The Abortion Debate Is No Longer About Policy

This is what happens when the side with all the political power feels culturally embattled.

Competing demonstrators displaying anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights signs at the annual March for Life
Competing demonstrators displaying anti-abortion and pro-abortion-rights signs at the annual March for Life (James Lawler Duggan / Reuters)

Abortion politics in 2019 is a morality play about what happens when one side has all the political power, yet feels culturally embattled. In this atmosphere, victories are not satisfying if they leave the other side with a foothold, a vestige of respectability. Cataclysmic discord lies ahead.

Abortion politics is no longer about policy wins, but about establishing dominance. This is why Governor Andrew Cuomo could not be satisfied with the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, which eliminated several restrictions on the procedure, but instead had to light up the Empire State Building pink, to declare that abortion rights were now creedal in New York. It was not just the passage of the Reproductive Health Act, but specifically the display of cultural force, that made abortion opponents feel so embattled and isolated.

This dynamic was also evident in Alabama, where the people in power hold the opposite position on abortion as their counterparts in New York and recently passed H.B. 314, a bill that virtually outlaws the procedure.

One scene from the Alabama Senate debate furnishes a quintessential example of the decline of our democracy, of the diminishment of any capacity our political process might have had to help us work through difficult issues together. During the committee markup of the bill, lawmakers passed an amendment to provide an exception for rape or incest. On May 9, as H.B. 314 was headed toward a final vote, Alabama’s Republican Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth broke protocol by stripping out the amendment without making a motion or acknowledging his Democratic colleagues’ requests for a roll-call vote. Democratic State Senator Bobby Singleton shouted, “There was no motion. You didn’t even make a motion!” Ainsworth simply ignored his colleague’s interjections.

Then, Democratic State Senator Vivian Figures stepped up to address Ainsworth, perhaps calculating that calm diplomacy might prove effective where righteous indignation had not. “I know you want this bill to pass, and you’re going to get your way, but at least treat us fairly and do it the right way. That’s all I ask. That’s all that women in this state ask, both Democrats and Republicans. If there has been a motion made, we should have a vote on that motion,” Figures said. Surely this display of courtesy would solicit a reciprocal response? Not in our politics today. Not when you have the gavel, and the power, and have no need for the other side. In fact, Ainsworth responded by quite literally refusing to acknowledge the existence of his Democratic colleagues, insisting that no one objected to his maneuver.

Ainsworth’s actions reflect an audacious disrespect that is now ubiquitous in our politics. The lieutenant governor, I imagine, was thinking something like: They have Hollywood. They manipulated the courts to establish abortion rights by fiat. They mock the pro-life cause, and do so with impunity. They have all the power. Except here. Except right now. They can know how it feels to be powerless for a change, like their opposition is unstoppable and they are irrelevant. Just so, Cuomo perhaps thought, They have the White House. They manipulated Senate procedures to establish a majority on the Supreme Court. They mock reproductive rights, and do so with impunity. They have all the power. Except here. Except right now. They can know how it feels to be powerless for a change, like their opposition is unstoppable and they are irrelevant.

This is where our politics has carried the abortion debate, where our so-called leaders and voters have allowed it to be carried. The abortion debate now lacks even the pretense of comity. No one seeks to reconcile rational, competing claims. Because the issue is so personal—it strikes at the very heart of what it means to be a person with life and agency—our discussions ought to remind us of our humanity and frailty. Instead, our toxic politics has taught us that to acknowledge nuance is to make ourselves vulnerable and exposed. How comfortable have we become using politics as an immoral weapon in the name of our self-assured moral cause? This is, in the most favorable light, what Ainsworth decided to do. But how moral could his cause be if he is willing to advance it in such an immoral manner?

We are not dealing with public servants here—not if the title is anything more than a euphemism. Instead, we have politicians supported by advocacy groups and moneyed interests whose goal is to attain whatever level of power is necessary to act unilaterally. This is what a representative democracy looks like when stripped of trust, respect, virtue, and sense of community.

President Donald Trump appreciates the utility of a nihilistic politics that seeks to maximize feelings of fear and embattlement rather than hope and possibility. I have argued elsewhere that it was Trump’s ability to build up a sense of embattlement among his voters, offering only himself as a pressure valve, that allowed him to win in 2016. Abortion has been central to that strategy, and as I predicted in The Atlantic in the wake of the New York bill and the Virginia controversy, abortion will play a central role in Trump’s appeal in 2020.

However, Alabama might just have solved the other side’s enthusiasm-gap problem. The 2020 candidates seem to think so; they are already moving even further left on abortion—almost all of them are promising to pursue federal legislation that would codify Roe and override state-level restrictions. Democrats are suggesting they’ll make abortion a central issue in 2020, similar to the role of the Affordable Care Act in 2018. Just as Virginia Governor Ralph Northam’s comments on children born after a failed abortion seemed to confirm anti-abortion activists’ worst fears, the Alabama bill is being used to advance progressives’ Handmaid’s Tale narrative.

Meanwhile, the majority of Americans remain somewhere between supporting abortion-on-demand and supporting a federal law that would force the victim of a rapist to carry that child to term. Though it can’t be uttered in our politics, most Americans understand both that a fetus or unborn child is more than just a “clump of cells,” and that the unborn child is uniquely situated, implicating the life of its mother in a way that is singular among human relationships.

Trump recognizes the threat the recent turn in our abortion politics poses for him. In his response to the Alabama law, Trump responded with an unusually coherent series of tweets.

He wrote:

As most people know, and for those who would like to know, I am strongly Pro-Life, with the three exceptions—Rape, Incest and protecting the Life of the mother—the same position taken by Ronald Reagan. We have come very far in the last two years with 105 wonderful new.........Federal Judges (many more to come), two great new Supreme Court Justices, the Mexico City Policy, and a whole new & positive attitude about the Right to Life. The Radical Left, with late term abortion (and worse), is imploding on this issue. We must stick together and Win.... ....for Life in 2020. If we are foolish and do not stay UNITED as one, all of our hard fought gains for Life can, and will, rapidly disappear!

Unfortunately for Trump, he might find he’s unable to contain the sense of embattlement he stoked for political gain. The thing about embattlement is that even when your side attains power, it always feels like it’s slipping away, so you fight even harder.