Many women are disgusted with the Republican Party, for not-so-mysterious reasons. That has left many liberals hoping for landslide victories in 2018 and beyond. They should moderate their expectations. As much as Republicans' behavior offends many women, there will always be some women who find the Democrats more unpalatable still. And abortion is the biggest reason why. Some women simply won't consider supporting a party that trumpets its commitment to "abortion rights."
I should know. I'm one of them.
Pro-life women are not especially rare. About 38 percent of American women believe that abortion should be illegal in most or all cases. Women have long been central to pro-life activism, marching in rallies and running crisis pregnancy centers. This can all be quite difficult for progressives to understand. Why would anyone want to be forced to bear children against her will? Why aren't pro-life women interested in retaining control of their own bodies?
Too often, the left simply dismisses pro-life women as pawns of the patriarchy, lazy elitists, or victims of internalized misogyny. It's tough to gain insight into anyone's perspective if you begin from such unflattering starting points. So let's approach the issue another way and ask: What do pro-life women actually value?
Virtually everyone appreciates that pregnant women have needs that must be considered when we're crafting policy on abortion. There are significant differences, however, between a stance that looks to balance those needs against the interests of the developing child, and one that prioritizes the mother's autonomy absolutely. However much they soft-pedal the gorier details, defenders of abortion rights are mostly committed to the second. That becomes pretty evident when they oppose any and all restrictions on abortion, and regularly decry the injustice of denying a woman her "right to choose."
We can debate when exactly human life begins — but we cannot debate that it naturally begins inside the female body. Every one of us was, at some early point in our personal history, dependent on a human woman for physical survival. How then should we think about the rights and obligations of the "bonded" mother and child?
We could see them both as precious human beings deserving of legal protection. Our laws and mores could then try to balance those interests, valuing the developing child while still recognizing the mother as a person with her own rights.
Alternatively, we might note that the dependency relation only goes in one direction. The developing child is physically dependent on his mother, but she's not dependent on him. Must she accept an involuntary relationship that potentially lays serious burdens on her?
Abortion-rights advocates note that only women can be saddled with these burdens, which hardly seems fair. Thus, it seems fitting to them that a woman be guaranteed access to abortion-providing facilities. It's her body, and her right to choose.
The positions I've outlined above are clearly different. Nevertheless, defenders of legalized abortion seem anxious to combine them. In the ongoing debate over 20-week abortion bans, we are told again and again that late-term abortions are rare, emotionally fraught, and sought for serious reasons (probably involving a severe fetal abnormality). It's easy to appreciate the rhetorical value of these reassurances. If women can simply be trusted to make morally serious decisions about their own pregnancies, the gulf between the autonomy-based approach and the balancing approach becomes inconsequential.
But pro-life women look at America's abortion rate and simply don't believe that the unborn are adequately protected by the wisdom of mother-knows-best. Here are the latest stats from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:
In 2014, 652,639 legal induced abortions were reported to CDC from 49 reporting areas. The abortion rate for 2014 was 12.1 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years, and the abortion ratio was 186 abortions per 1,000 live births. [CDC]
Most pro-life women understand that some pregnant women are in emotional turmoil, and may have grossly inadequate networks of support (perhaps in part because their connections largely assume that they can avoid the burdens of pregnancy through abortion). But we also know that women can simply be selfish, prioritizing personal goals over the very life of another human being. In light of those factors, it's clear enough that the autonomy-based approach has costs. Pro-lifers deem those costs unacceptable. They aren't fooled by casual references to abortion as "health care," as though only one of the involved persons really counted.
Pro-life women tend to have strong convictions (both political and personal) about the preciousness of babies and children. They view themselves as having real and serious obligations to their offspring that extend well before birth. Many are mothers, perhaps to sizable families. They find tremendous meaning in their role as perpetuators of the species, and defenders of the weakest and most helpless of human beings. To these pro-life women, the language of "reproductive rights" is not empowering. It's degrading and belittling.
It's remarkable how little pro-choice feminists seem to appreciate this. The point shouldn't actually be so confusing, given liberals' sustained interest in identity as a foundation for self-worth. Choice can be pleasant sometimes, but it can also be maddening or insulting if the ostensible "options" ignore serious constraints or commitments. Are gays and lesbians typically delighted when traditionalists suggest that they could choose to marry someone of the opposite sex? Do the indigent enjoy being reminded that they are nominally free to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, or get their finances in order? To someone with grave moral or material concerns, assurance of a "right to choose" can seem positively flippant. It just comes across as a callous reminder that they and their concerns are not taken seriously.
Sometimes pro-choice rhetoric seems almost calculated to rub further salt in these wounds. Consider, for instance, the recent response to David Brooks' infamous "abortion memo," published earlier this month in The New York Times. Liberals had a field day excoriating Brooks for being male, for being privileged, and for failing to sympathize with the onerous burdens that pregnant women may carry. It's easy to lob such criticisms at Brooks, who has obviously never been pregnant. But now try lobbing those same criticisms at the women staffing the crisis pregnancy center, or cooking meals for seven with a baby on one hip and a toddler on the floor. Do they not understand about difficult pregnancies, strained finances, and disrupted life plans? These realities are the very fabric of their lives. Nevertheless, they love those lives, and don't appreciate the implication that it would have been perfectly fine to slough off their life's work more or less at any time and for any reason.
Progressive feminists aren't likely to embrace this more traditional perspective on femininity. To them, the vocational view of maternity will always be "biologically determinist," unacceptably centered on the body, and unreasonably restrictive to women. Even so, liberals might do well to reflect more deeply on a perspective that motivates millions of their female compatriots. For one thing, it's just more polite to show respect for the things other people value. For another, it may turn out that women across the political spectrum really do have some widely shared interests, which might become more evident if the left stopped alienating so many with their aggressive stance on abortion.