The abortion-rights movement grapples with repression.

Science, technology, and life.
March 9 2006 7:29 AM

My Secret Burden

The abortion-rights movement grapples with repression.

Friday morning, leaders of pro-choice and feminist groups gathered at the Center for American Progress to debate the movement's future. One of the panelists reported that the latest annual tally of abortions in this country was 1.295 million. The most recent comparative numbers, detailed in an article I brought to the meeting, indicated that our abortion rate exceeds that of every Western European nation. "Raise your hand if you think that number is too high," the conference moderator told the 50 people in the room.

I saw one hand go up. The woman next to me said she saw another. The two hand-raisers used to work for pro-choice groups but no longer do.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

This is the predicament facing the abortion-rights movement. It's led by three kinds of people: Those who see no problem, those who are afraid to speak up, and those who think it's futile. I'm betting that the denial, fear, and futility will give way. But it'll take time.

I should mention that I didn't raise my hand. I was invited to the meeting, along with my friend Katha Pollitt, to debate the wisdom of declaring a pro-choice war on the abortion rate. Katha and I are on the record on this question. I'm for it; she's against it. Although I'm pro-choice, I can't claim to be part of the movement. I haven't earned it, and as a professional critic, I can't make such a commitment. So I came, I made my case, and then I shut up and listened. It was like preaching to the choir, except that my preaching was Sunni, and the choir was Shiite.

The silence about whether there are too many abortions was partly a nuance problem. Some attendees worried that saying yes would signal approval of restrictions rather than voluntary reductions. The hard-nosed political people in the room probably wanted to slap their foreheads at this hairsplitting. I certainly did. The lesson of John Kerry's defeat, and arguably the whole sorry history of recent Democratic politics, is that nuance kills. (I wrote a book arguing the opposite, but, uh, I'll explain that another time.) Most voters think in simple terms. Sixty percent of them have no problem telling pollsters they want fewer abortions. If you can't connect with these voters, you're in trouble.

I'm not a woman, obviously, so I hesitate to say this—but is it really true, as some folks at this meeting argued, that abortion is fundamental to how today's women construct their lives? I understand the point, made by the Supreme Court in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, that this generation of women has grown up with the implicit assumption that they can get an abortion legally if they need one. But I find it hard to believe that many women would call this part of how they construct their lives. You construct your life around things you expect, plan, or hope for. You might construct your life around your menstrual cycle or your boyfriend's maintenance of the condom supply. But abortion? Isn't that the thing you don't construct your life around, because you don't want to think about it? And shouldn't a movement that aims to reflect the way women construct their lives deal with it in that context, as a fallback?

My other problem at gatherings like this one is that I'm not a lefty. So, I listened with dismay as some speakers dismissed the abortion debate as a byproduct of racism and misogyny. Pro-lifers don't really care about morality, said one participant: They just "want white women to have more white babies." She went on to assert that leaders of protest groups such as Operation Rescue do what they do because they have no other way to make a living—possibly the most amazing statement I've ever heard, considering that the entire penalty-avoidance strategy of such groups is perpetual poverty. I'm happy to vouch that the people in this room, some with backpacks or spiky hair, are nothing like the "abortion industry" depicted by pro-lifers. But it's not like the grunts at the National Right to Life Committee have been lunching at Jack Abramoff's restaurant.

Then I have this hangup about relativism. Like most people, I'm open to relativism. If you accept that the rightness or wrongness of abortion depends to some extent on circumstance, or that as a general rule, the woman in question is more entitled to weigh the moral factors than Rick Santorum is, that makes you a bit of a relativist. But it was clear at Friday's meeting that many pro-choice activists go further. They're absolutists about relativism. They argue that abortion is good because it's what a woman wants, and that the goodness or badness of abortion depends entirely on her choice. They insist all choices must be "respected" and "free from stigma." I don't get it. If everything has to be respected, what's the value of respect? If every exercise of liberty has to be free from stigma, how secure is liberty?

This is why I'd never cut it in a movement. I have no patience for diplomacy, or, as I prefer to call it, evasion. Right away, I got in trouble for calling abortion "bad." I like such words because they're blunt: They express a nearly universal gut reaction and make it clear which direction you'd like to go. The absolute relativists in the room found these words unacceptable, since they "stigmatize" and "pass judgment" on women and doctors. (As far as I can tell, women who have abortions, and doctors who perform them, are more judgmental about the act than the movement's leaders are.) To my relief, cooler heads pointed out how judgmental the absolute relativists are about gender equality and human rights. Liberals treat judgment the way conservatives treat sex: forbid it, except when you're doing it.

I knew I'd get flak for using the word "bad." But I was amazed at the group's reaction to the word "responsibility," which was the subject of the next panel. "Responsibility is to me a code word that has a lot of racial and class … implications," said one participant. "I don't like the word 'responsibility,' " said another. "I don't want to talk about responsibility unless we're talking about the government taking responsibility," said a third. Hoping to bring the discussion back to earth, the moderator suggested, "Is there a way for us to reclaim the idea of responsibility?" The answer was a chorus of rejection, punctuated by a "No way!" She retreated apologetically.

Fortunately, repression, even when practiced by the left, doesn't work. Again and again, participants who decried stigma, judgment, and overt advocacy of fewer abortions went on to concede that some women find abortion "sad" or that pro-choice policies on birth control and sex education reduce the abortion rate. Advocates who work with post-abortion women were the most explicit. One described the abortion dilemma as "awful." Another called for more stories of women who, while regretting their own abortions, wouldn't deprive others of the choice. Slowly, as though coming to terms with buried sexuality, the abortion-rights leadership is groping for a way to think and talk more frankly about the morality of ending unborn life.

In part, this process is being driven by political defeat. In part, it's being driven by the truth of women's experiences. In part, it's a matter of younger women taking over the movement, uninhibited by old fights and fears. And in part, it's a matter of reflection by some who fought those fights but see how times have changed. Abortion no longer symbolizes freedom and women's rights as it did in the 1960s and 1970s, one old-timer observed; the movement must ask how abortion fits into its mission, not the other way around. Another veteran warned her colleagues that fetal life has become "the elephant on the kitchen table": If you can't acknowledge it, people will tune you out.

In the struggle for self-correction, such candor and wisdom will help. So will humor. Toward the end of the meeting, a Planned Parenthood executive announced with delight that Wal-Mart had just agreed to stock morning-after pills. "Of course, we don't want anyone to shop at Wal-Mart," cracked a woman to her right. Everyone laughed. Irony is part of a well-balanced diet, especially when you're earnest.