Discover more from The Pelican
Highlighting Four Core Realities
Hi, I’m Peter Blair and you’re receiving this email because you signed up for The Pelican, a pro-life newsletter. If you like what you read, you can subscribe or share below; if you don’t like what you read, you can unsubscribe at the bottom of this email.
In this edition:
Four core realities
Some meta notes
I’m back after a summer break. By way of kicking things off, I’ve given below a list of four core realities that will, for now, shape the coverage of this newsletter, at least as regards its central focus on abortion. Though not every item in every edition will tie back into them, in general these four areas will stand behind and help organize the coverage.
The U.S. abortion rate is declining
The CDC reports that, “from 2007 to 2016, the total number of reported abortions decreased 24% (from 825,240), the abortion rate decreased 26% (from 15.6 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years), and the abortion ratio decreased 18% (from 226 abortions per 1,000 live births).” The Guttmacher Institute reports that “The U.S. abortion rate dropped to 13.5 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 in 2017, the lowest rate recorded since abortion was legalized in 1973. Abortion rates fell in most states and in all four regions of the country.”
This trend is a background reality that often gets lost in the debate. For pro-lifers the enormity of the scale of abortion, the sheer number of lives lost, can make it appear grotesque to even take note of a declining abortion rate. Furthermore, since pro-lifers are generally (rightly) committed to enshrining protection of fetal human life into law, a declining rate is not their only goal in any case. The trend can also appear invisible in other contexts; in June, the NYT ran a piece reporting that young female social justice activists focus less on pro-choice causes than their Boomer predecessors do and did. As Charles Lehman pointed out, the piece never explicitly makes the connection that, for some people anyway, declining abortion rates may have contributed to this purported shift in focus.
Taking this reality seriously means tracking whether and how the trends in abortion rates are at odds with the political and rhetorical superstructures built on top of what the rate used to be. If the number of U.S. abortions continues to trend downwards, we may reach a point where the national debate on the topic is less and less relevant to large swaths of the country.
Taking this seriously also means, of course, devoting resources to figuring out why the rate is falling, and trying to do everything possible to encourage those underlying factors (to the degree that policy can play a role that conscience can authorize). Many will suppose contraception is a central cause, but the story may be more complicated than that depending on demographics—at least in the case of teenage abortion rates, Charles Lehman again argues here that '“the decades-long drop in teen sex…is likely far more of a causal factor than expanded use of birth control in explaining the steady decline of teen pregnancy and abortion.”
Finally, taking it seriously means seeing good here. To see good in the reality that fewer lives are being taken by abortion does not need to create complacency nor does it require downplaying the grave tragedy that abortion in America continues to be.
Persuasion (broadly understood) is necessary and possible
Abortion is notoriously an issue with a large and stable center; Americans sit between the fullest pro-life position and the fullest pro-choice position. National surveys have generally found the broad distribution of views on this to remain stable, not shifting dramatically in favor of either full position.
This reality suggests that persuasion is still possible and that the issue is open. The stability of the center might seem to militate against the idea of persuasion—if, after all this time and all the debates we’ve had on abortion, opinion hasn’t moved, maybe it never will. The national debate, however, is disconnected from the on-the-ground reality. If you only paid attention to the national debate, you’d think the issue had been talked to death, but a recent in-depth qualitative study out of Notre Dame concluded otherwise. The study, which is “largest known in-depth interview study of ‘everyday’ Americans’ attitudes toward abortion,” found that “Americans don’t talk much about abortion”:
Most interviewees had never talked about abortion in depth. The silence surrounding abortion is a partial consequence of the shouting that surrounds it publicly. Interviewees express fear that talking will incite conflict, despite the promises so many articulate not to “judge” another. Interviews also reveal that most Americans have not given careful thought to abortion, beyond how labels, politics, and media frame public conversations. Wells of meaning are deep, but they are typically unexamined. Most Americans don’t know for themselves what they believe about abortion. Many find themselves bereft of scientific, legal, and moral lexicons to reason through difficult topics, working with a limited set of facts and tools in moral reasoning
To read this, one might conclude that we haven’t even gotten started yet. Many of the conversations necessary for persuasion will require individual discussions in the context of existing relationships, to be sure, but pro-life organizations can intentionally work to create spaces for those conversations.
There are also other ways pro-life organizations can help. Though argument shouldn’t be abandoned, persuasion isn't only about having the best arguments, as some pro-lifers have perhaps believed. It’s about having a persuasive public posture. A persuasive public posture, among other things, means:
Being a virtuous and truthful movement, and indeed knowing how to effectively signal that virtue
Letting the need to persuade factor into your choices around: (a) the bills and laws you favor and propose (e.g. favoring openly pro-life laws over TRAP laws), (b) the overall rhetoric you use, (c) the politicians you do or do not align with, (d) the commitment displayed to the broad array of life and justice issues (not as belonging to the meaning of being anti-abortion per se but not ignored either), and (e) the commitment displayed to making life materially easier for pregnant women and children and to making society more pro-natal.
Emphasizing non-political stories of witness (e.g. stories like the one Ryan Holets told at the Republican National Convention—the story itself, all else aside).
Creating a persuasive public posture therefore has to be a central (not the only) goal of the pro-life movement. Persuasion matters—not only laws, but Supreme Court decisions are susceptible to the pressure of perceived public opinion, and any laws created on this issue on way or the other will not be sustainable if public opinion doesn’t cross some threshold of public support. In the long term, any legal restrictions against abortion have to command the support of enough citizens to be durable.
In many ways, the state context is more important than the national context
Our attention to abortion can sometimes focus primarily on the national political debate around how abortion factors into Presidential elections and Supreme Court decisions, zooming in on the state level only when some especially controversial or newsworthy development happens in a state. The national context is certainly important, but in many ways what happens in the states matters more than what happens nationally.
If you approach the question from the standpoint of the Court, it’s state-level decisions that generate the cases that go to the Court for review; the decisions made by state officials about what laws to pass in order to probe and test the Court are of paramount importance. Moreover, even without overturning Roe some state governments have, by hook or by crook, managed to create their own realities on the ground. Not every attempt at state-level regulation has been praiseworthy, in my view, but those choices matter and should receive attention. Plausibly, any future Court decisions on abortion cases will be very narrow or technical, giving nominal victories for the pro-choice side but leaving or increasing space for states to create their own facts on the ground.
The aftermath of June Medical may be an example of this dynamic. A piece on the subject in USA Today notes that pro-lifers and pro-choicers have been wrangling over which opinion in the case by which justice is controlling and what the implications of that are. “What's clear for now,” the piece states, “is that the Supreme Court's latest abortion ruling ‘has led to more litigation rather than less,’ said Julie Rikelman, senior director at the Center for Reproductive Rights, who represented the Louisiana clinic at oral argument in March.”
States are also laboratories in other ways, such as in creating possible precedent for new policies around medication abortion, as discussed below. Everything that is happening on the states should receive attention in a continuous way, not sporadically.
New(ish) technologies will be consequential
New technologies—or new rules around relatively new technologies—will shape the realities of abortion in America. The use of telemedicine consults to obtain access to medical abortions (abortions induced through drugs rather than performed surgically) is an example. Medical abortions are increasingly common in the U.S. The F.D.A. currently constrains telemedicine consults for medical abortions, but it seems likely that those regulations will eventually be eased, allowing women to obtain abortions without ever going to a clinic or a doctor’s office. Among other effects, pro-life sidewalk counseling and the like would lose relevance in that possible future. (In this NYT piece, two women profiled mention opting for medical abortion via telemedicine rather than going to a clinic because of the possible presence of pro-lifers outside clinics).
Pro-lifers should be thinking creatively now about how they would refocus their efforts in such a world. They should do the same for other possible futures, for instance for one in which artificial wombs become a viable and widely embraced technology. Matthew Lee Anderson argues here that artificial wombs won’t significantly change the shape of the abortion debate or create a comprise that either side will find acceptable. I’m not so sure. In any case, however, the potential of these or other technologies significantly to shake up the current realities around abortion should be closely and proactively tracked.
Readers can expect to see a mix of news summaries and analysis, interviews, short essays, and reviews going forward that take these four principles as points of departure. Any reader leads, especially around effective pro-life witness and work, are very much welcome.
More generally, I would love all reader involvement, whether that’s sending in leads and links or even sending in comments or thoughts that could be attributed and shared in the newsletter with other readers. It would be nice to build up a bit of a community around this thing.
Topically, for now, I will continue to focus most centrally on abortion, secondarily on other “life issues.” Very occasionally, the newsletter will also wander further afield.
For now anyway, this newsletter will have a new and more realistic official schedule. I’ll release a new edition once a month, on the first Monday of the month.
A worthy GoFundMe for a nine year old with special needs can be found here
In Christianity Today, the story of Stephanie Ranade Krider, executive director for Ohio Right to Life, who quit her role because she “decided she couldn’t support [Trump] and couldn’t keep working for the prominent pro-life group as it prepared to help him win re-election.”
In the New York Times, a review of a memoir by Heather Lanier, a mother of a child with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome: “‘Here’s something a parent of a typical child probably never has to suffer through,’ Lanier writes crisply. ‘A conversation with a doctor in which the doctor wonders aloud whether a child like theirs can be ethically killed.’ It is love that makes such choices unthinkable.” H/T Leah Libresco Sargeant