Putting an End to the Albatross Myth

In her June 22nd New York Times op-ed, "Why Pro-Choice Is a Bad Choice for Democrats," Melinda Henneberger sends a mixed message to pro-choice politicians. She criticizes them for failing to address the complexity of the abortion issue, but she tells them instead of giving up on voters who consider themselves pro-life, they should give up on defending abortion rights. I don't think they have to give up on either.

As Shira Saperstein and I wrote in January 2005:

Instead of retreating from the perceived albatross of abortion (and further demoralizing steadfast supporters), the way for progressives and moderates to broaden their appeal and strengthen their ranks is to show leadership in this controversial area. Leadership requires grappling with difficult issues—not ignoring them. The divide this country faces regarding difficult issues like abortion presents an opportunity for those on the left to demonstrate leadership, not to show how well they can follow. Progressives must ask—and strive to answer—the hard questions, such as what is the proper balance to be struck between respect for fetal life and respect for women as moral decision makers? How can the government best support women in their decisions to have or not have children? How can we reduce the frequency of abortion in ways that preserve rather than compromise women's autonomy?

We agree with Henneberger that abortion discussed in isolation is a winning issue for conservatives. But if progressives and moderates can put abortion back in context and link it to a larger agenda, they may be able to get into some of that complexity that Henneberger rightfully notes is missing from the current debate:

Leadership also involves articulating a vision. Progressives need to acknowledge that the conflict over abortion cannot be solved with simple solutions. Instead, a comprehensive plan to improve women's health and lives and give them real choices is necessary. Such an agenda would include not only legal abortion but also access to contraception, medically accurate sex education, pre- and post-natal care, child care, health care, paid family leave, job training, job protection, and a living wage. For until we as a society create a climate in which women have the social and economic means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and to raise the children they want to bear, we are all responsible for every abortion that occurs.

However, Henneberger herself falls into the trap of oversimplifying the debate—criticizing the Presidential candidates who were dismayed by the Supreme Court's abandonment of a health exception requirement in abortion jurisprudence. Her characterization of their positions ignores the history of abortion in this country:

The public needs to be reminded that support for legal abortion and other reproductive rights comes from a specific and tragic history. Roe did not mark the beginning of abortion in this country. Illegal and unsafe abortions resulted in death, serious illness, and infertility for thousands of women, which provided much of the impetus for making abortion legal. When challenged by those who would criminalize abortion, progressives must remember this history and explain what they are about: protecting women's health and lives, ensuring that children are born into families that can care for them, and keeping women and their doctors out of jail. They must seek to fill, not create, a void in the current political landscape.

Rather than becoming silent on abortion, pro-choice leaders must struggle in this sound-bite-driven world to speak more clearly about the reasons in favor of legal abortion. And it would be nice if the media tried to do the same.

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  • invalid-0

    When you say “The public needs to be reminded that support for legal abortion and other reproductive rights comes from a specific and tragic history.” You do know that the numbers of women dying and being harmed by ‘unsafe’ abortion were numbers pulled out of the air for the purpose of changing abortion law. You are correct when you cay “Roe did not mark the beginning of abortion in this country. Illegal and unsafe abortions resulted in death, serious illness, and infertility for thousands of women,” However, the very people who were the ‘illegal abortionists’ of the 1960s are today the grandfathers of the abortion industry. In Dallas TX Curtis Boyd performed 10,000 such illegal abortions in East Texas before Roe and then opened the first ‘legal abortion center’ in Dallas. It is true that the rhetoric of claiming death and mayhem to thousands did in fact provide much of the “impetus for making abortion legal.” Sadly, it was rhetoic not fact. Progressives must remember the facts of this history and realize they have been lied to by their own abortionists and the abortion propaganda machine. If their stated goal is “protecting women’s health and lives, ensuring that children are born into families that can care for them,” abortion doesn’t protect a woman and it kills an innocent unborn child. In fact, women are still dying because of legal abortion. Women by the thousands are suffering from the guild and shame and emotional aftermath of abortion. (across the United States, Canada and Europe women attend over 4000 pregnancy center based support groups and within churches over 8000 churches offer recovery help. As far as “Keeping women out of jail” there has never been a law aimed at criminalizing women. However the doctors who perform abortion should be put behind bars and defrocked of their medical license (if they have one.)

    To progress you must have a future. Progressives have missed a very important point. You can’t sustain a community if you abort all the children.

    I agree that that progressives should become more prolife. Other wise they have no future other than the coming tribulation this world faces.

  • invalid-0

    To begin, I’m not sure why you let anti-abortion ranters hijack all the threads on this site. If they were thoughtful moderates interested in debate and compromise (ie, maybe anti-abortion but pro-birth control and sex ed), then maybe it’d be ok. But the first comment before mine doesn’t do much to further the debate. Don’t be afraid to delete, delete, delete!

    Ok, now getting to my main point: I greatly disliked the Henneberger piece because it made it sounds like democrats need to roll over on the abortion question, and chastised people for being so upset over the PBA ban case. But I think Henneberger touches on an important point: the majority of voters, even those who consider themselves basically pro-choice, are not pro-choice fundamentalists…meaning, they don’t favor late-term abortions. Over-emphasis on the Carhart decision is dangerous because it makes it sound like late-term abortion is the battleground we’ll stake our rights on. In reality, the core of abortion/reproductive rights is early term abortion and contraception. I think that a very comfortable majority of Americans would support that view: protect abortion rights before 12-14 weeks (except in cases of maternal health/fetal deformity/rape/incest) and support contraception. But if we chose the battleground of late-term abortion, pro-choicers are going to lose — we’ll sacrifice the abortion rights most often used by women (1st trimester) in favor of protected abortion rights more rarely used.

    If abortions are restricted in the second trimester, some women will lose their reproductive rights in favor of fetal rights. But I think that that’s something we’re going to have to live with in order to consolidate the reproductive rights consensus we DO have in this country.

    • scott-swenson

      nausicaa …. thanks for jumping into the fray. we do restrain from deleting comments, even in the extreme, as long as they are not threatening or profane because we believe our community will respond, as you have. We hope to be able to maintain this policy because the pro-life sites uniformly do not publish comments, more often moderating them and then only publishing those they agree with. Limitations on free speech are their values, not ours. We’ve operated for several months with an open door policy and until such time as it gets out of hand we will maintain it. We have deleted comments, and we will continue to, but not simply based on what is said .. that would be stooping to their level.

      Be the change you seek,

      Scott Swenson, Editor

  • invalid-0

    I think so many people miss the point of why the decision in Carhart is so distressing.

    While I do think intact dilation and extraction is a necessary procedure that women should have access to, the more alarming matter in this decision concerns the very broad, sweeping judgements made in the majority opinion.

    Here’s why I am frightened and distressed over this ruling:

    1. The justices in the majority are pretending this is not what it is: a reversal of established legal precedent. This demonstrates their willingness to disregard past court decisions and create their own laws with no respect for established legal decisions.

    2. These men, none of whom has any medical training, have decided that they, rather than a woman and/or her doctor, are best equipped to determine the best course of treatment.

    3. The majority opinion places the value of a woman’s health below that of a previability fetus.

    4. The justices make far-reaching, paternalistic claims about women and their ability to make educated decisions about their own health and welfare, despite acknowledging there is NO evidence to support their very offensive assumptions.

    5. The decision invites further intrusion into a highly personal and difficult decision with language that implies the justices would not only tolerate but actually encourage additional restrictions on women’s access to abortion care.

    6. The majority justices and antichoice groups are pretending this is some sort of victory for ideologically motivated politicians and fetuses everywhere, when in reality, the decision says quite explicitly that it does not ban abortions, rather, it requires the use of less safe, potentially more offensive procedures to meet the same ends with no fewer abortions but greater risk to women’s health.

    This decision is not just about one rarely used procedure. Our most fundamental rights are put at risk. The decision is an insult to women and a very real threat to our autonomy.

  • invalid-0

    Carrie B – I don’t at all disagree that legally speaking, the Carhart decision is terrible. But I believe that at this point, our best hope is the legislature, not the courts. The pro-choice movement has become a PR battle; it’s not a legal battle anymore. As such, court cases should only take a prominent role in the discourse to the extent that they assist in the PR battle. Unfortunately, the PBA ban and subsequent court case was a brilliant PR move on behalf of the anti-abortion forces: not only did we lose in the courts, but we will also lose in the PR realm if we complain too stridently about the loss. Because the longer we emphasize Carhart, the longer the general public will only hear us defending late-term abortion. This can only lose us points in the PR/legislative battle. I really, truly believe that fighting to the death for things like the method of late-term abortions might lose us the larger war: preserving the right to abortion in the majority of cases (first trimester); good sex ed; access to birth control

  • invalid-0

    Thanks for your reply, Scott. I can see where you’re coming from.

  • invalid-0

    Nausicaa – I think you are right that this is becoming a PR war and that the battle must be won in the legislatures. You are also probably right that too much attention on Carhart at the expensive of highlighting prevention programs is unwise. I just think people often don’t understand the full impact of such decisions. They don’t see the very real danger presented. Of course, it is unrealistic to think all my ranting will lead many people to an “aha” kind of moment. With limited resources, you certainly have the more pragmatic approach.


  • invalid-0

    I am so thankful that you posted this response–when the pro-life side gets a free pass to focus on the parts of reproductive health that are controversial, they gain some traction. However, when their full agenda is laid bare — taking away core health care access (which is to say freedom and control over our own lives) Americans overwhelmingly disagree with them.

    I’m hopeful we’ll be able to turn the discussion towards the broader frame you propose.

  • invalid-0

    The NYT is a mere shadow of its former self. I wouldn’t even use it to wrap fish in! Gave up reading it more than 15 years ago. It might also be okay to start the charcoal burning in your grill.