The first casualty of the abortion wars: truth

In The Politics of Abortion, a frustrating confusion of fantastical observations about pro-choice politics, Anne Hendershott claims the US Democrats are obsessively committed to a woman’s right to choose. If only.

Ann Furedi

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In The Politics of Abortion, American writer and academic Anne Hendershott states that: ‘While there have been many casualties in the abortion wars, truth has been the first and foremost casualty.’

This book is itself one of the casualties. It is a frustrating confusion of fantastical observations about pro-choice politics which misrepresent reality. Reading it is like looking into one of those distorting mirrors at a fairground. You know what is represented back to you is a distortion of the truth. What is disturbing here is that it is not clear whether Hendershott’s analysis of abortion politics is warped by her personal opinion of abortion (she’s against it) or whether she simply ‘doesn’t get it’. For Hendershott, the US Democratic Party is held together by its obsessive commitment to abortion on demand. She seems blind to what every other social commentator and activist in the US is debating: the Democratic Party’s creep away from pro-choice principles. This is now so much a given that the discussion within the pro-choice movement is not whether or not it is happening but whether or not it is acceptable.

Hendershott’s thesis is not particularly original or controversial. American politics is no longer shaped by the traditional divisions of rich and poor but by a ‘culture war’, a deep moral divide that cuts across class, racial, ethnic, political and sexual lines. She observes that many traditional churchgoing middle- or upper-class people find they have more in common with working-class churchgoing people than they do with their economically similar neighbours who do not attend church. Many professionals now find that although they share an occupation or social class with their fellow lawyers and doctors, they seek out social relationships instead with those who share their beliefs, attitudes and values on a number of subjects – including abortion. Hendershott claims they nourish these friendships because ‘they see their identity in terms of moral and cultural values, not social class or occupation’.

The ‘culture war’ paradigm has been much discussed by academic sociologists, of which Hendershott, professor of sociology at the University of San Diego, is one. Gertrude Himmelfarb’s exploration of the theme in One Nation: Two Cultures (1999) has shaped the discussion in recent years. Hendershott’s contribution is her claim that there is no issue where the culture war is more apparent than in abortion:

‘While one America thinks that the lives of the unborn must be protected, another America thinks that all women should have access to abortion on demand, no matter how late in pregnancy. While one America believes that a decision for abortion should never be made by a child without parental involvement, another America believes that minor children should be able to make their own decisions about abortion without parental interference. While one America believes it is wrong to distribute condoms to middle-school children, another America dismisses abstinence programs as hopelessly naive and wants not only “comprehensive sex education” but also access to birth control and abortion through school-based programs. While one side is appalled by third-term abortion, the other side insists that even partial-birth abortion falls within a woman’s right to choose.’ (p4)

And it is from here, as early as page 4, that a potentially interesting exploration of American cultural values begins to go horribly wrong. Who are these people in the other America against whom Hendershott wishes to argue? The caricature of the demonised liberal pro-choice lobby does not exist outside of the author’s imagination, and so her attempt to situate how it has influenced mainstream American politics is doomed from the start.

The cultural divide in the USA is not disputed and is recognised and discussed outside academic environments, even to the extent of being an underlying theme of the brilliant Aaron Sorkin TV series, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Abortion is undoubtedly a key component of that, along with attitudes to homosexuality and belief in God. But the polarisation on abortion does not exist in the way that Hendershott alleges. Popular opinion on abortion is shaded. America has been described as a ‘pro-choice but’ country. Repeatedly, opinion polls show that a large majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal but restricted to a greater or lesser extent. A recent national survey commissioned by the Reproductive Health Technologies project identified a spectrum of eight different clusters of opinion on the pro-life to pro-choice spectrum with just 17 per cent of the population identified as ‘absolute adversaries’ of abortion and 15 per cent being staunch supporters. Most people have more conflicted and nuanced positions. Exploring and understanding these shades of grey would tell us far more about how lines are being drawn in the culture war.

Nor are the values of the staunch supporters, not even the pro-choice movement, the extreme ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ position that Hendershott seeks to deconstruct. In recent years, significant players in the pro-choice movement have adopted strategies specifically to appeal to those concerned that they are too ‘pro’-abortion. Catholics for a Free Choice (which Hendershott repeatedly refers to as being significant in turning the Democrats into what she calls ‘the party of abortion on demand’) is leading a ‘prevention not prohibition’ campaign, setting out the conditions in which abortion would not be necessary. CFFC is openly calling to ‘end the abortion wars’. And searching out common ground with the opponents of abortion is not just a Catholic thing. A year before Hendershott’s book was published, Nancy Keenan, president of the leading US pro-choice lobby group NARAL Pro-Choice America, sent an open letter to the Right to Life Movement. Under the heading ‘Please Help Us Prevent Abortion’, it called for support for a Bill to reduce unintended pregnancies through better access to family planning. The legislation was offered by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid who, NARAL claimed, ‘disagrees with us on the issue of abortion’. It is not the pro-choice movement that is stuck in the 1970s; it is Hendershott’s distorted vision of it.

Nor is it the case, as Hendershott goes on to claim, that today’s Democratic Party is defined by its pro-choice agenda. And it is certainly not the case that pro-choice lobbyists are holding Democrat politicians to an abortion-extremist line. Hendershott’s claim that abortion is the Democratic Party’s ‘reason for being’ makes as much sense as a claim that personal freedom is the UK Labour Party’s reason for being. It is clearly nonsense. If abortion truly is ‘the glue that holds the Democratic Party together’ it can look forward to a shattered future. The Democrats can no longer be seen as reliable defenders of choice.

At a presidential forum earlier this year, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton decried the failure of activists on both sides of the debate to bring down the number of abortions. She repeated a mantra her husband made famous more than a decade ago. ‘Abortion’, she said, should be ‘safe, legal and rare’. She then added: ‘And by rare, I mean rare.’

It could be argued that there is a key difference between Bill’s ‘rare’ and Hillary’s ‘rare’ that is more than a stress on emphasis. Hendershott tells us that, in 2004, all the Democratic candidates were pro-choice; what she seems not to notice is the shift that has happened since. Just two years later, candidates for governor in Ohio made a point of balancing being pro-choice with talk of the need to reduce abortion. In July this year, the Los Angeles Times reported on a mailer by one candidate which spoke of his desire to give all children ‘their opportunity to reach their God-given potential. This includes working across our differences, to reduce the need for and numbers of abortions.’ The Democratic Party now has high-profile anti-choice senators such as Pennsylvania’s Bob Casey and leader of the House, Harry Reid.

Bill’s ‘rare’ was in the context of his actions in defending abortion access: ending the gag rule that prohibited federally funded family-planning clinics from informing patients about abortion, and his dogged resistance to pressure to ban the safe and effective abortion technique sometimes emotively called ‘partial birth abortion’. Hillary’s ‘rare’ is in the context of a party that seems to have lost any sense of the need to defend – never mind extend – women’s access to abortion.

This book is a sadly lost opportunity. Hendershott’s use of invective rather than argument means that she undermines even those of her arguments that are valid. It is undeniable that the birth control movement in the USA, as in Britain, has at times been strongly influenced by eugenics, particularly concerns about race. And it is true that latterly Professors John Donahue and Steven Levitt of the University of California have used mathematical arguments to marshal evidence that legal abortion has led to crime reduction. But these authors of Freakonomics are not representatives of the pro-choice movement, and the vast majority of doctors who work in family-planning centres in poor areas do so to benefit the health of their patients – not to keep their numbers down, as implied in the chapter on ‘race’.

There are interesting historical observations about how the Democratic Party managed to adopt a broadly pro-choice perspective despite its Catholic base. Although even here it is hard to determine what is fact from exaggeration, and it is notable that Catholics for a Free Choice has forced the publisher to issue a disclaimer in relation to Hendershott’s allegations about the actions of its former president.

It is true that the dialogue about abortion needs to progress. Admittedly there are some in the pro-choice movement who seem to be unaware of the changes to attitudes and values since the abortion campaigns of the 1970s and 80s. Hendershott gives a lovely anecdote of a former activist wearing ‘her 1970s-era button depicting a coat-hanger with a red slash through it’ being asked, by a younger woman, what she had against coat hangers. Times have moved on, some of the debates concerning abortion have changed – but fundamentally women’s needs have not. Women today need their politicians to stand against irrational legal intervention regarding abortion practice. When the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act – which requires that women be given erroneous ‘facts’ about fetal pain and the opportunity to request analgesia for their ‘unborn child’ – is discussed, women need members of Congress and Senate to oppose it as vociferously as Clinton opposed endless attempts to ban ‘partial birth abortion’. It would be better for women if the Democratic Party were the party that Anne Hendershott imagines it to be.

Ann Furedi is chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

The Politics of Abortion by Anne Hendershott is published by Encounter Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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