Our Families, Ourselves

Our Families, Ourselves

Eyal Press is working on a book about the abortion wars in Buffalo, New York.


To many liberals and feminists, George W. Bush’s mishandling of the war on terrorism and reckless economic agenda are not the only reasons to oppose him. There is also a more intimate fear. “President Bush has said he will model nominees after Justices Scalia and Thomas–the Court’s most vocal opponents of the Roe decision,” warns a fundraising letter circulated recently by NARAL Pro-Choice America.

It’s an understandable concern. But what if the principle animating it–that every woman should be assured the basic right to control her body–has already been so severely compromised as to render Roe meaningless for millions of Americans? And what if part of the responsibility for this lies with the very groups entrusted to serve as uncompromising advocates of reproductive rights?

In his new book, Bearing Right, William Saletan argues that the struggle for abortion rights has already been settled–only the victor is not who you might think it is. Thirty years after the Supreme Court issued its historic ruling in Roe, abortion remains legal in all fifty states. Yet according to Saletan, a political correspondent for Slate, it is not liberals but conservatives who have won the abortion war.

The reason is that the struggle for reproductive freedom has been repackaged in terms that would be unrecognizable to the feminists who fought to have abortion legalized during the 1960s. Back then, the struggle was about empowering women to control their bodies and lead independent lives. Today, Saletan argues, it is about limiting government power and affirming the authority not of women but of families. The terms of debate are distinctly conservative, he notes, and the irony is that the pro-choice movement crafted the script itself.

To explain how this came about, Saletan takes us into the world of political consultants and strategists, a world whose intricacies can often cause a reader’s eyes to glaze over. Fortunately, Saletan is a lucid writer who understands the value of brevity. The story begins in Little Rock, Arkansas, where, in 1957, President Eisenhower famously dispatched 1,200 federal troops to protect nine black children from an angry mob intent on preventing them from attending the all-white Central High School. To liberals, the freedom in that battle clearly belonged to the nine black students exercising their civil rights. But in Arkansas and much of the South, Saletan reminds us, it belonged just as unmistakably to white parents seeking to educate their children without government interference.

Fast-forward three decades to 1986, and this same principle would resonate in a very different context. That year, pro-choice activists gathered in Little Rock to strategize over how to defeat a pro-life ballot measure that proposed banning all public funding for abortion. Arkansas had a Democratic governor at the time, a smooth-talking moderate from Hope named William Jefferson Clinton. But though Clinton reportedly hoped the measure would fail, the future President in him sensed its popularity and refused to oppose it.

How, then, to defeat the measure? Some feminists advocated launching a campaign focusing on the women who would suffer most from a funding ban, “the poorest of the poor.” The trouble is that surveys showed a majority of Americans opposed using tax dollars to fund abortions for poor women, a view rooted as much in antigovernment and antitax sentiment as in pro-life beliefs (tellingly, opposition spiked when the phrase “women on welfare” was tossed in). Waging such a struggle might rally the faithful–“all fourteen feminists,” one activist from Little Rock joked–but it was also guaranteed to fail.

Yet perhaps there was an alternative. A little-known political strategist named Harrison Hickman had one in mind. Born and raised in North Carolina, Hickman was a Democrat with an intuitive grasp of the Bible Belt’s mores. Unlike many of the feminists whose cause he’d been enlisted to advance, he understood that while a campaign on behalf of reproductive freedom for poor women would get nowhere, one framed around suspicion of government and respect for parental sovereignty might. And so, under Hickman’s guidance, pro-choicers altered the message. A NOW radio ad soon warned voters that if taxpayers refused to subsidize abortions, they could end up footing the bill for even more expensive pregnancies and children. Hickman and another consultant aired a commercial that depicted a chaste 14-year-old virgin who was raped on her way home from school. The victim was shown sobbing in her mother’s arms; a gray-haired physician then explained to the family that he couldn’t help terminate the resulting pregnancy. “Imagine,” a narrator explained, “the government says they’ll make the decision. Never mind the circumstances. You, your doctor, your preacher, your daughter have no say in this personal, private tragedy.”

The ad said nothing about reproductive rights or poor women, which was no accident. “Our goal must be to redefine the issue away from a question of rights, to one of government intrusion, privacy,” Hickman counseled. The ballot measure in Arkansas was defeated, and shortly afterward Kate Michelman, the head of NARAL, hired Hickman as a consultant. By 1987, the two had sifted through the polling data and settled on a potent new slogan aimed at ordinary Americans. In place of the old question, “Are you for or against abortion?” came a new one, “Who Decides–You or Them?”–you being the pregnant woman, them being politicians poking their noses into the family realm.

It was feminism dressed up in libertarian drag, and its effect was magical. In Alabama, only 42 percent of voters endorsed a woman’s right to an abortion, but 71 percent agreed that the matter was “best left up to a woman and her doctor without government interference.” Eighty percent of Americans nationwide concurred when the issue was framed this way.

Only there was a catch. For as Saletan notes, the definition of “you” in the question, “who decides?” could vary, referring not only to the pregnant woman but, as conservatives soon began arguing, to parents, boyfriends and other outside parties. Despite Hickman’s clever blurring of the issue in Arkansas, moreover, framing abortion as a matter of limiting government intrusion dovetailed naturally with insuring that tax dollars weren’t spent on the procedure. In 1989, Douglas Wilder ran for governor of Virginia and, appealing to mainstream voters just as NARAL had, outlined a new centrist stance: for legal abortion, against public funding, for parental consent laws. Back in Washington, some in NARAL were appalled, but Wilder was singing a tune Hickman had composed. Soon, candidates across the country began singing it as well. “Read my lips, no public funds for abortion,” boasted one “pro-choice” candidate. “I voted for parental consent.” Appropriately, it fell to Bill Clinton to distill the new philosophy into a single sentence. “While I have also supported restrictions on public funding and a parental notification requirement for minors,” he explained, “I think the government should impose no further restrictions.”

Feminists thus won the battle but lost the war, ceding to antigovernment, “pro-family” conservatives the power to define what reproductive freedom means. The result is a two-tiered system that has preserved “choice” only for affluent and middle-class women unaffected by the bevy of restrictions (waiting periods, parental consent laws, Medicaid bans) that states have passed in recent years, a situation for which Saletan suggests the pro-choice movement is partly to blame. Before Douglas Wilder ran for governor of Virginia, he notes, NARAL had never endorsed a candidate who embraced parental notice laws. Yet the group endorsed Wilder, and in the years to come would frequently back moderates with similar views.

Saletan’s argument is so carefully documented, and so insightful, that nobody on either side of the abortion debate will be able to dismiss it lightly. His book will likely stand as the most important study of abortion politics since the sociologist Kristin Luker’s 1984 classic, Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. His conclusion that conservatives have won the abortion war, however, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Consider a statement that appears in his own introduction, where he identifies the two “politically defeated extremes of the debate–on one side, opposition to legal abortion, and on the other, insistence on abortion rights with public funding and without parental control.”

It takes a second to realize that one of the “politically defeated” extremes Saletan has just consigned to the dustbin of history happens to be the pro-life view. If, as he claims, conservatives have won the abortion war, the victory must seem awfully hollow to people who believe the real issue isn’t access–there were over a million legal abortions performed in the United States last year, after all–but saving the unborn. To people like former Operation Rescue leader Randall Terry, who once spearheaded the most vibrant grassroots conservative movement in America, claiming victory would seem absurd. Terry’s name does not appear in the book, nor do the stories of the thousands of embittered pro-life activists furious that virtually no Republicans talk openly about outlawing abortion these days.

It’s not that Saletan is unaware of this. He notes, for example, how George W. Bush bowed to reality during the 2000 presidential campaign, emphasizing parental notification and other restrictions (just as Al Gore did) while suggesting that banning abortion outright should be left “to the Congress, if America is ever ready for a constitutional amendment.” He also shows how, even in conservative states like Virginia and Texas, candidates who propose outright bans on abortion lose. But if this is so, the losers in the abortion war surely aren’t only, or even primarily, liberals. Saletan documents one side of the story–the pragmatic compromises made by pro-choicers–but leaves out the other: the collapse of extremist groups like Operation Rescue, which once had the power to shut down whole cities, and the subsequent emergence of a violent antiabortion underground. The latter development may be disquieting to liberals. But, as is nearly always true when social movements turn toward violence, it is a sign not of strength but of frustration and despair.

The picture gets even darker for pro-life absolutists when one considers the unintended consequences of some of the restrictions imposed in recent years. As Saletan notes, studies by the Alan Guttmacher Institute have shown that when parents learn of their daughters’ pregnancies, the vast majority urge them not to bear children but to have abortions. Another study found that one-fourth of abortion patients said they were having the procedure because their husbands or boyfriends wanted it. Parental consent laws and other efforts to expand the definition of “you” in the question “who decides?,” in other words, may result in fewer babies being born, not fewer abortions. Saletan quotes the sociologist Carol Joffe, who has pointed out that for poor women the choice most out of reach these days is arguably not terminating a pregnancy but becoming a mother. Financial penalties for women on welfare who have children, family caps and policies that encourage the use of Norplant all “restrict poor women’s ability to choose childbearing” (an odd set of policies for a Republican Party supposedly wedded to family values).

Saletan does not shy away from highlighting these ironies. What matters to him, though, are the principles framing the debate, and those principles, he claims, are conservative. But this is true only if one equates conservatism with what Saletan christens “Reagan’s Law”: the notion that as government expands, liberty contracts. This is indeed a sacred principle for the libertarian wing of the Republican Party. But it is nothing of the sort for the wing represented today by the religious right: social conservatives who champion order over freedom in the personal and cultural realms. As anyone who has lived in America since 1980 is well aware, conservatives of this hue want to invert Reagan’s Law in numerous areas of life, empowering the government to remove pornography from the airwaves, to force pregnant women to bear children, to police the bedroom in search of sodomites. It may be true that the right to privacy, which the Supreme Court so powerfully affirmed in the recent Lawrence v. Texas ruling, is grounded in the classical conservative principle of limited government, but in America today its assertion tends to sow panic on the right, not the left.

Even if one disagrees with his conclusions, however, Saletan makes a convincing case that liberals and feminists should not be handed victory bouquets in the culture wars just yet. America may not be ready to overturn Roe v. Wade, but, thirty years after that decision was handed down, neither has it embraced the vision of equality and liberation that feminists once dreamed about. The most sobering–and slyly damning–aspect of Saletan’s account is not that this vision remains unfulfilled but that, tailoring their rhetoric to the projections of pollsters and strategists, many pro-choice activists have stopped challenging a culture that doesn’t trust women to govern their own lives. As a short-term political strategy, it’s hard to argue with this. In the long term, it is guaranteed to enshrine a truncated notion of reproductive rights that will leave many disadvantaged women wondering what all the fuss about preserving Roe is about.

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