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November 2020 Edition
An Election Day Conversation
Hi, I’m Peter Blair and you’re receiving this email because you signed up for The Pelican, a pro-life newsletter. This newsletter is released once a month, on the first Monday of the month (this month is slightly different, with the release on election day instead of the preceding Monday). 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 the email.
Interviews and conversations are a periodic element of The Pelican. In general, I look to talk with individuals who have special expertise, knowledge, insight, or experience related to the topics I cover here. I look to interview people who can help readers sharpen their own knowledge or understanding, but their inclusion in the newsletter doesn’t entail that I agree with any given view they express. The views expressed by interviewees are not mine but their own.
This month I’m delighted to host a conversation between Leah Libresco Sargeant, Brandon McGinley, Charles Fain Lehman, Bria Sandford, and I.
Peter: Running up to this election, there has been a lot of discussion about the ethics of pro-life voting, such as this piece by Robert George and Ramesh Ponnuru. We know how Brandon approached voting this election and we’d probably all have different takes on that. But people also often make the point that voting doesn’t exhaust one’s opportunities or even responsibilities. Outside of voting in a responsible and prudent way, what should pro-lifers be concretely thinking about or doing in this election time, whether in a colloquially political sense or otherwise?
Leah: One framing I find helpful is something I saw from Jonathan Blanks, “Vote for the person you want on the other side of the negotiating table.” It’s a good reminder that our work is not over on November 4th (or whenever they finish counting the mail-in ballots). Even when you’re aligned with the person you vote for, you’re still negotiating. As FDR said, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”
Of course, only people in contested states are able to play a role in picking who we negotiate with as president for the next four years. For everyone else, sometimes voting third party is part of how you begin the negotiation. Otherwise, the work is the same as at non-election times.
Charles: Three thoughts. One is that I am generally grumpy about questions about what individuals should do, insofar as policy change — and, I suspect, cultural change — is an 80/20 proposition, i.e. 20 percent of the actors (or fewer) account for 80 percent of the change (or more). So while it is intrinsically good to give time and money to pro-life orgs (we gave earlier this year to In Shifra’s Arms, a Maryland-area Jewish CPC) or to pro-life political causes, I am wary of being optimistic about an individual’s impact.
Thought two is that it is fruitful to think about the indirect cultural trends that are driving the 40-year decline in the abortion rate, and to what extent we can affect those either as individuals or as voters. I tend to think that trend is driven largely by drops in pairing and by an increase in risk-averseness, particularly among teens—those most at-risk for having an abortion are also those decreasingly likely to have the time, energy, social capital, and risk profile to devote to sex that tends to lead to abortions, all else equal. In many senses, the decline in abortions—a good thing!—is a side-effect of a more general decline in romantic and interpersonal connection, a thing about which we ought at least to be conflicted. So in general it is both worth encouraging those trends which are both good and reduce abortion—e.g. I think a declining share of teens having sex is good for a whole host of reasons, and should be encouraged—and also being aware that there may be a trade-off between more abortions and a more frequently “reproductive” culture (under the legal status quo, that is).
One way to resolve this tension is, point three, to try to focus on family interests as a primary concern of politics. Many people have written about the economic barriers to family life; perversely, the same socioeconomic disparities which are driving a widening “marriage gap” and “family gap” likely also encourage women at the socioeconomic margins to have abortions more frequently—if you don’t feel like you can form a family, you are both more prone to risky sex, and more prone to dealing with it in the way you feel is “responsible” given your economic straits. A more comprehensively pro-family politics—whatever form that may take—is I think one which resolves the tensions between wanting less abortion and wanting more family, insofar as it seeks to support all mothers as a matter of course.
Leah: I want to push back a little here, because this is an issue where making a small difference to one person has the potential to have a big impact—another baby who makes it to birth! And one of the ways we can work on those small shifts is to open our home to friends if we have children (pandemic permitting) and help children move from a hypothetical peril to an encounter. It certainly helped me feel more prepared to have children (and to get married) to have watched my friend’s two-year-old solo for a weekend.
There’s a good piece by Tristyn Bloom about how a strong sense of responsibility can make children feel impossible. Because children are important, it may feel like you mustn’t have them until everything else in your life is in order (and this attitude leads people to delay marriage, too). Inviting people into the messiness of your life, the real setbacks you may have experienced, and showing that risk and disruptions are surmountable can be a positive form of witness.
Bria: I know almost nothing about how policy change is effected, and I’m not doing anything different during the election season, so I can’t weigh in on those fronts, but I want to second Leah’s recommendation of Tristyn’s piece. During this election season, I’ve been beating my usual drum about how some of the preparations people think they need to make for a baby are actually not necessary. The people I know who’ve questioned whether to carry a pregnancy to term often believed the arguments that you need to have tens of thousands of dollars saved in order to responsibly have a child. They also were influenced by the idea that responsible pregnancy involves treating the mother’s body as a vehicle for the baby and restricting her behavior to maximize the child’s IQ points. The truth is that, though babies will shift your financial priorities, they’re actually surprisingly inexpensive. And, thanks to Emily Oster and others, more women are learning that they don’t need to strip everything they enjoy from their diets and stop all of their meds in order to be responsible mothers.
Peter: ACB has been confirmed, and current polls have Joe Biden in the lead to win the 2020 presidential race. If you were the head of a national pro-life organization with a large budget and freedom to chart any course you wanted, what would you spend the next four years prioritizing under that scenario? What would you try to mobilize your supporters to do? What messaging would you focus on?
Charles: My boring answer is that insofar as the largest enabler of the abortion regime is Roe and its attendants, and insofar as the Court has unique jurisdiction to revisit those cases, the next big step is bringing well-designed challenges to give a five or six-man majority opportunities to chip away at Roe/Casey/etc. I am more optimistic about the judicial conservative movement than, I suspect, some of you. But in general, I think the most dollar-for-dollar immediately impactful thing you can do is give the Court the opportunity to do what we all expect it to, and then sort out the legislative implications.
Brandon: For the first time in my life it feels like talking about a post-Roe future is realistic—not certain or even likely, but no longer fantastical.
Brandon: If Roe does go, the pro-life movement needs to have boots on the ground in every single state to craft and fight for the best legislation we can get in each circumstance. Laying that foundation—which is already there in terms of state pro-life organizations, but which will need to be shored up—will be essential. And even if the Court declines to overturn Roe, there’s no question it will give more leeway for legislation that chips away at our abortion regime, and again that will be a question of savvy state politicking.
Charles: A related point here is thinking about which states fall fastest (which don't already have trigger laws, that is). Boots on the ground (and money) will be initially less effective in, say, New York than in a purpler state with a potentially more interested population.
Leah: In a slightly different vein, I really want to see groups following the New Wave Feminists, and advocating for pro-family policies specifically as part of a post-Roe world, as Charles alluded to earlier. Personally, I’m a fan of the People’s Policy Project’s Family Fun Pack, to build out a real commitment to parents and children. I’d love to see Elizabeth Warren return to her Two Income Trap work and talk about how we make children imaginable for parents.
Peter: What strategies, arguments, rhetoric, or support systems that are currently pursued by pro-lifers do you think are valuable or successful? What isn’t working and what should replace it?
Leah: I think wider access to ultrasounds and other images will shift people’s intuitions about babies. Growing up, I heard “clump of cells” so often that I really believed that babies were pretty blob-like for a long time. I assumed that the hiddenness of pregnancy obscured that most people wouldn’t have a protective instinct if they could peer inside early on. But now, I’ve seen my daughter’s heart beating at seven weeks—which was electrifying after losing six children with no chance to see that motion. When I passed around my phone to coworkers at eight weeks, showing off the images that The Bump app has to show development, they all couldn’t believe that my baby was so defined so small. On the ultrasound, she was a smudge with that small, persistent flicker. In the app, everyone could see her spreading fingers and read about how she was already paddling her arms and legs.
Peter: While I haven't, of course, had the experience with this that you've had, Leah, an emphasis on ultrasounds certainly fits my priors. I've only ever seen it presented anecdotally, though; I would love to see more rigorous studies done on how ultrasounds do or do not shift people’s views—it seems doing that research would itself be a useful pro-life task. Assuming these kinds of images do (at least in some cases) shift views in a more pro-life direction, it would be interesting to think about how and whether pro-lifers (or pro-life organizations) could facilitate wider access. Obviously one example here is the Save the Storks organization—perhaps more could be done around subsidizing or promoting apps like The Bump? It's interesting, too, to consider how to expose non-parents to those images, as declining birth rates mean that more people may never be in a position to view ultrasounds that pertain to their own pregnancies. But you were saying...
Leah: As for what’s not working—support for Trump and any other politics of contempt for the weak. Pro-lifers can be divided on a lot of other policy questions, but mocking disability and treating the feebleness of age as disgusting undermine the case to protect the weak because they are weak. Dependency and dignity aren’t incompatible.
Peter: I agree that support for Trump is bad for pro-life credibility—that may be more narrow than what you're saying, Leah, but it's part of the equation, to me anyway. As many pro-lifers voted for President Trump and publicly supported him on pro-life grounds, I do think now is an especially good time for pro-lifers worried about the costs of that reality to be especially vocal in support of other life or social justice causes.
Charles: I strongly disagree with you on this, Leah and Peter. It's perfectly reasonable to find Trump personally objectionable, but in policy terms he has been an aggressively and plainly pro-life president. Beyond the judicial appointments, he cut Title X funding for abortion providers, reinstated the Mexico City rule, backed out of the UN population fund, and was the first president to attend the March for Life. He may have done so for mercenary reasons, but the goal of the pro-life movement should not be to feel good or have friends—it should be to reduce the number of deaths from abortion, which he has almost certainly contributed to.
This brings me to Peter's response. "Support for Trump is bad for pro-life credibility"—among who? I might suggest a wider fixation on respectability among some portions of the pro-life movement—a desire for the movement to suddenly attain respect among people whose entire worldview is built around hating—is among its more significant rhetorical failures.
Brandon: I think we have to say that throwing in completely with the GOP—including Trump—has “worked” in the very important sense that the party has been ruthlessly effective in filling the courts with friendly jurists. While we are still waiting for a major legal victory, the stage is set for one in a way that it has never been before—and it might not have been were it not for the movement’s access to GOP power brokers. Of course, if Gorsuch and/or Kavanaugh flake out, then we’ll be talking Charlie Brown’s football all over again.
It is considered gauche in the movement to talk about the costs of this strategy, but we also have to say that they have been huge. It is not left-wing claptrap to observe that a truly pro-life society is not only one where abortion is banned (though that is a necessary condition), but also one where the costs of pregnancy, childbirth, and child-rearing are shared socially. The movement should be a squeaky wheel within the GOP coalition, cutting against the grain on matters such as health care and austerity. That the movement feels, apparently, that it must toe the line on GOP “small government” ideology in order not to jeopardize its standing suggests who, really, has the whip hand in the relationship. A bolder and more consistent political-economic witness might raise some eyebrows among the old Reaganite battle axes, but it would actually position the pro-life movement well as younger Republican figures shift to a more realistic engagement with economics.
Peter: I’d largely echo Brandon’s thoughts here. To Charles’s response to me more specifically, I would say that—prescinding for a second from talking too much about Trump—polls consistently show that most Americans fall in between the full pro-life position and the full pro-choice position, at least when it comes to the legal expression of those commitments. I think many people are still persuadable on this issue, and the specifically political choices of the pro-life movement can help or hinder it’s ability to persuade the middle. In general, I tend to think that that the pro-life movement could do a much better job at trying to understand how to persuade that middle, especially as any judicial or legal victories are ultimately unstable or incomplete unless embraced by a wide enough swath of public opinion.
Bria: I am not going to touch the question of Trump, but I’ve a few thoughts on rhetoric. First, I’m interested in the “someone I know changed my mind” challenge. The successes of the rhetoric of the gay marriage movement and BLM seem to have hinged largely on the persuasive power of personal testimony. The anti-abortion movement has people who were almost aborted and women who almost aborted and didn’t and women who regret their abortions, but by virtue of the issue, no one who was aborted can talk about what it means for them. I’d love to see more rhetoric that highlights their absence.
I’d also like to see campaigns to familiarize people with the mechanics of childbirth. When I was getting my birth doula training, I was surprised to learn how intimately connected the mother’s and baby’s physical wellbeing are. The more I learned about how the hormones of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the immediate postpartum period, the more shocked I was that we don’t talk more about how bad abortion is for the mother (and we don’t have to rely on the dubious cancer claims to do so!). Many childbirth experts refer to them as the “MotherBaby,” pushing back against the idea that a “baby-friendly” hospital is different from one that caters to the mother’s wellbeing.
While many men talking about abortion publicly do so in a buffoonish way, I’d like to see more men reckoning with the relationship between American machismo and abortion. Jonathon von Maren has done some interesting writing on how abortion enabled the hard-drinking, womanizing literary lifestyles of so-called heroes of masculinity like Ernest Hemingway and Frank Sinatra. So much of “toxic masculinity” is predicated on abortion (hmmm maybe I’m talking about Donald Trump after all), and it would help the cause for this to be said more often.
Peter: What do you see as the possible future or futures for both the pro-life movement and abortion politics in America? Will the pro-life movement take new forms or pursue new strategies than it currently does? Will the abortion issue persist as a live and contested political issue in American politics?
Brandon: Seeing the mass protests in Poland over the tightening of an already restrictive abortion law is (forgive the internet cliche) something of a blackpill. It’s important to remember that the availability of abortion is foundational to our political-economic order. In the Cosmic Balance Sheet that keeps neoliberalism humming, the ability to kill off millions of unproductive offspring is a fixed assumption. Abortion is the original sin of our modern order in a way not dissimilar from the way chattel slavery was the original sin of the antebellum American order.
What this means is, first of all, that abortion will always be a live political issue. And second of all, it means that if the pro-life movement were ever to really get close to significant success, our order’s antibodies would kick in like nothing we’ve seen before. Pro-lifers need to realize that if we really want what we say we want, we’re an existential threat to modern civilization. And so if we really do achieve unprecedented success in the coming years, we have to be prepared with a comprehensive pro-life political vision, not just anti-abortion as an adjunct of conservatism.
Charles: Assuming, as looks now more likely than at any point in the past fifty years, that Roe goes, the abortion issue *may* become a more local one, which means that state house races become comparatively more important. (The caveat to this is that a Democratic Congress could attempt to enshrine Roe in law, although I think it unlikely that the same Court that strikes Roe down would allow such a law to stand.) But the “localization” of the battle gives, I think, a lot of space for a diversity of pro-life movements to spring up, in much the same way that there used to be more heterogeneity in state parties (consider e.g. the lasting vestiges of North Dakota’s Democratic-Non-Partisan League Party and Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party). I would doubt, for example, that abortion is likely to be banned in dark blue Rhode Island, except that RI is the most Catholic state in the country. A Rhode Island pro-life legislative movement could use the vehicle of the GOP, but it could also operate through a third party, which tend to do better at the state level (the Vermont Progressive Party, New York’s many third parties, and even the Moderate Party of Rhode Island!). It would doubtless look different from a pro-life movement in, say, Wyoming, but to the benefit of the overall movement — different messages for different places, unbound by the need for a national struggle.
Leah: I agree with Charles that the fight would become much more localized, and with Brandon that the question remains a deep question about what to found our society on. I’d analogize it a little to McGirt v. Oklahoma, where SCOTUS had to consider whether much of Oklahoma was, legally speaking, still bound by treaty to Native American tribes. (The specific question was about who was in charge of certain murder prosecutions). As far as I could tell, the fact that Congress had made a promise and not kept it wasn’t really in dispute—the question was about whether we were bound to keep that promise when it was costly to do so, and when everyone had ignored the promise for years, and build institutions (and convictions) on the assumption the promise could be ignored forever.
We have a similar duty to children (and to all the vulnerable) but we haven’t kept it, and we’ve built more and more of our society on the premise that we won’t acknowledge this duty. McGirt is a destabilizing decision, but that’s not the fault of SCOTUS. Injustice is unstable, and restoration will look like, well, bringing not peace but a sword.