Abortion & Civil War

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. Twenty years later, much of the piece still seems relevant.

By Charles Fager (Author’s note from 1998: Many of the policy issues described in this essay, originally written in 1988, still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. Thus I have made only as few minor changes in the text. A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

 I first realized I was uneasy about abortion one autumn afternoon, shortly before my first daughter was born. A young woman friend paid a call on us, to say she was unexpectedly pregnant. Unmarried, and not interested in marrying the man involved–what, she asked, did we think she should do?

It was 1969. America was at war in Vietnam, and in constant upheaval at home. I thought of myself as a radical then, dedicated to ending the war and reshaping society in some not very clear, but more peaceful and equalitarian manner. This radicalism had always included being progressive-minded, I presumed, on matters regarding sex and gender.

Nevertheless, looking at my wife’s enlarged belly, and then at our friend’s flat one, I heard myself suddenly blurting out, “Well, I think you should have it, and either keep it or put it up for adoption, because that thing in there is human.”

This declaration surprised me as much as it did our friend. But there it was, coming from somewhere very deep inside.

Once I admit to having been raised Catholic, of course, some readers may cry “Aha!” and consider its origins easily explained and as easily dismissed. But I had long since shed the other central tenets of my childhood religious training, from transubstantiation to the primacy of Rome (especially this latter), and had found a religious home elsewhere.

“Ensoulment”–Who Needs it?

Moreover I also rejected, then and now, the Catholic doctrine that is at the bottom of this matter, that of “ensoulment.” According to the “ensoulment” idea, at conception God creates and injects into the zygote an incorporeal and invisible essence, its individual immortal soul; and it is this substance which in fact makes that new cell “human.”

One problem I have long had with this notion is that if it is really what happens, the old questions about God’s justice and the suffering of innocents, questions as old as the Book of Job, become, at least to me, not just unanswerable but intolerable.

That is because embryological research has clearly established that somewhere between one third and one half of all such zygotes are spontaneously aborted, many of them so early that the women may not even know what has happened. (The New England Journal of Medicine in July 1988 reported the results of just such a study.)

Yet according to Catholic doctrine, each of these billions of nascent humans had immortal souls, which made them essntially human, and which are automatically denied access to heaven forever, through no fault of their own. They spend eternity in limbo, wherever that is.

Given the high rate of spontaneous abortion, that means there could be as many souls out there innocently barred from the salvation which Catholics are taught is the true divine purpose of human creation as there are who have been born and had their chance at heaven.

Perhaps most Catholics and anti-abortionists can swallow such a theology; I cannot.

This “ensoulment” notion, furthermore, makes all the Catholic anti-abortionist waving of bloody prenatal photographs irrelevant in a very basic respect, inasmuch as their own church specifies that it is not the flesh, but this invisible metaphysical extra which is the critical factor. Yet not even the most devout Roman embryologist, assisted by the finest of intrauterine electron microscopy, ever has, ever will or ever could see it.

What do I conclude from all this? That while a zygote may be an empirical entity, the issue of when and whether it becomes human is a question not of science but of belief. That observation in itself is not a criticism of Catholic beliefs; but beliefs cannot be proven, and ensoulment is a belief which, Catholic boyhood notwithstanding, I do not hold.

Leaning Toward Life

In truth, I don’t know when unborn life becomes human, and in the years since that encounter in 1969 I have come to doubt that the moment of conception is the time, or that early abortion constitutes any morally significant form of “homicide.” Yet this uncertainty does not alter my overall uneasiness about abortion as a social phenomenon. The not-yet born unquestionably deserve to be considered human sooner or later, and my gut tells me we had better lean toward sooner rather than later, if we know what is good for us as a society. Which in this matter, I believe we don’t.

I freely admit this to be my own belief, a visceral conviction ultimately beyond any form of “proof.” But if you are tempted to criticize it therefore, I would respectfully ask you to examine where your own deepest convictions about life come from. In my experience the viscera is as typical and reliable a source as any other in such matters, and for that matter life itself defies reason.

In any event, this antipathy to abortion is one of the two central considerations that have shaped my attitude on this issue ever since. The other conviction, which in the beginning was no more articulate, is that, nevertheless, the attempt to prevent abortion by outlawing it was not only doomed to fail as a practical political matter, but was dangerously wrong in conception as well.

This second conviction is what the following essay is primarily about. But before plunging into it, I’d like to say something briefly about the further evolution of the first factor, and how I have expressed it in the almost twenty years since I discovered it.

Roe v. Wade, and Me

Admittedly I haven’t had great success as an opponent of abortion; our young woman friend heard me out patiently, replied that she had resolved to end her pregnancy, and she did. Then as 1969 turned into the 1970s and the issue heated up in a public way, most of the “progressive” folks I knew lined up enthusiastically in support of legal and publicly-funded abortions. As they did, I hung back and agonized over my heretical notions, trying to reconcile them with the rest of my activist stands.

Actually, such a reconciliation wasn’t very hard to make in theory; if you think the unborn are human, it’s no big jump to add them to the list of blacks, Vietnamese, women and so forth as an oppressed group deserving liberation and protection against undeserved violence. It’s my pacifist friends who have more trouble, justifying their making of an exception in this case.

No, the hard part wasn’t the theory, it was the practice. Here the difficulty was twofold: First there was the challenge of breaking with my liberal-radical peers, which I did not want to do; and second, one had to face the company one would be keeping in the anti-abortion ranks. That movement was then made up primarily of Catholics, and the more right-wing, Vietnam War-supporting Catholics at that. What was I to do in the face of this dilemma?

I attempted a double response to this twofold challenge: First, I tried to carve out an independent, politically progressive anti-abortion stance; and at the same time, I kept looking for other stray souls who didn’t want to save the unborn from being abortion fodder today only so they could be turned into cannon fodder tomorrow.

My first major attempt to state this position in print came in January 1973 in a cover article for the “alternative” weekly I then worked for, “The Real Paper” of Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was one of two such pieces; the other was by the paper’s resident feminist, who made all the usual arguments for it. My piece argued that abortion was wrong, and that its widespread use was less a mark of liberation than a barometer of oppression among women, especially the poor and nonwhite; but I also made it clear that I opposed making it illegal.

The piece was controversial, to say the least. Letters came pouring in for three weeks thereafter. Most of them denounced me in various shades of purple prose; scarcely a handful even seemed to understand what I was saying, and of these only one or two backed me up. The vehemence of the response was daunting, but nothing in the letters made me think I had been mistaken.

Then, abruptly, the letters stopped; my heresy was, not exactly forgotten, but definitively swept aside by nothing less than a judicial earthquake: The Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which was announced late that same month.

The Vanishing Alternative

And that was largely that. But I kept looking for like-minded folks, and finally, about a year later, I found some.

Kids they were, mostly, part of a group called The National Youth Pro-Life Coalition. Somehow I got connected up with them, and attended a couple of their conventions, where I conducted workshops on nonviolent direct action as a way of expressing opposition to abortion, growing out of my experience in the civil rights movement a decade earlier. Some of the organizers of the very first civil disobedience actions against abortion clinics I helped train and inspire; as I explain further below, that has become a mixed legacy to say the least, but it is one that cannot be denied.

Among these youthful, peace-minded anti-abortion activists were some people I still think very highly of, although in many ways we have parted company. For several years we kept in touch, as those who remained more activist than I struggled to find a way to build an alternative presence within the increasingly reactionary political context of the anti-abortion movement.

What came out of this struggle was a small and scattered but seminal network called Pro-Lifers for Survival. PS as it was called was the brain-(and even more, the heart and soul)child of Juli Loesch, an eloquent, gently militant Catholic peacenik from Erie, Pennsylvania. I was asked to be on the PS Board of Advisors. This board never actually met but, I was amazed to find, it was indeed asked for advice on a number of occasions.

Even though it never amounted to much as an organization, and finally disbanded in the 1980s, PS accumulated two very important achievements: One, it helped legitimize the idea that a person could be anti-abortion without thereby being by definition a rightwinger; and two, wonder of wonders, it, and especially the witness of Juli Loesch, more or less converted the American Catholic bishops, nudged them into explicitly linking their anti-abortion stance with an antiwar position. (I doubt the bishops would ever admit to having been influenced by such an ad hoc, theologically dubious and numerically insignificant band as PS, but I make the claim nonetheless.)

Unfortunately, while PS did leave a mark on the anti-abortion movement, the bulk of that constituency in the early 1980s was going a very different route: following the Pied Pipers of reaction into a formal coalition with the nascent Religious Right. I chronicled some of the formative events of this alliance for another “alternative” weekly paper in Washington. By the time Ronald Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, the creative work of Juli Loesch and PS, and the “seamless garment” philosophy of the Catholic bishops which was its finest flowering, had both been marginalized to the point of practical irrelevance in the face of the anti-abortion movement’s effective absorption into the militant right.

This made me sad, to say the least. But it also made me think. About this time, a number of ex-PSers moved on to form another movement group, a political action committee called Justlife. Justlife set out to collect money for political candidates who back a three-part platform of opposition to militarism and legal abortion plus support for human needs programs.

I was asked to become a charter member of Justlife, thought about it carefully, and then declined. There was something about it that didn’t sit right. I certainly did not object to political action, nor was connecting abortion and war a problem. And surely I was for rebuilding the human needs programs decimated in the Reagan years.

No, as I considered it, my reluctance to sign on with Justlife came down to uneasiness with its acceptance of the standard anti-abortion strategy of attacking abortion’s legality, what is called in this essay the “Prohibitionist” approach, and its adoption of abolitionist rhetoric and imagery. Melding this with social democracy and disarmament did not, I felt, get to the root of the problem of dealing with abortion.

Trying to Speak Up

But after declining to sign on with Justlife, I felt an increasing need to make articulate my aversion to this strategy. In the light of my almost fifteen years of thinking and reporting on the abortion issue, the movement’s approach loomed larger and larger as, it seemed to me, the crucial, fatal, tragic error of the anti-abortion struggle. What at first was another visceral response seemed more and more reasonable, both politically and historically.

But I had not sat down and actually tried to articulate it in a reasonable way. And my sense of the trajectory of the anti-abortion movement, which is explained below, made me feel that it was increasingly timely, even urgent, to make this case, as forcefully as I could. In January, 1988 I started writing.

What follows, after fourteen drafts, is the result of this effort.


Completed in 1988

The Failure of the “Pro-Life” Movement

 The anti-abortion movement is a failure. Whatever else it has done, it has not stopped abortion: The number of abortions performed in the United States has steadily increased until now, fifteen years after Roe v. Wade, more than a million are being performed in the United States annually.

Furthermore, there is little hope that the movement can change this situation in the future. Indeed, while my opposition to abortion has remained firm since before 1973, I have become almost equally opposed to the anti-abortion movement. In my judgment the movement has become one of the biggest obstacles to effective action against abortion; it has become part of the problem. If there is to be any hope of turning the tide of abortion, I believe it will require that the the current movement be replaced by an entirely different social force with an entirely different approach.

The movement’s failure may be good news for abortion supporters. But it could also be, paradoxically, even better news for those who are against abortion, because facing that reality could free us to look for better approaches. One such alternative will be outlined later in this article.

This conviction that the anti-abortion movement cannot succeed is based on both practical and theoretical considerations. The practical reasons come down to these:

The movement is unlikely to reverse Roe;

But even if it does, that won’t stop abortion.

The slim odds of reversing Roe are not just a matter of the Supreme Court’s current makeup, which will change substantially in the next few years anyway. Even a new court, I believe, will be very slow to throw out Roe, because the American public has made it clear they support the concepts of privacy on which it is based, however debatable their technical constitutional basis might be.

The depth of this sentiment was shown dramatically in the struggle over the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, who was seen as the movement’s best chance in this decade to gain a potential majority for reversing Roe. Although the movement kept a low public profile during the marathon hearings, behind the scenes it went all out for him, mobilizing its rank and file to deluge Congress with pro-Bork calls and letters.

Even so, the Senate’s rejection of Bork came in response to clear indications of considered, majority public disapproval of the philosophy he articulated in the hearings, during which the issues underlying Roe were a central focus.

In short, despite conservative complaints about liberal “lynch mobs,” Bork was defeated fairly, on the merits, and after the anti-abortion movement had done all it could. The Supreme Court, which knows how to count votes, will not, in my view, be in any hurry to counter the public judgment rendered there.

But suppose I’m mistaken. Suppose the decision is eventually overturned. It certainly could happen; Bork notwithstanding, the movement has not given up. If Republicans regain the White House and fill the next Supreme Court vacancies, the prospects for reversal seem increasingly likely. But how much actual impact would reversal have?

Not much, I am convinced.

After all, reversal would not ban abortions, only return the job of regulating them to the states. While a few states might try to outlaw it completely, numerous others undoubtedly would still permit it, and some would even continue to pay for it as well.

Thus, even without Roe, abortion would still be immediately available to many Americans, and not far away for the rest. This was in fact increasingly the case in the years just prior to Roe. Besides, following the recent Canadian Supreme Court decision overturning restrictions there, abortion will soon be widely available just across our long northern border regardless of local restrictions below it.

But federalism is not the only tide running relentlessly against anti-abortion activists; there is also technology.

Both pro- and anti-abortion leaders are closely following the development of new drugs, of which one called RU 486 is the best known. RU 486 is a pill which has shown high effectiveness in inducing early abortions in tests in France, reportedly with few side effects.

The anti-abortion movement is working to prevent RU 486 from being made available in the U.S. It may succeed for awhile. But especially if more traditional abortion methods were restricted, it seems safe to predict that RU 486, if it were still illegal, would become as much a staple of the illicit drug traffic as cocaine or marijuana.

The significance of RU 486 and similar drugs, as they are perfected, goes beyond creating a new way to make abortion cheap and widely available. They do so, moreover, in a manner which strongly reinforces the autonomy of the woman involved. They “privatize” it. Doctors, clinics, all the current paraphernalia even of legal abortion will become increasingly optional, and abortion ever more a private, even solitary affair. Thus any scheme of public regulation would become more difficult to enforce.

Seeking Another Way

All this is well known to the anti-abortion movement leadership, if not the rank-and-file. Similarly well-known, and equally futile, are their hopes for a legislative ban, by some version of a constitutional amendment. Congress has been willing to end federal funding for abortions, but it has also made abundantly clear that it is not going to adopt any amendment prohibiting the practice; and if by some chance it did, ratification would be extremely difficult.

At first glance, this mixed legislative message may seem inconsistent, but it actually shows Congress performing rather well at its job of representing the public. That is because most Americans are in fact deeply ambivalent about abortion:

Given a choice, we definitely do not like it, and are content to keep our tax money from paying for other people to get it. But at the same time, we definitely want it available for ourselves or our close kin–just in case.

This ambivalence, incidentally, explains why both pro-and anti-abortion partisans can with equal sincerity claim that public opinion polls support their respective positions: The fact is, they’re both right. There is in truth some support for each side, often among the same group of people. After all, where is it written that public opinion has to be entirely consistent and free of ambivalence? But this also accounts for the stubbornness with which Congress has stuck to its seeming inconsistency.

The movement, after years of getting nowhere pushing its anti-abortion amendments, has tacitly accepted the validity of this analysis. While still paying lip service to amendment proposals, it has all but given up on them as a practical objective, aiming instead at the Supreme Court and a reversal of Roe.

Yet despite the legal, technological and legislative dead ends they face, the anti-abortion leadership does not yet show any sign of giving up. Partly this may simply be inertia: the true impact of the Bork rejection has not yet sunk in; then too, 1988 is an election year. Campaigning will occupy just about all the movement’s attention through this year and for several months beyond, enabling its cadre to avoid thinking about their cause’s dubious long term prospects for at least another year.

Nonetheless, discontent with the movement’s stalemated condition and lack of results is almost certain to start showing up eventually. When it surfaces, some hard questions are waiting to be asked:

What accounts for this record of failure?

Who is to blame?

What plausible options are there for turning the tide?

As these questions are debated, the movement will likely face intense internal turmoil, as it has before during struggles over strategy.

John Brown Rides Again

While grappling with these questions, some in the movement may be strongly tempted, as others have been before, by what can be called the John Brown Syndrome: As their hopes for ending abortion by legal means diminish, the resulting frustration may boil over into renewed outbreaks of violence against abortion facilities and practitioners. The appeal of the John Brown Syndrome is reinforced by an important movement custom, that of comparing itself to the abolitionists of the last century.

As a typical example of this practice, consider the book, A House Divided, by former Congressman Pat Swindall of Georgia (Oliver Nelson Publishers, 1987). Swindall, before his defeat in 1988, was a fast-rising New Right stalwart. And his rhetoric is typical of many more well-known activists.

He takes his title from Lincoln’s 1860 campaign slogan; he declares early on that “Our nation today is more deeply divided than it has been at any time since the troublesome days of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency”; most of a chapter is taken up with his analysis of the abortion-slavery parallels; and he then insists that support for capital punishment is not inconsistent with his anti-abortion stance–indeed, he says the government has a duty to “apply it equally, consistently and expeditiously to all who take innocent life by premeditation. Whether the issue is abortion or capital punishment,” he concludes, “the principle is the same.”

The emphasis on “all” is mine; but during a radio interview on a Washington talk show, Swindall explicitly affirmed that he would like to see all who perform or undergo abortions executed. This statement so shocked me that I ordered a copy of the tape to be sure I had heard correctly; and I had.

Thus if you are one of the millions of American women who has undergone an abortion, or one of the thousands of physicians who has performed one, perhaps you will understand why I regard this matter of historical parallels as of more than rhetorical importance. (For that matter, while Swindall did not discuss the penalties for “accessories” before and after the fact of abortion, no doubt he would want them punished severely as well; so the millions more who supported others who had abortions are presumably in jeopardy under a Swindall regime as well.)

But if Swindall’s proposals are shocking, his preoccupation with history is not entirely off the mark. First of all, it needs to be acknowledged that there are indeed a number of striking parallels between the anti-abortion and the antislavery movements:

a central issue which turns on the definition and value of human life;

the crucial role of Supreme Court decisions, Roe v. Wade and Dred Scott;

and above all–at least so the anti-abortionists hope–the activity of a crusading movement as the key factor in ending a monstrous social evil.

Yet while there is some validity to this comparison, there are problems with it as well. The most important of these we will get to in a moment; but the first problem with looking to the abolitionists is that the anti-abortionists do not pursue the parallel far enough.

That Other “Slippery Slope”

For instance, they neglect to notice that the abolitionists’ crusade became part of a descending spiral of polarization and violence, and achieved its goal of formally ending slavery only after what Swindall, with uncharacteristic delicacy, refers to as the “troublesome days” of Lincoln’s time, that is, a bloody civil war.

Even then, millions of southern blacks were left trapped in a peonage almost as bad, which persisted for another century before collapsing under a very different kind of attack. This outcome has left persistent and haunting questions about whether only the slaveholders were responsible for the war, or whether the rhetoric and tactics of some abolitionists helped foreclose a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

Which brings us back to the John Brown Syndrome. You don’t have to read much in either group’s polemics to hear eerie and chilling echoes. Consider these two quotations:

“We would sooner trust the honor of the country…in the hands of the inmates of our penitentiaries and prisons than in their hands….We do not acknowledge them to be within the pale of Christianity, or republicanism, or humanity!”

And, “In the last several years, Americans have literally stood by and watched as godless, spineless leaders have brought our nation floundering to the brink of death.”

The first quote is from William Lloyd Garrison, the second from Jerry Falwell; but as Swindall shows, they could be interchanged with many other similar or even more purple passages from either movement’s diatribes with hardly a seam showing.

Is such speculation about violence alarmist? Swindall’s personal misadventures in banking, which led to his indictment and defeat, have taken him off the public stage. But his sentiments are not isolated; and in any case, I am not the first to raise these questions. Consider the strongly anti-abortion writer Richard John Neuhaus, author of the widely-discussed book The Naked Public Square. In it Neuhaus wondered aloud whether we are approaching a condition in this area where Clausewitz’s famous axiom about war being politics by other means is being turned on its head, and politics is becoming civil war by other means.

Compared with Swindall, the style of Neuhaus’ comments is a model of calm; but how different is their substance? To the extent that this is increasingly the case, I wonder how long we can hope for the “other means” to prevail. Remember that for the anti-abortionists, lives are at stake, millions of them. The Nazi Holocaust is another historical parallel often cited in their rhetoric, along with warnings to avoid being seen by history, or God, as today’s “Good Germans” who did nothing to stop the slaughter.

I am not, of course, suggesting that the anti-abortion movement could produce another secession; pressed to that extreme, the parallels with the Civil War run out. But of two points I am confident: First, that the antiabortion movement faces a crisis of identity and direction as awareness of the futility of its current strategy becomes unavoidable; and second, that in this crisis the John Brown Syndrome will be a factor to reckon with. Yet whatever the outcome of more such violence, it seems a safe bet that it won’t help stop abortion.

Thus any way you slice it, the movement’s practical potential seems limited, to say the least. But as suggested at the outset, my sense of its failure is based not only on its poor political prospects; rather, this forecast only clarified and reinforced a growing conviction that the movement’s entire strategy has been misconceived and misdirected from the beginning.

Abolition Versus Prohibition

To see why, let’s look again at historical analogies. Despite the superficial parallels with abolitionism, I believe there is another crusade to which the anti-abortion movement is more truly, and more usefully, comparable: Prohibition. This is so above all because of the kind of problem the movements were dealing with:

Slavery was a sectional phenomenon, confined to the South, and even there practiced only by a segment of the white population. But abortion is like alcohol abuse–it pervades our whole society. Abortion is now a cultural reality: Men and women from every region, class and ethnic group have been personally involved in it, and this becomes more true every day. Most of them have come to consider it a legitimate response to certain circumstances.

Another common feature is that each movement wanted a legal prohibition of the behavior they abhorred. More important, both believed such a legal ban could actually eliminate the objectionable practice.

The Prohibitionists, of course, proved to be disastrously mistaken. The combination of alcohol’s pervasiveness, wide involvement and legitimacy produced more obstacles than the Prohibition program could handle. Ultimately the electorate decisively voted to give up the attempt.

This example illuminates the fatal flaw in the anti-abortion movement’s theory: these same factors of pervasiveness, wide involvement and legitimacy, even more than the hard facts of Washington political life, make its agitation an empty exercise.

From this perspective, Roe is a red herring, a colossal diversion. The idea that abortion can be stopped by reversing it is Prohibitionist romanticism, as naive and foredoomed as that of the Anti-Saloon League. With such a strategy, the anti-abortion army is bound to lose its war, even if it should somehow win the political battle for reversal–as the Drys managed to pass the Volstead Act.

This points to yet another potential parallel: When the Nineteenth Amendment was repealed, regulation of alcohol use was returned to the states, just as would happen if Roe were reversed; yet no one argues that this led to any meaningful reduction in alcohol problems in America; quite the contrary.

No, the genie is out of the bottle, the milk is spilled, Pandora’s box is open. That is true of alcohol; it is true of abortion.

Another Way? AIDS and Tobacco

For abortion supporters, this history may provide an occasion to gloat, and I don’t blame them. But for those of us who consider abortion a social evil, it does not have to mean giving up. Rather, it is a signal to go back to the drawing board. If we grant that abortion is a cultural problem not amenable to a Prohibitionist strategy, what is the alternative, if there is one? Where might we even begin to look for it?

The sad fact is that an alternative strategy does not yet exist. But I believe it could. There are possible models for one, along with actual programs aimed at other, apparently equally intractable cultural realities, programs which have in fact had genuine social impact.

I call these models Persuasionist strategies, in contrast to their Prohibitionist rivals. And I find useful examples in two ongoing efforts: the campaigns against smoking and AIDS.

Like abortion, smoking is legal, pervasive and widely accepted in of our culture. It is also massively destructive of human life; in 1979 the federal government estimated that it claimed 320,000 victims annually.

But unlike abortion, the incidence of smoking is declining. In 1964, when the first surgeon general’s report declared it to be a health threat, 40 percent of Americans were smokers; by 1986, the rate was down to 26.5 percent. Research data suggests that the decline is likely to continue: The government several years ago set a goal of reducing the proportion of smokers to 25 percent of the population by 1990, and that goal appears to be within reach. This is a remarkable change to have come about in less than a generation–and it is not an accident.

What has happened? I believe smoking has been reduced in response to three main factors:

First, its progressive delegitimation, especially by the government;

Second, the related educational antismoking campaigns;

And third, the persistence of these efforts over more than two decades.

All these factors have been crucial to producing changes in behavior: By themselves, the educational campaigns have been very small potatoes compared to the billions spent on cigarette advertising in the same period; but putting a government stamp on them helped offset this imbalance by increasing their credibility. And only a long-term program had any chance of countering tobacco advertising and beginning to uproot such a deeply ingrained cultural habit.

A similar pattern is developing in connection with AIDS. Recent statistics suggest that in at least in one major risk group, white male homosexuals, the educational efforts aimed at slowing the spread of AIDS by changing promiscuous sexual behavior have been highly successful; the extent of the changes is confirmed by an accompanying sharp decline in other sexually-transmitted diseases in this group as well. These drives have had the backing of the surgeon general and other government officials. While they have not been underway long enough to meet the long-term criterion, there is every indication that they will, and this suggests that over time their impact on behavior will become even more profound.

The AIDS experience is significant in another respect. There were, and still are, influential voices calling stridently for government to take a strongly Prohibitionist tack and attempt to force behavior changes among risk groups, especially homosexuals, by mandatory testing and what is euphemistically called the “quarantine” of possible carriers. It is no coincidence that these voices both echo and substantially overlap the anti-abortion constituency. But such Prohibitionist agitation has thus far been decisively set aside in favor of Persuasionist tactics, and the numbers suggest that these are paying off.

Persuasionist Thinking

I believe a Persuasionist strategy similar to these could be developed to deal with abortion, and that it could not only reduce its incidence substantially, and perhaps overwhelmingly, but could do so with much less of the social conflict and polarization that now surrounds the issue.

Such a strategy is not difficult to lay out in theory, though no doubt its implementation would evoke all the usual uncertainties and compromises of politics. It would include all the three elements identified in the earlier examples: Delegitimizing abortion as the major response to problem pregnancies; educating the public, and especially women at risk, about alternatives and sources of support; and third, sustaining these efforts over the long term, at least for a generation.

This delegitimation of abortion, as I hope by now is becoming clear, has nothing to do with attempts to outlaw it, anymore than the antismoking campaigns have sought to outlaw tobacco. Whether women theoretically “should” be the ones making abortion decisions, as a matter of fact they are; and in the future, with RU-486 or the equivalent, this autonomous decisionmaking capacity is likely to increase. Faced with this reality, the only practical way to decrease abortion is to influence the decisions they make. Many of the elements of such a policy are already part of federal law, although these scattered bits and pieces would need to be pulled together and thought through.

The result could, for instance, take the form of a congressional finding that the policy of the United States is to discourage abortion. To this would be added an explanation of why this conclusion has been reached, and directives to appropriate agencies to undertake educational efforts to persuade Americans to stop resorting to it, and to provide supportive services for those who seek alternatives.

Incidentally, the goal of discouraging abortion, but not by banning it, would fit well with the ambivalent state of public opinion on the subject described earlier; or at least, it would fit better than either the status quo or a total ban. This better fit should increase its credibility.

With the policy in place, the government would take the lead in underwriting the ongoing educational campaigns, urging women and their partners to take responsibility for avoiding abortion, and to parents and others to respect and support those who have done so. It would make liberal symbolic use of authoritative government figures, in the way that every cigarette pack health warning cites the surgeon general.

Such a public campaign, to retain credibility, would need to be backed up with a federal commitment to offer support and services to those seeking alternatives. This would include not only such items as contraception, prenatal and maternal health care, but also a long-overdue revamping and streamlining of adoption procedures to make adoption a real rather than a mainly theoretical option. We are a long way from making these alternatives meaningfully available to large numbers of the women faced with the abortion decision.

Finally, this effort would be planned to last at least a generation. Abortion has been legal and widely available in America for almost twenty years; it will take at least that long to begin to dislodge it.

My own conviction is that a Persuasionist strategy, aggressively and persistently pursued, could in time cut the incidence of abortion dramatically. But even in the best case it would not be expected to eliminate it completely. For that matter, the antismoking campaigns will not totally eliminate tobacco, anymore than AIDS education will entirely eradicate promiscuity or the sharing of needles by drug addicts. Yet these two are already smashing successes compared to, say, the long-term impact of Prohibition on alcohol problems.

Prospects and Problems

The same can hardly be said for the current anti-abortion movement. After fifteen years of agitation, what does it have to show? Its one concrete success has been to end public funding for abortions at the federal level and in most states. Beyond that, it has enriched numerous lawyers and caused no end of political mischief. What it has not done is reverse the tide of abortions. Nor, to repeat, does it show any real signs of doing so in the foreseeable future.

But are the prospects for developing a Persuasionist approach any better? In the short term, perhaps not. It will be difficult to open up the political space for an alternative strategy before the existing movement has largely burned itself out; and that could take a long time. An enormous amount of ego and emotion, not to mention money and institutional inertia, have been invested in the present Prohibitionist drive and its obsession with Roe. From its present perspective, my Persuasionist concepts are likely to be dismissed as nothing but a sellout. And let us not forget the persistent spectre of the John Brown Syndrome.

There would no doubt also be opposition, at least initially, from the pro-abortion camp, particularly those directly involved in the industry–for that, when a million-plus abortions are performed per year, is what it is. They won’t like it because, except for wanting public funding back, the status quo suits them fine. Yet by sidestepping the issue of legalization, a Persuasionist program would deprive them of their image as defenders of “freedom of choice,” which has always been their strongest card.

In fact, such a shift in direction would put the pro-abortion groups on the spot, since practically all their spokespeople have repeatedly said that, of course, they too are “against” abortion, in the sense that they don’t want it to be used any more often than is absolutely “necessary.” In a Persuasionist context, they would be expected to live up to their claim.

One probable result would be a winnowing out in the pro-abortion ranks. No one would be forced to help minimize abortion; but those who refused would look progressively less like mere abortion providers, and more like abortion promoters, salespeople pushing a product. Anti-abortionists have long argued that such was in fact the underlying reality of the pro-abortion camp; this would be a chance for the public to see how true the charge actually is. Given the public antipathy to the actual practice of abortion, such an image would greatly diminish the credibility of those thus identified.

But of course, this is all just speculation. Consider that Prohibition was repealed in 1933: That experiment proved so traumatic that fifty-five years later there are only a few voices calling for a rethinking of our approach to alcohol problems, and little sign that they will be seriously heard by policymakers anytime soon. This despite the obvious failure of state regulation to stem the tidal wave of alcohol-related problems, which add up to our most serious and destructive “drug crisis” by far.

The same thing could happen with abortion: The Roe obsession runs deep, and its stalemate continues. Furthermore, most of the existing anti-abortion movement–the Catholic bishops are the major exception–has been absorbed into the religious right, Catholic and Protestant. Indeed, as the Reagan era ends, it may remain as the strongest redoubt of reaction.

As such, its key leaders are no longer satisfied simply to resist abortion; their movement is now rapidly becoming the vehicle for a mixed bag of zealots seeking vengeance for a laundry list of putative wrongs which includes much of the basis of twentieth century culture, everything from secular humanism, sex education and birth control to the outcome of the Scopes monkey trial and the very Enlightenment itself.

How much longer will this disruptive force continue to wreak its near-random political havoc? How far will it follow its abolitionist star toward some unforeseeable but very possibly tragic denouement? Will the hope of finding a more promising alternative approach become one of its casualties?

Who can say? One thing, though, seems all too clear: in the meantime, every day the culture of abortion becomes ever more deeply woven into the fabric of American society. This is the bitterly ironic monument of the anti-abortion crusade. The movement has proven utterly unable to stop this process, and has little to look forward to but more failure, and not even noble failure at that.

2 thoughts on “Abortion & Civil War”

  1. Great analysis. Just ultimately leaves out the point that women must make the choice and live with it. We are “heretics,” by definition, when we choose. No one else is going to the stake for us. We go on our own, and burn if we will. But it is our choice alone, and must be in any just society.

  2. Lots of thinking and pondering…but going in circles because you fail to recognize your identity. We are made in the image and likeness of God…persons, however tiny from the very beginning , and therein lies our dignity. So simple a child can understand, and they do.

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