What Republicans get wrong about abortion
Their anti-abortion crusade threatens liberty, privacy and the family – values they claim to care about.
Who would have thought that in 2024, more than half a century after abortion became safe and legal throughout most of the Western world, it would become one of the key issues of the US presidential election? And who would have thought that Democratic politicians would feel the need to embark on a ‘Fight for Reproductive Freedoms Tour’ across the country? Last month, vice-president Kamala Harris launched the tour at an event in Wisconsin, promising to ‘embrace [the issue of abortion] to the full’.
To most outside observers, it’s astonishing that this fight for reproductive rights is still ongoing in the US. Pro-choice optimists might reasonably have expected this issue to have been resolved during Barack Obama’s presidency, when the pro-choice Democrats last had a majority in both houses of congress. But his administration failed to pass any federal legislation to protect abortion. Instead, he chose to rely on the limited protections granted by the 1973 Supreme Court ruling on Roe v Wade, which was overturned by conservative justices in 2022.
Obama was not even interested in securing women’s access to the morning-after pill, despite this being a far less contentious issue than abortion. It took a Republican-appointed judge to force the Food and Drug Administration to allow the pills to be sold over the counter in pharmacies to women of all ages in 2013. At the time, reproductive choice advocates warned that ‘Democrats aren’t always our best friends’.
This was, and still is, wise counsel. The Democrats’ focus on abortion this campaign cycle is not because they hold a deep-seated belief in reproductive freedom. Rather, as many pundits have pointed out, it is largely because abortion is an issue on which Republicans have impaled themselves.
Polls consistently show that most Americans support access to abortion. In fact, as few as one in 10 supports the full ban that some Republican states have introduced. In various state elections last November, governors that supported abortion rights kept their seats. In Ohio (a Republican state), voters added the right to abortion to the state constitution last year. This overturned a six-week ban that had been introduced following the Supreme Court’s Roe v Wade decision. According to Thomas Whalen, an associate professor in social sciences at Boston University, abortion ‘resonates across partisan lines… For women voters, that is the one issue that trumps all others that will get them to switch party alliances.’
So, why does abortion have this resonance? And why does neither party properly understand it?
Ultimately, voters see abortion as a private matter. It is a solution to a problem that many couples are bound to face at least once. People can feel committed to the sanctity of all human life in theory, but when faced with their own pregnancy – or their partner’s, daughter’s, sister’s or friend’s – things become more complicated. As Catholic columnist Mary Kenny once said, people can think that abortion is wrong in principle, but also think it is ‘the right thing to do’ in some circumstances.
Conservative calls to ban abortion are at odds with how most people live in the 21st century. Today, women – including most conservative women – aspire to work outside the home and to balance family life with other considerations. Women want control over if, when and with whom they have children. It is both reasonable and responsible for women to want to plan the size of their families. And yet, we know that contraception alone is often insufficient to manage these priorities.
Many on the right who are hostile to the right to choose imagine that abortions are something done only by uncaring women who resent family life and children. They fear that being pro-choice is an expression of woke identity politics. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.
The women you’ll find in abortion clinics are typically those who have tried various methods to avoid getting pregnant. They are often women who already have children who they need to care for. Many would like to carry their unborn child to term, but believe it is unmanageable for them. These are not generally the blue-haired feminists that conservatives tend to associate with the pro-choice movement.
Many Americans, even conservatives, know someone who has had an abortion. And if you love and trust someone who has made that decision, it becomes harder to condone laws that would drive them either to break the law or to have a child against their wishes.
This is why, when push comes to shove, most people respect the right to abortion. It is why hundreds of thousands of people in the most conservative and rural parts of Catholic Ireland voted to allow legal abortion in a 2018 referendum. The day before the ballot, pundits claimed the vote was too close to call. In the end, over 66 per cent of the electorate voted to legalise abortion.
If Republicans want to stand a chance of winning the 2024 election, they cannot be a party that rails against reproductive rights. They would do well to remember that to be pro-choice is to be pro-freedom.
Ann Furedi is author of The Moral Case for Abortion: A Defence of Reproductive Choice.
Picture by: Getty.
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