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Early-Term Abortion Bans Open Rift in Anti-Abortion Movement

Early-Term Abortion Bans Open Rift in Anti-Abortion Movement

RTLers agree on the goal but not on how to reach it.
Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP/REX/Shutterstock

As my colleague Irin Carmon observed earlier this week, the surge of state laws banning early-term abortions is a departure from the right-to-life movement’s long-term strategy of focusing on more controversial late-term abortions. And as I subsequently noted, this trend is causing some message indiscipline in the ranks of Republicans who’ve been trying to make themselves seem firmly in the mainstream on abortion policy in contrast to those Democrats allegedly willing to tolerate “infanticide.”

Turns out progressives aren’t the only ones noticing this dissonance in the right-to-life community. Two writers for National Review, David French and Ramesh Ponnuru, have entirely different takes on the furor engendered by the spate of “heartbeat” bills (banning abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy), a conflict exacerbated by the even more radical law just enacted in Alabama.

French, writing earlier this year when Mississippi became the third state to pass a “heartbeat” law, made the angry case for RTLers discarding the cloak of incremental abortion restrictions and acting on their conviction that all abortions are homicidal:

For a long time, the pro-life movement has been committed to incrementalism because incrementalism was all it had. There were no prospects of Roe’s reversal, and the only way to respond politically to abortion-on-demand was to chip away at the right rather than to swing with a sledgehammer. But pursued long enough, incrementalism has its own costs. It cultivates a degree of comfort with the persistence of abortion in American culture, and it sends a clear message to the judiciary that there is no true public outcry against the fundamental right to kill a child.

While some in the RTL movement argue that such honesty should await a propitious moment when SCOTUS is poised to do damage to reproductive rights (and there are varying assessments of how far the conservative majority is willing to go), French thinks the courts have to be provoked into action:

A demand to overrule Roe in the face of incrementalism is a demand that judges be bold even as legislatures remain cautious. Indeed, the most likely outcome of continued incrementalism is a virtual guarantee of more Roe no matter how much the Court’s composition changes.

At Bloomberg Opinion, French’s colleague Ponnuru counters with a defense of incrementalism on the usual prudential grounds. He discusses the possibility that too extreme a legal challenge could wrong-foot abortion foes on the Supreme Court, and he makes this long-range post-Roe argument:

Even if the Supreme Court were to declare that the Constitution does not confer a right to abortion, and thus put legislatures in charge of setting abortion policy, there would continue to be a political logic to moving gradually.

Pro-lifers would consider it morally obligatory to press for the maximum feasible legal protection for unborn children that could be sustained over time. But the risks of a backlash that set back that protection would be substantial, particularly in some states. At each time and place, the pro-life task will be twofold: putting into law those protections that command a consensus and working to change that consensus in the direction of more perfect justice. Each stage of this process of democratic persuasion will require difficult judgments of what is achievable.

Ponnuru notes that the incrementalist approach appears (in his view, anyway) to have produced a marginal increase in the number of Americans considering themselves “pro-life.” He does not mention, but surely knows, that public support for the kind of total abortion bans French is calling for is much, much lower.

It’s important to understand that the two conservative writers do not disagree on the ultimate goal of ending any right to choose, whether it’s constitutional or statutory. Ponnuru leaves no doubt about that:

Nearly everyone who is active in the movement agrees with French that its ultimate goal should be that, as the pro-life slogan has it, every child is “welcomed in life and protected in law,” which requires that Roe v. Wade and its successors be overturned completely. People who agree on that goal are divided, however, on how to get there.

As someone who does not share that goal, I’d say Ponnuru’s legal and political logic is stronger, but there’s something to be said for French’s transparency. For years, RTL activists have shed crocodile tears for rare late-term abortions even as they held the underlying view that such procedures were no different morally from the overwhelming majority of abortions that occur in the first trimester — or indeed, from using an “abortifacient” birth-control method like an IUD or a Plan B morning-after pill. What we’re seeing now among Republican legislators around the country is an uninhibited passion to use the power of the state to bring to full term every single pregnancy from the moment an ovum is fertilized. It should make for some sobering reflection among those who have grown complacent about reproductive rights.

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