Abortion Rights and Motherhood — That Was Then, It’s Also Now

January 20, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ll tell you what’s wrong with these women, especially the ones in this #MeToo movement. They’re over sensitive. They get offended by any little comment. Men have to walk on eggshells or they get accused of being sexists. These women want to make their issues a big deal in this election, and now more of them are running for office, as though that’s going to make things better. Guess what.* It isn’t. Not for the country, not for men, and not for women.
It’s easy to imagine who would applaud this statement and who might want to wring its neck. It’s also easy to imagine how those people would divide on the issue of abortion. But why? The abortion debate  usually divides on the status of an embryo. The pro-life side argues that an embryo is a baby, with all the rights and protections that babies have, especially the right not be killed. Pro-lifers often equate abortion with infanticide.

That’s the audible part of the debate. The usually unspoken part is not about embryos. It’s about women. The #MeToo movement is not about embryos. It was a response to rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment, especially by men in positions of power. Yet only 23% of people who oppose abortion have a favorable view of #MeToo, compared with 71% of those who favor the right to abortion in most or all cases.

(Click for a larger view.)

(The chart is from a survey of likely voters done last summer by PerryUndem and housed at the New York Times (here). I wasn’t aware of it at the time; it popped up yesterday in my Twitter.)

Thirty-five years ago Kristin Luker reported this same correlation among pro-life and pro-choice activists. I don’t recall whether she said explicitly that attitudes about the role of women shape ideas about the status of the embryo. Conceivably it’s the other way round: if you believe that an embryo is a person, you won’t think highly of #MeToo. But she gave her book the title Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood, implying that the primary issue is the role of women, specifically their role as mother, and that ideas about embryos derive from ideas about gender roles.

Luker interviewed leaders in the movements for and against abortion rights, so we don’t know whether their rank-and-file supporters also shared their respective ideas about motherhood. On most issues, not just abortion, activists have more politically consistent sets of views than do ordinary people who are less involved. But however those views lined up in the early 1980s, today the thinking of ordinary pro-life and pro-choice voters resembles that of the leadership.
The Undem survey did not have a question explicitly about motherhood. But it did ask about something directly related to the decision of when and if to become a mother — birth control. Three-quarters of pro-choice voters agreed that access to birth control contributed to women’s equality. Only one-quarter (slightly more) or pro-life voters thought so. Why should pro-lifers discount the importance of birth control? The idea common to both issues is not the protection of innocent human life. If the condom, LARC, IUD, or other contraception works, there is no innocent life in the picture. Instead, the link is the question of how important it is that a woman becomes a mother.

Luker was right that motherhood and the role of women are the real issue in the abortion debate. They still are. She also predicted that the issue was going to remain contentious rather than becoming settled by civility, compromise, and moderation. She was right about that too.

* “Guess what” gets a hat tip to Jim Jordan (R-OH). If you didn’t catch him at the House impeachment hearings — he was on both committees — just Google his name and that phrase.

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