder connection to make. The right to end a pregnancy is about many things: saving women’s lives and health and even their fertility, for example. US Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun’s decision in Roe v. Wade was very concerned with the rights of doctors to care for their patients and the ways that the United States’ strict abortion laws put sick women at risk. Most people—including seven elderly Supreme Court justices, five of them nominated by Republican presidents—could see that.
But, at bottom, abortion is about a woman’s individual freedom, her (cold word) autonomy—her right, you might say, to love herself. Autonomy may be the prime quality we value and reward in men—our archetypal heroes, whether cowboys or entrepreneurs, don’t let anyone get in their way—but in women, it looks to many people like selfishness. Women are supposed to sacrifice for others, especially for children, even children who do not, properly speaking, exist. Putting others first is what we tell women love is. What, you had an abortion so that you could go to school on a scholarship, accept a promotion, move away from your hometown, leave your boyfriend, wait until you “felt ready”? You had an abortion because you just don’t want children? Monster. Next you’ll be saying you had an abortion so that you could go on a fancy trip to Europe or fit into your prom dress.
Viewed through the lens of rights, abortion doesn’t appear a promising candidate for a love makeover. It’s more like freedom of speech, a bedrock individual right that says to the government: You can’t tell me what to do—my reasons are my reasons, and that’s enough. That understanding is why Roe connects abortion to the right to privacy, even though, as abortion opponents often remark, no such right is explicitly enumerated in the Constitution. We just feel, maybe more so in the United States than in some other places, that society can only push us around so much. The legalization of abortion marks a major extension of this privilege to women, and 45 years after Roe, it’s obvious that many people think that was a huge mistake.