By Carole Joffe
At this 40th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision, both of the social movements most connected to the abortion issue find themselves in a cup half full/half empty situation and, as I shall discuss, both face considerable challenges. But first a note on nomenclature. Given the extraordinary politicization surrounding virtually every aspect of abortion, the very names these movements have used are often contested by others; for example, many who support abortion object that those who oppose abortion have appropriated the term “pro-life”—therefore implying that the former are not. Moreover, in polls many Americans claim to be both “pro-life” and in support of legal abortion. Similarly, the term “pro-choice” has been criticized for its apparent obliviousness to the fact that some women do not have the resources to “choose” abortion. For purposes of this blog, I shall use the neutral terms, “abortion rights movement” and “anti-abortion movement.”
The abortion rights movement currently is of course greatly relieved at President Obama’s re-election, which implies that Roe will be upheld by the Supreme Court, including any new appointees, for the foreseeable future. The movement is further encouraged by recent polls showing the highest ever support for legal abortion, including among African Americans. The latter is especially noteworthy, in light of the attempts by abortion opponents to politically capitalize on the high rate of abortion among black women.
Yet, short of overturning Roe, the real action with respect to limiting abortion is in the states. Since the 2010 election, and with renewed zeal since the 2012 one, state legislatures controlled by Republicans (a Party whose elected officials have become almost entirely anti-abortion) have passed an unprecedented number of abortion restrictions. These measures are widely agreed by observers to have nothing to do with patient safety and everything to do with shutting clinics down altogether—as some anti-abortion politicians freely admit. As of this writing, four states are down to only one clinic.
In a mirror image of the abortion rights movement, the abortion opponents movement finds itself demoralized by an election that not only saw Obama victorious, but an additional 20 abortion rights supporters elected to Congress, and losses in several high profile senate races that were expected to be easy Republican victories. These electoral defeats (and arguably the poll results mentioned above) were at least partly due to the extremist nature of the anti-abortion—and, notably, anti-contraception—statements made by Republican candidates at all levels: e.g. Mitt Romney’s eager endorsement of a “Personhood” amendment, and his pledge to “get rid” of Planned Parenthood, the notorious proclamations about “legitimate rape” and pregnancies from rape as “a gift from God” from senatorial candidates, and so on.
But if the goal of overturning Roe remains elusive, abortion opponents have had significant success since 1973 in restricting abortion access. Currently about one in three American women live in a county without an abortion provider and that situation will most likely worsen, given the ongoing legislative efforts mentioned above. Additionally, this movement’s many years’ efforts to stigmatize abortion have paid off in numerous ways, for example, many hospitals’ reluctance to establish abortion services (or to advertise them, if such services do exist), the unwillingness of most of the millions of women who have obtained legal abortions to speak out in support of the procedure, and popular culture’s reluctance to portray abortion as an acceptable option (think of the movies Juno and Knocked Up).
This, then, is the standoff the two movements find themselves in at the 40th anniversary of Roe: the American public as a whole appears to be increasingly in favor of retaining legal abortion, but the power to inflict real damage on abortion access lies in many state legislatures (30 of which currently have Republican governors). In order to win back more popular support, the mainstream elements of the anti-abortion movement must not only distance themselves from the extreme rhetoric of some candidates, but also more convincingly from the periodic episodes of violence and intimidation associated with the fringes of the movement. This violent wing is responsible for eight murders and thousands of incidents of harassment and stalking that have been visited upon the abortion providing community, and such behavior repels most Americans, whatever their views on abortion. (I have been told repeatedly by abortion doctors that when anti-abortion demonstrators show up at their homes with grotesque signs, the response from neighbors, including anti-abortion ones, is uniformly one of support for the doctors and disgust for the protestors).
Yet another challenge for this movement—which the 2012 campaign season made clear—is to acknowledge how costly have been its recent attacks on contraception, which, at an earlier point, truly was “common ground” between the supporters and opponents of abortion. Americans may recognize the need for legal abortion, but many nonetheless are uncomfortable with it. There is no such ambivalence about contraception, which is used at one point or another for pregnancy prevention by some 98% of heterosexually active women. One is hard-pressed to see a successful future, in the long run, for a movement that opposes something so widely valued.
As for the abortion rights movement, in an immediate sense the key challenge is to somehow overcome the disconnect between growing majority support for abortion and the legislative assaults on abortion in many states—hardly an easy task, as it would involve people in red states changing their voting behavior. But another challenge for the movement is to decide whether it retains its historic single issue focus or broadens to embrace a more expansive reproductive justice framework.
Initially theorized and developed by women of color, this movement strongly supports abortion rights, but places abortion into a far larger context of reproductive issues, including the right to have a child. The transition to a reproductive justice framework places abortion supporters on the side of a whole range of services besides abortion and contraception, such as prenatal care, infertility treatment, improved adoption policies and childcare. For many American women, such services can only be obtained through public funding, and the recent election suggests the public is largely in support of this. Yet most sectors of the anti-abortion movement cannot openly support this agenda, given their close alliances with forces in the Republican Party that are virulently opposed to social spending. This leaves abortion opponents open to the longstanding taunt that for them “life begins at conception and ends at birth.” (An exception is the group Feminists for Life , which does call for public funding for some of the above services).
Whatever the long run prospects of the two social movements contesting abortion, for the foreseeable future it seems likely that a majority of Americans will continue to support legal abortion. But that does not mean it will be equally available to all American women. The United States may well be entering a period where the abortion geography of the future will come to resemble that of the pre-Roe era: abortion will remain available in some states, but not in others, leaving women of means in the latter to travel for their abortions and the most vulnerable women—the young, the poor, those in rural areas—to attempt self-abortion or to proceed with unwanted pregnancies.