How the Abortion Movement Became its Own Worst Enemy 

3 Missteps that Empowered the Pro-Life Movement

The recent overturning of Roe v. Wade provides a fitting opportunity to reflect, not merely on the successes of the pro-life movement, but also the failures and missteps of the pro-abortion movement.

How “Choice” Galvanized America

In David Kupelian’s 2015 book The Marketing of Evil, the best-selling author discussed a dilemma that beset early defenders of abortion. On the eve of the landmark 1973 decision, polls consistently showed Americans disapproving of abortion-on-demand at a three-to-one margin. How would widespread resistance to abortion be overcome?

The solution was to rally behind a newly created political issue: “choice.”

For us who have grown up in the shadow of Roe, it’s hard to imagine how contrived the original sloganeering of choice sounded even amongst its pushers. Kupelian quotes Bernard Nathanson, M.D., who was co-founder of the pro-abortion group NARAL. “I remember laughing when we made those slogans up,” he said. “We were looking for some sexy, catchy slogans to capture public opinion. They were very cynical slogans then, just as all of these slogans today are very, very cynical.”

Cynical as it may have been, this was a brilliant PR move. The idea of being “pro-choice” or “anti-choice,” deflected attention from the core issue—the killing of an innocent human life—and redirected attention to a larger set of seemingly positive concerns: freedom, tolerance, and moral autonomy.

As the feminist movement picked up momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, “choice” gained more traction by being situated within the larger concerns of women’s health. Being pro-choice positioned a person as a defender of women’s health, connecting him or her to an activist legacy that included women’s suffrage, the right to female education, and equal pay for equal work.

This was a battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, and at the center of this conflict was the problem: who gets to set the terms of the debate, and who gets to define the type of question this really is? For years it seemed like the abortion lobby was succeeding in this psychological conflict through adroit use of the “choice” trope.

But just when it seemed like the pro-life cause had been lost, the abortion lobby began making numerous missteps, alienating large sections of the American public. While on one level these were massive PR blunders, on another level these missteps were the inevitable outworking of the true logic behind the pro-abortion ideology. Let’s zero-in on three such missteps.

Misstep #1: How the Abortion Lobby Retreated from Debate

The first misstep is that by nationalizing and constitutionalizing the issue of abortion, the pro-choice lobby moved the question out of the realm of legislative debate into the realm of axiomatic rights, at the same level as the right to life or freedom of religion. The problem is that we have been conditioned not to question fundamental rights; ergo, once abortion is upgraded to an inalienable right, it is removed from being a legitimate area for inquiry.

Humans are naturally morally curious, and Americans particularly like to see a good debate. By reducing the right to abortion to an axiomatic first principle, and labelling all dissenters as misogynists, the abortion lobby backed themselves into a corner. From this corner they could not concede that this is a legitimate subject for research and debate; nor could they allow any modification of the rigid abortion-on-demand-on-all-occasions ideology.

Thus, support for abortion took an anti-intellectual turn, in which large numbers of Americans were forced to crucify their moral curiosity and accept pro-choice as a matter of dogma.

The anti-intellectualism of the abortion lobby has even been acknowledged by the New York Times. Writing in his NYT column in May, Ross Douthat noted that “once you have nationalized and constitutionalized an issue, it is not so easy to adapt your position or your arguments.” He continued:

Having (seemingly) won the policy battle, you are incentivized to avoid hard debates, avoid reopening vexing questions, assume the worst of your opponents and never admit they have a point. And in that sense the commitments that Roe required of its supporters anticipate the entirety of liberalism’s drift: toward a debilitating mix of expert certainty and incuriosity, moral superiority and ignorance of what its adversaries actually believe.

In retreating from debate, defenders of abortion implicitly conceded territory to pro-lifers. While the pro-life lobby has been busy funding research, promoting public discussion, and educating the public, the pro-choice lobby has fought back with simple sloganeering and empty cliches. Abortion activists have also worked to shut down inquiry on adjacent questions, like how abortion is functioning as a de facto form of eugenics, whether Planned Parenthood is racist, whether unborn babies should be anesthetized prior to an abortion procedure to prevent the babies experiencing excruciating pain. In short, abortion activists have desperately tried to convince Americans that there is not anything to debate. But that’s a hard sell.

Data from Pew Research shows that most Americans do not take an absolutist pro-choice or pro-life position, but favor restrictions in certain circumstances and not in others. By tethering the pro-choice movement to an absolutist abortion-on-demand-in-all-circumstances position, and eschewing any compromises with pro-lifers, abortion activists have alienated larger numbers of thinking Americans.

The abortion lobby also worked to shut down debate on a range of adjacent issues that citizens in the political middle were open to exploring, such as whether a minor should be allowed to get an abortion without parental knowledge, whether sex-selective abortions should be allowed, whether ultrasounds should be performed for a woman before an abortion, and whether post-abortion trauma exists.

On one level this was a PR blunder, but on another level it has simply pulled back the curtain and enabled us to glimpse the true underbelly of abortion politics, which has always been about avoiding honest debate.

Misstep #2: How the Abortion Lobby Moved the Goalposts

Another misstep made by abortion activists is that they continually changed the goal posts. Originally, their stated aim was to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” Having succeeded in their original goal of making abortion safe and legal, they moved to make abortion normalized, and thus not rare. Originally restricted to the first trimester of pregnancy, they gradually pushed for abortion rights up to the moment of birth—a move that would have been unthinkable even among the original advocates of abortion.

But that was not the end. Next came partial birth abortions. Next came widening acceptance of after birth abortions and opposition to laws to restricting this barbaric practice. Then came attempts to relax punishment against criminals guilty of fetal homicide. Then, in a reversal of the logic of choice, abortion activists moved to take away women’s choice in certain situations. No longer is the ethics of abortion something each woman must work out for herself; rather, it is increasingly promoted as a morally righteous act. To enforce this new pseudo-morality, abortion activists in California have proposed legislation that would impose both civil and criminal penalties on anyone interfering with infanticide. Throughout this trajectory, abortion became more and more common, reaching the current situation where it is now viewed as merely another form of birth control, and even something to be celebrated.

By changing the goal posts, abortion has become increasingly objectionable to Americans who might otherwise have remained ambivalent. On one level this was a massive tactical error of abortion activists. But on another level, these moves reveal that abortion activism has always been about more than merely protecting the sanctity of choice; it has been about promoting a culture of death.

Misstep #3: How the Abortion Lobby Abandoned Women

If you’ve been following the abortion debate over the last few years, you surely noticed a strange phenomenon. In a very quick span of time, abortion activists have moved from promoting feminist concerns to abandoning women-centered arguments. Pro-choicers now find themselves with an issue in search of an argument. The reason, of course, is that transgender ideology has worked to eliminate the gender binary, with the result that the category of woman has been deconstructed.

In order to accommodate the new transgender orthodoxy, the abortion lobby has had to back-peddle from their earlier pro-woman sloganeering. Having spent decades arguing that abortion is an issue of women’s health and women’s rights, they are now scrambling to accommodate the supposed discovery that men can get pregnant and have abortions too.

(Just to be clear, there is no such thing as a man who gets pregnant. The, so called, “pregnant men” are actually women who have transitioned.)

For many Americans, there was a prima facie plausibility to slogans like “a woman has the right to her own body,” or “protect women’s rights – keep abortion legal.” But just when it seemed like Americans were convinced this debate was all about women, and that to oppose abortion was to be misogynist, we are now being told that, actually, it isn’t about women at all. In fact, the very category “woman,” like gender-based pronouns, is now being questioned.

See for yourself. Go to the pro-choice websites and do a search on their home page for “woman” or “female.” Planned Parenthood’s website no longer has the word woman or women on their home page. Similarly, the abortion group NARAL no longer mentions women’s rights. Meanwhile, the new gender-neutral messaging hardly packs the same punch. It’s hard to get riled up over slogans like:

  • Protect the rights of people with uteruses
  • Celebrate pregnant persons’ rights
  • A birthing person’s body belongs to the birthing person
  • Protect the rights of uterus-havers when they seek an abortion

It’s hard to do anything but laugh at the tortured linguistic incongruity in the new tropes. And that has political consequences. From Megan McArdle, writing in The Washington Post:

An official from Planned Parenthood in California, along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., and feminist writer Mona Eltahawy, were among those who focused on “people” rather than “women.” It is hard to fault more inclusive language, of course — but it is also impossible not to wonder whether “people who become pregnant” constitutes the same kind of effective political coalition that “women” did.

And here is Nellie Bowles, writing in the Common Sense substack:

It’s definitely harder to organize around the issue without being able to say the word woman, or rally under the banner of women’s rights. NPR hosts talked this week about abortion rights as “pregnant people” rights. News sites have stories about “Black birthing people.” There were voices like Wisconsin’s State Rep. Francesca Hong: “Birthing bodies have the right to freedom.” The Washington Post editorial board wrote a whole opinion blasting the decision without using the word woman once. Planned Parenthood long ago muddied its messaging to be about “folks with a vulva.”

Abandoning the concept of women may prove to be the final and fatal PR misstep for the abortion lobby. But in another sense, perhaps this is finally revealing the dark underbelly of abortion politics, namely that this was never really about women at all. Associating abortion access with women’s rights served a useful purpose in the early stages of abortion activism, but now that the ideological winds have changed, these same activists are content to quietly drop their pro-woman sloganeering.

Pro-Life, Pro-Woman

Now that abortion activists are retreating from debate, moving the goalposts, and abandoning their pro-woman posturing, what better time to make a case for a culture of life? As the legality of abortion is thrown back to the states, what better time to capitalize on the abortion lobby's absurdity and untrustworthiness. What better time for the pro-life movement to show that we, not the abortion lobby, are the true defenders of women’s health.

In the ensuing battles that will now occur in the states following the overturning of Roe, the pro-life movement needs to do more than be merely anti-abortion. We need to work at strengthening the 3,000+ pregnancy resource centers and other organizations throughout America. We need to pursue policies specifically aimed at strengthening the family. We need to provide economic and emotional assistance to women who feel like they have no choice but to abort, so we can show them there is an alternative to abortion. Above all, we need to promote a culture of life.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020). He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is Blog & Media Managing Editor for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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