To End Abortion, Focus on Changing Culture, not Politics

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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.

But so long as that is so, in a world where an abortion is as simple as taking four pills -- and traveling across state lines requires just a short car trip, or at most a cheap flight -- the act is going to continue in America, whether it is legal or illegal in a particular state. We're unable to keep narcotics out of our prison system. How would we possibly keep four pills from women desperate to end a pregnancy, especially when they'll be aided by people who earnestly believe that they have a right to choose abortion?

Abortion pills would also probably force abortion opponents from their "we don't want to jail women, only doctors" stance toward the politically tougher proposition that women themselves should be held legally liable for choosing abortion.

As a general matter, Sarah Palin and her politics of victimhood, personality and resentment are negative influences on American political culture. On the subject of abortion, however, she has shown one way forward. Her decision to have a Down syndrome baby surely helped stigmas against developmentally disabled kids to fall, and her daughter's pregnancy and subsequent celebrity also sent the message that carrying an accidental pregnancy to term is a doable thing that needn't destroy one's life. (It also reduced the stigma attached to teen pregnancy -- a likely precondition for significantly reducing the abortion rate, as many social conservatives have come to see.)

What if that sort of leadership by example on a cultural issue, along with pop culture treatments of abortion like Knocked Up and, especially, Juno, does more to influence the future of abortion in America than lobbying for anti-abortion Supreme Court justices and campaigning for anti-abortion candidates? It is perfectly fine, and perhaps correct, to see reducing the number of abortions in America as a moral imperative. But that doesn't imply nearly as much about political tactics, or percentage of time spent on political engagement, as some seem to think.  

Image credit: Reuters

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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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