Abortion is The Political Third Rail: The Issue That Dare Not Speak Its Name

There are two undeniable facts about the political right in the US: they’re persistent and they’re smart. With respect to these qualities, the left has not been able to compete. Those on the right never concede defeat. Forty-three years after the Roe v. Wade decision, the right has yet to acknowledge that every woman has the right to abort a pregnancy (within reasonable time limits) if she considers it the best thing to do. The anti-abortion movement has not only persisted with large support, it is now on the ascent at the state level.

The anti-homosexual program carried out by the right has persevered in the face of every legal decision in favor of the rights of LGBT people. One might have expected that reactionary resistance would crumble in the face of the Supreme Court decisions reversing the Texas sodomy law (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003), DOMA, and ultimately, laws against same-sex marriage (Obergefell v. Hodges, 2015). But the right continued to fight, drawing on Supreme Court rulings that protect religious freedom. Now, as some southern states ruled by Republican governors and legislatures have enacted “religious liberty” laws that enable discrimination against LGBT people, a pitched battle is underway, with corporations, celebrities, and politicians taking a stand against the state policies

These two issues – abortion rights and LGBT rights– are the remaining fronts in what has come to be known as America’s “culture wars,” the struggle to determine the role of authoritarian religion-based beliefs in defining the scope of individual freedom. The culture wars were previously fought over issues like prayer in public schools, Christian religious symbols and texts in public spaces, male authority within marriage, and other issues that generally concerned religion and sex. Arguably, we can conclude that the culture wars have been won by the liberals. But (along with the legal codification of the nation’s gun obsession) the continued legal obstacles to the extension of full equality to LGBT people and the curtailment of abortion rights call this conclusion into question.

The growing backlash against these laws, including boycotts, threats of boycotts, and threats to withhold corporate resources, has had an effect. Georgia’s governor vetoed a bill passed by his state’s legislature, and North Carolina’s governor has issued a “clarifying” executive order. It is quite likely that the states with large corporate investment and substantial intellectual and creative communities will abandon legalized anti-LGBT discrimination in pursuit of material benefits.

Conservative attacks on abortion rights at the state level have been more successful. While all states place some restrictions on abortions (which is consistent with Roe and later decisions), a number of states have imposed legal obstacles that essentially deny access to abortion services for the majority of their women citizens. At the national level, the House of Representatives has carried out an unrelenting attack on Planned Parenthood, mirrored by state legislatures cutting off funding to local Planned Parenthood branches. States have mandated that there must be attending physicians at all abortion facilities, hospital admitting privileges for abortion doctors, clinic facilities with the physical dimensions of in-patient hospital floors, presentation of ultrasound images of their fetuses to women seeking abortion, and counseling designed to dissuade women from following through with their abortion decisions. (Summaries of the current status of state anti-abortion laws can be found here and here.)

We have little reason to believe that the tide will soon turn in the battle to prevent the virtual elimination of abortion options at the state level. Planned Parenthood is waging a valiant struggle against state restrictions. It has some financial and political support. But small, independent abortion providers lack Planned Parenthood’s high profile and must struggle for resources. And the evidence suggests that these providers are losing the struggle. While these legal attacks continue, media coverage is all but non-existent; comics Samantha Bee and John Oliver have given the issue its most detailed television exposure. Occasionally non-mainstream online publications like The Daily Beast will publish an article about the topic.

Where, we might ask, is the media coverage and public outrage? Where are the corporate threats against the states whose laws have left only a single abortion clinic? Where are the celebrity protests and boycotts? In short, why are we not seeing the level of action in support of women’s reproductive freedom that we see in support of LGBT rights?

I can think of three reasons for the difference in response to these repressive laws. First, there is not a clearly defined mainstream constituency for the defense of abortion rights. Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the National Organization for Women (NOW) have consistently fought for reproductive choice and are fully engaged in the current struggle against restrictive laws. But all of these organizations rely on volunteers and donations for much of their work. Planned Parenthood is under attack nationally and the reach of these and other “pro-choice” organizations is limited.

We might argue that abortion is an issue that directly affects women and that, consequently, abortion rights should have wide support among American women. But such an argument overlooks that fact that women are active in conservative politics and are quite visible and vocal in anti-abortion movements, especially those based in religious organizations.

We might also assume that people in the LGBT community would join forces with those in the abortion rights movement. And to some extent this has been the case. But there are also efforts underway to persuade members of this community that they should (given their commitment to “family values,” i.e., marriage) support the “pro-life” movement.

A second reason is that many liberal politicians are clearly afraid to take a stand against the restriction on abortion rights. However “pro-choice” a politician might be, he or she cannot easily – in the space of the allotted sound bite – articulate the subtleties of their opposition to “trap laws” that are claimed to be in the interest of women’s health based on spurious medical “science.” There is little upside for such well-meaning politicians in taking on this issue. Many of their most reliable constituencies – Catholics, Blacks, Hispanics, union members – include a substantial number of persons who are opposed to abortion.

A third, and fundamental, reason also explains the lack of celebrity involvement in the struggle against state restrictions on access to abortion. Within the LGBT community, a key virtue is being “out,” publicly and proudly embracing one’s sexual identity and standing up for LGBT rights. Opposition to anti-LBGT “religious freedom restoration” laws has attracted well-known personalities. Whether gay or straight, prominent business and entertainment figures have used their public images to give names and faces to the movement to boycott offending states and push for repeal of anti-LGBT laws.

There is no such parade of public faces in the fight for continued access to abortion. This is not surprising. The basic premise of Roe v. Wade was the right to privacy. In a society in which women who speak openly about sexuality (their own or that of others) risk being “slut shamed,” a woman – especially one who has some claim to mainstream prominence – has nothing to gain from acknowledging that she has aborted a pregnancy.

The redress for victims of these restrictive laws will likely come through the courts. But the likelihood of the courts upholding challenges to these laws will depend on several political factors: the next appointed Supreme Court justice(s), the outcome of the next congressional elections, and, ultimately, the decision of progressive voters to participate in congressional and statewide elections.


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