Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay 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. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . 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?

[Note to the knee-jerk reader now shouting: “You’re a male. You had no right to say anything.” To this I shrug, and point out that this friend, an adult woman, came to us and asked for our feedback and advice. So I told her what I thought and felt. Not sorry about that then, not sorry now. ]

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, pre-Vatican II, of course, some readers may cry “Aha!” and consider the origins of my reaction 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 (theologically speaking; politically/culturally is something else), 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, beyond matters of DNA which come from scientific laboratories, 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.

Yet according to Catholic doctrine, each of these billions of nascent humans had immortal souls, which made them essentially human, and which, because they were not baptized, are automatically denied access to heaven forever, through no fault of their own. They spend eternity in limbo, wherever that is.

Christ in Limbo, 1552, by Agnolo Bronzino, Florence.

[NOTE: In 2007, the Church abruptly dumped Limbo, after about 1500 years, and the Vatican expressed the hope that unbaptized babies (which must include all those lost embryos) would somehow be saved — though it admitted there was no clear biblical or doctrinal basis for that assertion. Which is to say that, when it comes to replacing the vacant (mostly nude?) eternity of Limbo, the Church is still doctrinally very much . . . in limbo. Whatever.]

Given the high rate of spontaneous abortion, that still means there could be as many souls floating around 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, baptized, 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, immorttal metaphysical extra which is the critical factor. (After all, it is not bodies that go to hell or heaven, but the always incorporeal souls. Yet not even the most devout Roman embryologist, assisted by the finest of intrauterine electron microscopy, ever has, ever will or ever could see a soul in their microscopes, or watch one come and go.)

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 beliefs; and beliefs vary. That observation 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 the moment of conception is that time, or that early abortion constitutes any morally significant form of “homicide.” For that matter, in some hard/ambiguous cases that “line” might shift. (If a reader needs to pigeonhole me, institutionally I’ve settled firmly, if not entirely comfortably, into the pro-abortion ranks.)

Yet this alignment 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 is my own belief, a visceral conviction ultimately beyond any form of “proof.”  But if you are tempted to criticize it as such, 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 these  matters, and for that matter life itself defies reason.

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

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 fifty 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 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 to do in the face of this dilemma?

I attempted a double response to this 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 asserted 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. My article was like muttering in a corner; in Roe, the Supreme Court spoke a mighty thunderclap. But outside our newspaper office, the controversy continued, and 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.  (There’s a brief account of this in the 1999 book, Wrath of Angels, by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter James Risen, pages 60-61.)

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 their 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 (now Julianne Wiley), an eloquent, 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 more or less disbanded in the 1980s, succeeded by what is still called the Consistent Life Network, 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 early 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, especially with a female spokesperson, 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. Juli Loesch among others followed that path herself. I chronicled some of the formative events of this alliance for another “alternative” weekly paper in Washington. (None of these reports, alas, are online.) The alliance took hold; other one-time “pro-lifers” went for violence and murder.

As far as I could see, by the time Ronald Reagan ran for re-election in 1984, the promising work of 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 here  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 almost fifteen years of thinking and reporting on the 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 rightward, theocratic trajectory of the anti-abortion movement made me feel it was increasingly timely, even urgent, to make this case, as clearly as I could. In January, 1988 I started writing.

What follows, after more than fourteen drafts, plus some updating, is the result of this effort. I had hoped the whole subject would be out of date by now (2019); but that’s not so. I’ve trimmed it some, but it’s still a “long read.”


Completed in 1988; updated May 2019

The Overall Failure of the “Pro-Life”/Anti-abortion Movement

The anti-abortion movement is largely a failure. Whatever else it has done, it has not stopped abortion: The number of abortions performed in the United States steadily increased for some years after Roe v. Wade, with more than a million being performed in the United States annually by 1990. [Update: Since the early 1990s, U. S. abortion rates have gone down markedly. This strong reversal is rich with political irony: the deepest, steadiest decreases have come during the years when Democrats were in power, under policies abhorred by the movement but in line with goals articulated by Bill Clinton of making abortion increasingly safe, legal and rare. This approach (let’s call it SLR) has yielded a record of  achievement for which those who  are anti-abortion ought to be profoundly grateful (I, for one, am) — yet for which the anti-abortion movement will never forgive Clinton, his wife, the others who continued it, or the candidates who want it re-established.]

Numbers from the Centers for Disease Control.

The trend has continued. The latest numbers, from 2015, show a 40 percent decline in total U.S. abortions since its peak in the early 1990s. This remarkable, unexpected turn offers food for serious thought. For my part, while my opposition to abortion has remained firm since before 1973, it has helped me become almost equally opposed to the anti-abortion movement. In my judgment the record shows that the movement has become one of the biggest obstacles to effective action to slow and reverse the  incidence of abortion; it has become part of the problem.

If there is to be any hope for reaching the movement’s stated goal, I believe it will require that the the current movement be replaced by a different social force with an entirely different approach. And BTW, as we shall see, it’s not the first time an advocacy movement proved to be the worst enemy of its lofty goals.

The movement’s failures 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 them to look for better approaches. One such alternative will be outlined below.

This conviction that the anti-abortion movement is not succeeding 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.

[UPDATE: That last paragraph was my estimate in 1988, and as late as 2008. Now, with an activist right-wing Supreme Court majority just picking up steam, I’m not nearly so confident about Roe’s survival. But I stand by the conviction that Roe’s reversal would not end abortion.]

The Supreme Court, which knows how to count votes, should not, in my view, be in any hurry to counter the judgement rendered by the public.  [Update: I’m also not so sure of the Court’s reluctance anymore.  Yes, I still think a Roe  reversal would stir up widespread resistance; but today, the nascent rightwing Court majority looks like it’s ready, even eager, to open the floodgates of folly.]

But suppose my 1988 view is mistaken. Suppose Roe is overturned. It certainly could happen. But how much actual impact would reversal have?

Not much directly, I am convinced.

After all, reversal would not ban abortions outright, only return the job of regulating them to the states. While several states are ready  to outlaw it completely, numerous others undoubtedly would still permit it, and some would even continue to pay for it as well. The result would be a patchwork: major, high-population states on both  coasts and in mid-America would stay abortion-friendly. As usual, though, poor women would be most adversely affected; an old, disgraceful story.

Thus, even without Roe, abortion would still be available nearby for  many Americans, and not far away for many more. This was in fact increasingly the case in the years just prior to Roe. Besides, abortion is fully legal and broadly available in Canada, just across our long northern border.

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

Both pro- and anti-abortion leaders have closely followed the development of drugs which have made possible self-administered abortions in the early months.  In states that ban abortion, such underground practice/resistance can be expected to grow despite anti-abortion efforts to outlaw it as well.

The significance of self-administered abortions will likely increase if clinics are outlawed in some states, making many abortions cheap and accessible. They do so, moreover, in a manner which strongly reinforces the woman’s autonomy. They are “privatizing” it. Doctors, clinics, all the current paraphernalia even of legal abortion will become increasingly optional, and abortion ever more a relatively safe, even solitary affair. Thus any scheme of public suppression would become more difficult to enforce; more draconian measures would raise the odds of a Prohibition era backlash.

Seeking Another Way

All this should be 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, these mixed legislative messages may seem inconsistent, but to me they actually show Congress performing rather well at its job of representing the public. That’s 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, most of us definitely want it available, for ourselves, our close kin (or illicit partners) —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 substantially 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 uniform 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 federal anti-abortion amendments, has tacitly accepted the validity of this analysis. While still paying lip service, it has all but given up on them as a practical objective, aiming instead at the Supreme Court and a reversal of Roe.

Besides court battles, during its 45-year insurgency, some of its leadership have claimed the mantle, and the recollection of dogged determination, of the abolitionist movement and other famous 19th century reformers. And like them, they have had impact.

Tickets for the Susan B. Anthony List’s annual anti-abortion “gala” in Washington DC start at $350.

(An example: a major anti-abortion PAC calls itself the Susan B. Anthony List, appropriating some statements against abortion by the legendary suffragette. In the 2018 congressional elections, they spent $2.5 million on campaign contributions to anti-abortion candidates.)

Now, after many years  of marginalization, in 2019 the anti-abortion movement feels the wind is at its back. When the impact of the rightwing Supreme Court’s actions become known, and the extent of active resistance they evoke is clearer, some hard questions are waiting to be asked, especially: how far will anti-abortion leaders carry enforcement efforts?

I predict there will be sensational trials, if “respectable” mainstream abortion providers are prosecuted. I could imagine that in many communities in abortion-banned states, there will be juries which refuse to convict.

The parallel here is less the Civil War than the bloody turmoil of postwar Reconstruction. If Roe topples, yet abortion remains widely available, I believe the movement will likely face intense internal divisions, 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 I call the John Brown Syndrome: As hopes for ending abortion by legal means diminish, the resulting frustration could again boil over into renewed outbreaks of violence against abortion facilities, practitioners and supporters. The appeal of  the John Brown Syndrome is reinforced by the comparison to the antebellum abolitionists.

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 was briefly a fast-rising New Right stalwart. Politically, he’s now justly forgotten, but his rhetoric not only survives, but it is typical of many more well-known activists over the past three decades.

He took his book’s title from Lincoln’s 1860 campaign slogan (drawn in turn from the Gospel of Mark 3:25); 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”. (“Troublesome days?” Try civil war, for a bit of plain speaking.) Most of a chapter is taken up with his exegesis of the abortion-slavery parallels.

Despite the euphemism, he sticks with his position’s logic, demanding capital punishment for abortion –indeed, he argued the government has a duty to “apply it equally, consistently and expeditiously to all who take innocent life by premeditation.” [Emphasis added.] “Whether the issue is abortion or capital punishment,” he concludes, “the principle is the same.” [UPDATE: This logic sounded outlandish in 1987; but zombie-like it has climbed from the grave and is again in play, and pieces of it are included in some new anti-abortion laws.]

The emphasis on “all” is mine; but during a radio interview on a Washington DC 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 merely 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-like regime as well.)

But if Swindall’s proposals are shocking, his preoccupation with history is not entirely off the mark. First of all, 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; Dred Scott; and some which are likely soon to come;

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

The Holocaust meme enters the field. The rhetoric moves from Civl War to World War.

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, which was conceived and birthed in an explicit adherence to peaceful methods, was unable to stem a descending spiral of polarization and violence. Its goal of formally ending slavery was reached only after what Swindall, with uncharacteristic delicacy, refers to as the “troublesome days” of Lincoln’s time, that is, to repeat, a bloody civil war.
This trajectory should bring to mind, especially for Quakers, the sage observation of noted historian G. M. Trevelyan:  “Close your ears to John Woolman one century, and you will get John Brown the next, with Grant to follow.”

Too much anti-abortion rhetoric today waxes even more apocalyptic than Brown, repeatedly invoking the language that moved our society to civil and later to a world war.

John Brown mural in the Kansas state capitol, by John Steuart Curry.

You don’t have to read much in the old polemics to hear eerie and chilling echoes of anti-abortion rhetoric today.

John Brown, 1859, awaiting execution for his violent raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, meant to spark a slave uprising: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think, vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed, it might be done.”

Brown did not succeed in “purging” the “crimes of this guilty land”; but he certainly did help provoke “very much bloodshed.” Is my speculation about renewed possibilities of anti-abortion violence alarmist? Pat Swindall’s personal misadventures in banking, which led to his indictment and defeat after one term in Congress, soon took 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 another strongly anti-abortion writer, the late Richard John Neuhaus, author of the widely-discussed book The Naked Public Square. In it Neuhaus, who went on to found the influential neoconservative journal First Things, 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 suggesting the anti-abortion movement could produce another region-based 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 is approaching an inflection point: it has labored 45 years to reverse Roe, and will likely soon have its chance. But what happens if this goal, once achieved, does not really end abortion?

And second, in the aftermath of Roe’s legal fate, the John Brown Syndrome will be a factor to reckon with.

I don’t believe this is a hypothetical. Much current anti-abortion rhetoric is suffused with tropes and language that has preceded mass violence.  A recent New York Times Op-Ed, “Beware of ‘Snakes,’ ‘Invaders’ and Other Fighting Words,” underlined this connection:

Over the past few years, far-right nationalist political leaders around the world have been using harsh rhetoric against minority groups, particularly immigrants. We know from history that acts of genocide, ethnic cleansing and terrorism have been preceded by periods in which political and social movements employed such rhetoric. In Nazi Germany, Jews were described as vermin, and Nazi propaganda outlets claimed that Jews spread diseases. The recent ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people of Myanmar was preceded by propaganda associating Rohingya men with rape. . . .

But do words really have power to change our behavior? . . . The literature on marketing teaches us that rhetoric can have significant impact on attitudes. Here is one example: Asking people even purely hypothetical questions unconsciously shifts their subsequent preferences and behavior in often dramatic ways. . . .

One way that rhetoric changes perceived obligations is by the recommendation of certain practices. In her 2012 paper “Genocidal Language Games,” the philosopher Lynne Tirrell describes how, for some years before the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches” and “snakes.” In Rwanda, snakes are public health threats. Ms. Tirrell writes, “in Rwanda, boys are proud when they are trusted to cut the heads off snakes.” Calling a Tutsi a “snake” connected slaughtering Tutsis to the heroic practice of killing snakes. . . .

I used to think that any way you sliced it, with or without Roe, the anti-abortion movement’s practical potential seemed limited, to say the least.

But in 2019, I am no longer sure about that. The pillars of stability in our culture were shaken almost three years ago, and they are trembling still.

Yet I still feel that in its cultural impact, the movement has been a marked failure. That sense did not rest only on an estimate of its  political prospects; rather, this forecast only clarified and reinforced my growing conviction that the movement’s entire strategy has been misconceived and misdirected from the beginning.

Abolition Versus Prohibition

To see why I think it a failure, 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 much more truly, and more usefully, comparable: Prohibition. This is so above all because of the kind of problem those two movements were dealing with:

Slavery was a sectional phenomenon, confined in practice to the South, and even there practiced only by a segment of the white population. But abortion is more like alcohol use and abuse–it already pervades our whole society. Abortion is also now a cultural reality: men and women from every region, class and ethnic group have been personally and legally involved in it for two generations, and these roots sink deeper into our cultural soil every day. Most Americans, even many who would never do it, have come to consider it an unpleasant but accepted response to certain unwelcome circumstances.

Another common feature is that each movement wanted a legal prohibition of the behavior they abhorred. More important, each  believed such a ban could actually eliminate the objectionable practice, particularly by criminalizing its purveyors. Like their iconic leader, Carrie Nation, they thought the end of Demon Rum was but a few well-placed, police-backed hatchet strokes away.

Carrie Nation vs the saloon. She may have won this cartoon skirmish, but the saloons won her war.

The Prohibitionists, of course, proved to be colossally, disastrously mistaken. The combination of alcohol’s pervasiveness, wide involvement and traditional legitimacy for so many produced more obstacles than the Prohibition program could handle. Alcohol problems were not eliminated; but ultimately the electorate rebelled and decisively voted to give up the attempt. The Prohibition movement, despite its apostles’ decades of dedication, proved to be its own worst enemy.

[Note: This parallel should give pause to Quaker readers above all. That’s because Prohibition was a cause which for a century consistently rivaled abolition and women’s suffrage on the list of Friends’ most fervently pursued social reforms. Its legislative “success” in 1919, when Prohibition became law, was at first celebrated as an achievement to match the other two. Later, in response to Prohibition’s (continuing) calamitous outcome, Quakers have collectively chosen to forget this chapter of this history, rather than to come to terms with our group’s  folly. That’s a tragic loss: alcohol abuse remains a hugely destructive social question; but Prohibition was decisively shown to be the wrong answer to it. And for Friends the work of realizing that we are not always “on the  cutting edge,” but can collectively become as damned, self-defeating fools, is overdue, and would be very salutary.]

To me 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, are likely to make its agitation a fruitless, though destructive exercise.

From this perspective, Roe is a red herring, a huge 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. Quakers and the other Drys managed to pass the Prohibitionist Volstead Act, then choked — and Quakers turned amnesiac — when the “victory” turned to ashes in their mouths.

This points to yet another potential parallel: When the Nineteenth Amendment was repealed, regulation of alcohol use reverted 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, Humpty Dumpty has fallen, Pandora’s box is open. That is still true of alcohol problems; I believe it is true of abortion.

Another Way? HIV and Tobacco

For abortion supporters, this history may provide an occasion to gloat, and I wouldn’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. (One might also call them SLR (Safe, Legal & Rare-Plus.) And I find useful examples in two ongoing efforts: the campaigns against smoking and HIV.

Like abortion, smoking is still legal, and was once pervasive and widely accepted in 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.  By 2016 it had slid to 15.5 percent.

Smoking-related deaths remain high; the effects often manifest decades later. Nevertheless, Research data suggests that the decline in smoking is likely to continue. This is a remarkable change to have come about in two generations–and it is not an accident.

What has happened? I believe smoking has been reduced by  three main factors:

First, its progressive delegitimation, especially by the government;

Second, the related educational & media antismoking campaigns;

And third, the persistence of these efforts over more than fifty years.

All these factors have been crucial to changing 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 developed in connection with HIV. Recent statistics suggest that in at least in one major risk group, white male homosexuals, the educational efforts aimed at slowing the spread of HIV by reducing risky 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. Add in the effect of remarkable new anti-HIV medications, and the domestic picture has greatly improved, though the disease has not yet been conquered.

The HIV experience is significant in another respect. There were once 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. One can still hear echoes of these ideas let’s hope they stay on the fringes (but this is time when the fringes have mov ed very near the center.)

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/SLR-Plus strategy similar to these could be developed to deal with abortion, and that it could not only continue to reduce its incidence, 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 (or theologically) “should” be the ones making abortion decisions, as a matter of fact they are; and in the future, with self-administered remedies, this autonomous decisionmaking capacity is likely to increase.

Faced with this reality, I argue that the most practical way to decrease abortion is to influence the decisions they make. Many 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 steady slide in abortions under the “benign” policies of Democratic administrations I claim as evidence that such policies can and do work.

Bill Clinton was on to this quite early. In his 1996 book, Between Hope and History, he said it plainly: “I believe we should all work to reduce the number of abortions.” ( p.137).

The result could, for instance, take the form of a congressional finding that the policy of the United States is to discourage abortion, while respecting the consciences of women facing such decisions. 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.

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 and child health care (putting the “Plus” into SLR+), but also a long-overdue revamping and streamlining of adoption procedures to make adoption a real rather than too often a theoretical option. We are a long way from making these alternatives meaningfully available to large numbers of the women facing abortion decisions.

Finally, this effort would be planned to last at least a generation or two. Abortion has been legal and widely available in America for 45 years; it will take at least that long to diminish its social acceptability.

My own conviction is that a Persuasionist strategy, assertively and persistently pursued, could in time accelerate the declining 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 have not totally eliminated the harms of tobacco, anymore than HIV education have entirely eradicated risky sex or the sharing of needles by drug addicts. Yet these two are already smashing successes compared to, say, the long-term failure of Prohibition on alcohol problems.

Prospects and Problems

The same can hardly be said for the current anti-abortion movement. After 45 years of agitation, what does it have to show? Its most concrete policy success was to end public funding for abortions at the federal level and in most states. It has also mounted an ongoing campaign of harassment of abortion facilities. And under its expansive wings, a series of murderers and bombers have sheltered and ventured forth to claim their prey. Beyond that, it has enriched numerous lawyers and campaign consultants, causing no end of political mischief.

What it has not done is, even when backed by movement friendly politicians, is stop abortions, which still top 600,000 per year. Nor, to repeat, does its current prohibition strategy 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 may 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 Roe obsession. 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. As the authors of “Beware of ‘Snakes,’” asked  . . .

First a civil war. Then a world war. And next –?

But do words really have power to change our behavior? . . . The literature on marketing teaches us that rhetoric can have significant impact on attitudes. . . . Asking people even purely hypothetical questions unconsciously shifts their subsequent preferences and behavior in often dramatic ways. . . .

One way that rhetoric changes perceived obligations is by the recommendation of certain practices. In her 2012 paper “Genocidal Language Games,” the philosopher Lynne Tirrell describes how, for some years before the Rwandan genocide, the Hutu majority called their Tutsi neighbors “cockroaches” and “snakes.” In Rwanda, snakes are public health threats. Ms. Tirrell writes, “in Rwanda, boys are proud when they are trusted to cut the heads off snakes.” Calling a Tutsi a “snake” connected slaughtering Tutsis to the heroic practice of killing snakes. . . .

There would no doubt also be opposition to a Persuasionist shift, from the pro-abortion camp, at least initially, particularly those directly involved in the industry–for that, when a 600,000-plus abortions are performed per year, is what it is. They won’t like it because, except for wanting public funding back, the pre-2019 status quo pretty much 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 repeated the SLR mantra,  that 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 declined would look progressively less like mere abortion providers, and more like abortion promoters, salespeople pushing a product.

Kermit Gosnell, convicted of three murders in botched late term abortions, on his way to begin a life sentence.

Anti-abortionists have long contended that such was in fact the underlying reality of the pro-abortion camp; and cases like that of Kermit Gosnell in Philadelphia, convicted in 2013 of multiple counts of murder after many botched very late term abortions, provided ammunition.

A Persuasionist turn 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 images 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 fourteen-year experiment proved so traumatic that eighty-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 one of our most serious and destructive “drug crises.”

The same thing could happen with abortion: The Roe obsession runs deep, and its stalemate continues. Furthermore, most of the existing anti-abortion movement–some Catholic bishops are exceptions, along with the small, beleaguered ranks of the Consistent Life Network –has been fully absorbed into the religious right, and now Alt-Right. Indeed, as the Roe era ends, the anti-abortion infrastructure may remain as one of the strongest redoubts of reaction.

As such, its key leaders are no longer satisfied simply to resist abortion; their movement is now rapidly becoming one of the vehicles for an explosively 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, the presence of Jews, birth control, 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; even the demise of Roe won’t stop that. Will this be the bitterly ironic monument of the anti-abortion crusade? The movement has proven utterly unable to stop this process, and I believe it has little to look forward to but more failure, and not even noble failure at that.


15 thoughts on “Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update”

  1. Friend,

    Old white men have the luxury of considering abortion from Legal, historical, religious, medical and every other kind of way. A desperate young woman who needs to end her pregnancy for just as many reasons. It is a decision she must make between herself, her God, and her doctor. You will never be in that position, ever. Roe v Wade is about safety, trained Medical staff, sterile conditions or unsafe, possibly untrained staff, and no standards for the facility. That is what this is about. What would you want for your daughter and granddaughters?

    1. Hmmm, Patricia. As far as I can see, young white men, also middle aged, (along with men of color, and gay men too) have brains and voices. But I’m sure if you ponder a bit you can come up with some more ad hominem slurs to heap on me. The essay lays out pretty clearly what I want for my three daughters, three grand-daughters and one — soon to be two — great-granddaughters; I suggest you read it. Being old, I’ve spent fifty years personally concerned with their welfare, and that of many others; the post tries to express some of what I’ve learned in that experience.

  2. I agree with SLR+ and the need to make or keep abortion safe and legal. It would help if our culture stopped hating women at a deep level. Stopping hating unregulated sex would also help. Stopping hating….well that might even solve most of the problem.

  3. I will admit that it will take me some time to read and digest all of this article.I am 72 and have had an evolving feeling about abortion. I have three living, adult children, but I was pregnant before they were born. The baby was lost before it was six or eight weeks from conception. It took me some time to figure out what had happened. I am not generally in favor of abortion. Any one of us would fail to be here and living if we had been aborted anytime after conception. But then I remember a news story in which a mother had murdered her three children and left them on a doorstep. I could not help wondering if that was better for those children than being aborted. So I do agree with Patricia that abortion should be between a the mother and sometimes the father, God, and the doctor. It should be available safely if needed, but were I talking to someone I would give the advice Chuck Fager gave the young woman who came to him
    many years ago

  4. I am female. On this topic, that does matter.

    As an ethicist, I believe that abortion is a medical procedure. As in Western Bioethics, the decision about abortion belongs to the individual patient in consultation with her physician.

    As a theologically-trained hospital chaplain and Quaker, I do not theologize about when human life begins. No one knows.

    I favor the legal freedom to choose and access medically safe abortions. In humility, I simply cannot put myself in the terribly difficult position which at least 1/4 of all American women have faced. Needless to say, no men can fully understand or empathize. I think it best that men, no matter their social location or connection to women/girls, not judge on this matter.

    1. Michele, you think it best for men, including me, not to “judge” on this matter. Such an assertion, as far as I can tell, would logically mean men should not vote on this matter either, since voting involves judging concretely between options or names on a ballot. How far would candidates favoring your views would get if only women agreeing with your views were able to make such judgements? Under our system as I have lived in it, my vote counts as much (if fairly tallied) as any other. And a great many candidates have urged me (and are urging me now) to vote for them & their views on this. But here’s the deal for me: they want my vote? My voice comes with it. Yeah, I’m stubborn that way.

  5. Side note: Advertising criminal botched abortions that occur with low-frequency to deter legal abortions lacks integrity, regardless of effectiveness, just as blaming minorities for all the bad things in society works lacks integrity and works. Did I read that part wrong? I’m surprised you would consider this type of persuasion. In any case, us Old White Men have no business trying to persuade women to limit their choices regarding what they do with their bodies.

    What us Old White Men can do, it seems to me, is work to remove the occasion for abortion. The formula is well known. Easy availability of contraception at all child-bearing ages. Child-care and living support for mothers and kids that enables the mother to continue education and develop a stable occupation. Assistance in learning child-rearing and head-of-household skills (many young mothers don’t know how to cook, balance a checkbook, etc.). These things all work. They expand choice, rather than (as with cigarettes e.g.) attempting to limit choice, however accomplished.

    1. Hank, Kermit Gosnell had operated for many years, and left a great many women, mostly poor and of color, injured and ill, not to mention babies killed after delivery. As a longtime investigative reporter, I would have considered it an honor to blow the whistle on him and his operation, and I would think advocates of SLR policies would have been there to join in clearing the blot from their profession.

      1. Ah, that was my confusion. I was unsure how SLR would use Kermit. As an argument for safe and legal availability of abortion services removes the ambiguity.

  6. Persuasion is a strategy I favor in most things, but not, I’m afraid, in the abortion issue. Women have been, at least in my lifetime, especially vulnerable to the persuasions of our society, and that hasn’t worked out well for us generally. I wish we could be allowed think of our bodies as small countries and ourselves as chief executives, supreme courts and legislatures for each of those pieces of territory. I believe that if a woman says the pregnancy she is carrying is a life that needs to be protected at all costs, she’s right about her own pregnancy. If a woman defines that experience within her own body another way, she’s right, too. But I think that deep down, many of us still don’t trust women in many areas of life. I’m afraid that frame of mind can escape our awareness, especially in those of us who have struggled for so many women’s rights issues. (Not wanting to be directed by a woman is, I’m afraid, a pervasive feeling that may keep one of us from becoming president anytime soon. We make great public servants, with the emphasis on “servant,” but. . ..) Add to that our society’s custom of leaving life and death issues like war, draft, capital punishment, suicide, etc. up to the society rather than the person, and the possibility that individual women will be allowed to get abortions without pushback seems remote. Of course men can have and express opinions on abortion. All genders have minds and imaginations enough to put ourselves in others’ shoes. “It’s a free county,” as we used to say, even when it wasn’t for some. But so many cultures have a folktale in which men and women are forced to change places and eyes are opened. I think if some magic made that happen, down to the reproductive business, even for one generation, men (less used to having to ask permission in general, I think) would find themselves as distressed about being dictated to in this matter as in any other. (It may not be obvious from the above rambling, but I’m OK with abortion. And I wish Planned Parenthood hadn’t had to close down here in my remote city, making contraception especially difficult.)

    1. Your words very much resonate with my thoughts. I do not see why maternity or the lack of… be legislated. The law is cold and lacks insight into humanity. Personally, I believe life does not begin or end, we are all connected, and an “abortion” is no more than a hair cut. Not all apple seeds become trees, and maybe… just maybe those seeds are needed to nourish another life. It seems very ego heavy to decide such matters with our limited insight. That alone, allows me to defer to the person most affected. Let me also add that animals in nature kill their young under certain circumstances. The whole argument for me seems to be about human vanity… do I really deserve to live more than a tree, a rabbit, an owl, a dolphin… I believe not… rather I’m here now in this form for this time… who knows where I will be tomorrow…. somewhere just as spectacular… just maybe… thanks for your words.

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