To End Abortion, Focus on Changing Culture, not Politics

Even if Roe is overturned, new technology makes it almost impossible for the law to stop abortions from happening -- but persuasion can change women's choices

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Weighing in on whether Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a avowed federalist, should be acceptable to socially conservative voters, Daniel Larison agrees that returning abortion to the states is the best anti-abortion forces can realistically expect, but observes that it isn't what they want to do. "Pro-life activists don't liken themselves to abolitionists and civil rights activists just to be cute," he writes. "To a large degree, many of them see themselves as advocates for a righteous cause that cannot be impeded or limited by questions of jurisdiction, and they see pro-life federalist arguments as unacceptable compromises on a moral issue where there ultimately should not be any meaningful compromise."

Though I'm deeply skeptical of the socially conservative positions on marriage, censorship and the drug war, I must grant that treating abortion as a moral imperative is grounded on a plausible if impossible-to-prove premise: that fetuses are full persons with rights that are being violated. I am deeply conflicted about whether "pro-lifers" are right or wrong about that, and the horrific implications of the former possibility. But it is worth noting that even if abortion is in some way analogous to slavery or Jim Crow as anti-abortion groups assert, that would hardly settle the matter of political strategy. Plenty of committed abolitionists and civil rights champions were political pragmatists, and much of the most important work done in winning their fights involved changing the minds of other Americans.

Among the many relevant differences between abortion and slavery and Jim Crow, which indisputably violated the rights of blacks: first and second trimester fetuses aren't protected under U.S. law, but neither are abortions encouraged or mandated by the legal system. So while I understand why the anti-abortion movement is so focused on overturning Roe v. Wade -- and even concede that doing so can be seen as a moral imperative, depending on one's beliefs -- I cannot help but conclude that reducing the number of abortions in America isn't a primarily political battle, and treating it as one hurts the cause.

A significant bit of evidence that supports my assessment: abortion technology is changing in a way that makes effectively stopping it by force of law practically impossible -- and literally impossible unless we're to live in a police state. Ponder this story, recently produced by ABC News:

As states increasingly enact laws that restrict women's access to legal abortion and a dwindling number of doctors choose to perform them, women who live in rural states like Iowa have found it more difficult to terminate their pregnancies. But now, women who might otherwise travel hundreds of miles to see a physician have another option: telemedicine. A woman seeking an abortion via telemedicine has an ultrasound performed by a trained technician, receives information about medical abortion and signs a standard informed consent for the abortion.

Once that is complete, a physician steps in via teleconference. The doctor reviews the woman's medical history and ultrasound images, and once it is determined that she is eligible -- up to nine weeks pregnant and not an ectopic pregnancy -- she has time to ask questions. Then, the doctor enters a computer passcode to remotely open a drawer at the clinic containing two pills. She then swallows the mifepristone, under the doctor's supervision, and then is instructed to take four additional tablets of misoprostol within the next 24 to 48 hours. The actual abortion happens at home.

A lot of abortion rights supporters insist -- and theirs, too, is a plausible argument -- that up until a certain hard-to-pin-down point, terminating a pregnancy isn't akin to killing a human being. It's certainly an argument that strikes a lot of people as intuitively true. For those people, prohibitions on abortion are cruel and utterly unjustified attempts to rob women of autonomy over their bodies.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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