I really didn’t intend to write a long series of posts on the question of “ending the culture wars,” or specifically on abortion policy. But my friend Damon Linker at TNR has responded in some detail to my arguments against a strategic retreat on the “constitutionalization of abortion” as a way to detoxify the subject, so I’ll go one more round, and also note some comments made by other folks during this discussion.
First of all, in his latest post Damon makes a rather crucial clarification of his “deconstitutionalize abortion” argument: this isn’t, he says, a practical proposal, but rather a “hypothetical thought-experiment” to convince pro-choice progressives that anything short of such a radical step would not succeed in making the abortion battle anything less than “intractable.” I certainly don’t need convincing on this point; I despair of any end to this particular front in the “culture wars,” but strongly think the “thought-experiment” might make the abortion wars even worse, while providing the people on the other side of the barricades from me and other pro-choice Americans with the opportunity to actually put their convictions into practice backed by the power of the state–not an inestimable factor.
Second of all, shifting to the arguments against his “thought-experiment,” Damon distinguishes between the “conservative side of the culture war” from the “pro-life movement,” and suggests that it’s the former, not the latter, who might be “convinced to stand down from the culture war if the identity-politics provocation of Roe were removed.” Now I’m afraid this reasonable-sounding distinction drifts into all sorts of treacherous territory, not least among them the exceptional slipperiness of trying to measure nuances in terms of public opinion on abortion. By Damon’s math, a quarter of the American electorate wants to outlaw “most” abortions, but isn’t “pro-life” because it recognizes exceptions. But those exceptions can get pretty large: sizable majorities of Americans favor a “health of the mother” exception even to a ban on the very unpopular and rare “partial-birth abortion” procedure–as John McCain learned when he mocked the exception in a presidential debate last October, reflecting the common right-to-life view that it makes any abortion restrictions meaningless. So it’s not that easy to divide people into neat categories like “anti-abortion but not prolife,” much less make the categorization the linchpin of an argument for ending culture wars.
More importantly, Damon offers no evidence that this “non-RTL cultural conservative” grouping is really “provoked” by Roe. Perhaps some conservative intellectuals like Ross Douthat are duly provoked, but it’s significant that the “judicial tyranny” argument that is at the heart of Damon’s case is almost exclusively aimed by Republican politicians at serious RTL activists, often in very targeted settings like John McCain’s“dog-whistle” speech to Christian conservatives last May. Participation in the annual protests against Roe doesn’t seem to extend beyond the organized RTL ranks. But this gets to the real problem with Damon’s “thought-experiment”: if a large segment of “culture-war” conservatives are motivated by mere cultural conservatism, and oppose abortion for traditionalist, or anti-feminist, or anti-sexual-freedom reasons, and not because they believe a fetus is a full human being deserving the same rights as any other human being, then their anti-abortion opinions are as malleable as their opposition to gay marriage or church-state separation. Since these are issues on which Damon agrees that time and generational change will heal most wounds, the same should be true of abortion for those outside the serious RTL ranks. This is particularly true if the status quo is legalized abortion rather than the endless, daily warfare about abortion policy we’d see if Roe is ever reversed (BTW, if anything, I may have understated the havoc that would ensue in a post-Roe abortion polity; see Linda Hirshman’s fascinating Washington Post article last September about the strong probability that states with abortion bans would seek to prevent out-of-state abortions).
Third of all, I probably invited one rejoinder from Damon by suggesting unhappily that the only real comity that pro-choice Americans can offer their RTL brethren was the cold comfort of the slogan: “Oppose abortion? Don’t have one!” Damon took that to mean I was arguing that legal abortion represents “moral neutrality” on the issue. Of course not. But it’s actually the closest to neutrality that the state can get, since after all, nobody in the Roe era is being forced to have an abortion, while in a post-Roe situation–much less the constitutional abortion ban that RTLers favor–some women would certainly be forced to carry pregnancies to term against their will. And I don’t think it’s a very good idea to bring up the slavery analogy as part of an argument for a “states’ rights” position on abortion.
Speaking of “states’ rights,” Jack Whalen of After the Future wrote one of the most cogent of many blog posts agreeing with Damon:
The Dems on the national level should not take sides on abortion. The culture war might rage on, but let it be fought out in the state legislatures rather than in Washington. This should be perceived as neither a Dem nor a Republican issue. If abortion policy was determined on a state-by-state basis, it would make it easier for Democrats on the Federal level to elect legislators whose positions on the economic and civil liberties issues are more in line with Main Steet aspirations without abortion or other divisive cultural issues being a wedge issue or distraction.
His full argument reflects a very common belief among Democrats, which I’ve battled for years, that “cultural” issues are somehow not legitimate, and if we can find a way to consign them to the sidelines, Democrats will win on economic and other issues.
And that brings me to Kay Steiger’s argument (as a guest blogger on Matt Yglesias’ site) that the habit of referring to issues like abortion or same-sex marriage as “cultural issues” trivializes them. I disagree, because “culture” is as important a fulcrum for public policy as any other aspect of human society. Indeed, a nation that can’t figure out how to reflect in public policy a fixed notion of what represents “homicide” or “a family” isn’t likely to do very well in figuring out how to prevent “homicides” or give “families” economic opportunity. And that’s why after decades of agonizing over the subject, I’ve arrived at Linda Hirshman’s position that pro-choice Americans–or more properly, pro-abortion-rights Americans–need to be willing and able to defend the morality of abortion. If we don’t, then we deserve the contempt of the Right-to-Life movement, and are rightly condemned to the self-doubt and guilty consciences that so regularly produce offers of unilateral compromise in the vain hope of peace.