The suicidal idealism of abortion activists.

The suicidal idealism of abortion activists.

The suicidal idealism of abortion activists.

How you look at things.
Oct. 3 2003 2:07 PM

Fatal Vision

The suicidal idealism of abortion activists.

Book cover

On Thursday, the U.S. House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Within a couple of weeks, the Senate will pass the ban, and President Bush will sign it into law. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay called the House vote "a big pivot" in the abortion war. "The American people have turned away from the divisive politics of abortion and embraced the inclusive politics of life," he declared.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

It's a tempting illusion. There have been lots of pivots in the abortion wars and lots of promises about transcending division and embracing inclusion. On this issue, activists on both sides don't just want to win the latest political fight; they want to transform the whole culture. They tell themselves that the latest win gives them "momentum" and that as they broaden their agenda to take on other fights, more and more people will join them. But the political record tells a different story. Expansive ambition doesn't win battles in the abortion war. Division does.

This paradox has been on my mind lately because of a new book, Behind Every Choice Is a Story, by Gloria Feldt, the president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America. In a chapter well worth reading, Feldt ponders why the abortion rights movement has won some fights but lost others. She recognizes in the movement's "Who Decides" message of 1989-92 "a narrow libertarian appeal that got people riled up" but "ducked … the policy questions of fairness, equity, and access." She sees the limits of what that appeal secured: "Although the legal right to privacy remained intact, by the end of the 1990's it was of little value to you if you were young [or] poor." She laments the complacency of pro-choice voters who counted on Roe v. Wade and President Clinton's veto pen to protect abortion rights.

Feldt concludes that the movement's big mistake has been to divide its agenda, focusing on the easy issues and ducking the hard ones. She regrets that advocates of birth control separated that issue from abortion in order to keep birth control relatively uncontroversial. The price, she points out, is that abortion, left to stand on its own, became more controversial. Likewise, she regrets that activists concerned about the legal right to abortion didn't fight harder for Medicaid coverage of the procedure. To rectify these separations, Feldt proposes to unite all issues of "reproductive rights" in a comprehensive agenda. "My right to choose abortion is equal to your right to use birth control is equal to your neighbor's right to have a child," she argues.

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As a policy prescription—a way to protect the weaker elements of the pro-choice agenda—this strategy makes sense. But Feldt thinks it's a smart political prescription as well. She bases her argument on two premises. One is that to broaden your base of support, you must broaden your agenda. What pro-choice leaders need, she contends, is "a broad-based public policy agenda that would mobilize all these individuals to advocate fiercely for all reproductive health issues." Second, she posits that people "need something to aspire to as well as something to fear." The weakness of the "Who decides" message, she suggests, is that it lacked an "affirmative agenda—an agenda sufficient to inspire an activist movement absent a perceived, immediate threat." Accordingly, Feldt calls for "a spectacular offensive … to give pro-choice constituents something to aspire to."

I know from talking to Feldt and other activists on both sides how strongly they believe in this equation. They want good policy, as they see it, to be good politics, too. But it isn't. Fear motivates people far more readily than aspiration does. That's why people with pro-choice inclinations are so complacent today: They aren't afraid. It's also why expanding the pro-choice agenda to include more radical ambitions is dangerous: It threatens to ignite more fear among people with conservative or pro-life inclinations.

If you want to broaden your base of support, you don't broaden your agenda; you narrow it. That was the genius of "Who decides." Libertarians could buy into it, because it ducked the hard issues. Feldt argues that her movement should have "continuously advanced" its agenda in new ways in order "to consolidate our gains." But the consolidation of gains is exactly what the movement got in exchange for not insisting on its whole agenda. Separating abortion funding from abortion rights hurt abortion funding but consolidated a broad constituency for abortion rights. Separating birth control from abortion hurt abortion but consolidated an even broader constituency for birth control.

That's why the House and Senate have repeatedly voted by 2-1 margins for the partial-birth ban. It's why pro-lifers focused the debate on that issue in the first place, and why they called it "partial-birth" abortion. They wanted to narrow their agenda to its easiest part, separate that part from the rest (by protecting "births" rather than banning abortions in the womb), and avoid frightening people with pro-choice inclinations. They divided, and they conquered.

Eventually, there will be another big pivot in the war, and DeLay will be on the losing end. It won't happen when pro-choicers broaden their agenda. It will happen when pro-lifers broaden theirs. Two weeks ago, the chief sponsor of the partial-birth ban, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., argued on the Senate floor that the public is ready to get rid of Roe and the whole right to privacy. A few more steps by DeLay and Santorum in that direction, and Feldt will have all the fear and public support she needs to take them out.