With Roe’s demise, will the art of persuasion make a comeback in abortion debate?

On a less ideologically polarized Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts would be the leader rather than the loner.

The three justices who favored striking down Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban in Dobbs v. Jackson, like those who originally decided Roe v. Wade (1973) and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), deferred to precedent and ideology, not to sound legal reasoning. Meanwhile, the five justices who ruled not only to uphold Mississippi’s ban but also to overturn Roe, when doing the former did not require doing the latter, defied considerations of political prudence in deference to the truth: As even many pro-choice legal scholars acknowledge, the Constitution does not include a right to privacy that can be reasonably inferred to include abortion.

Roberts stood alone in optimizing between prudence and truth: upholding Mississippi’s ban without striking down Roe beyond its viability standard at this time. Roberts’s embrace of moderation and/or incrementalism mirrors that of most Americans (including this pro-life, Catholic mother of three). Nevertheless, any plan for incrementalism has now been cast aside in deference to a purer distillation of the anti-abortion perspective. Some might say that it is a better distillation, morally and legally.

Regardless, the question of whether we arrived at this moment by way of godly righteousness or heedless utopianism (or, as I would submit, both) is now intellectually interesting but pragmatically irrelevant. All of us who claim to be pro-life must immediately shift our tactics according to the practical, emotional and political realities of a post-Roe world.

Practically, in 29 states, the fall of Roe means little to nothing. In states with few if any restrictions, abortion will be as available as ever. Meanwhile, in approximately 21 states, the fall of Roe could mean a great deal. In states such as West Virginia, where there was a pre-Roe ban on the books that is now in effect because Roe was overturned, abortion is indeed suddenly less available or unavailable to pregnant women whose limited means and/or familial responsibilities render them unable to travel out of state. The modal woman seeking an abortion is in her late 20s. She is already a mother, she has some college credits, she is unmarried and she is low-income.

Even though more than 50 percent of abortions already occur via pills and more than 80 percent occur before 11 weeks and thus could safely occur via pills (which will inevitably be easily obtained, even in red states that ostensibly ban abortions), some of these women may indeed give birth to children who they otherwise would have aborted. The virtual entirety of the pro-life movement’s focus, in places where abortion is suddenly and significantly restricted, should now be on these women’s well-being and that of their children — before and after those children are born.

It has long been a quip among pro-choice politicians and activists that those of us who oppose abortion believe that life “begins at conception and ends at birth.” Those making pro-choice arguments have often pointed out that if pro-lifers really cared about children, we would support policies such as paid family leave rather than oppose them; donate time, money and other resources to support low-income families rather than continually slashing their benefits; and applaud government programs that reduce hunger among the very children that we claim to embrace, rather than name-calling when an American president (whatever his problematic position on abortion or on anything else) makes great strides in feeding food insecure children.

Of course, many pro-life organizations do these things. But many others do not. And now, for the first time, there is a real opportunity to enact pro-family and pro-poor policies while also restricting abortion in ways that were not permitted under Roe. If pro-life politicians do the right things – in this case, morally as well as politically – then when the pro-choice hand-wringers say “if you really cared about the children, you’d be doing this,” those governing in the most pro-life states will be able to say “yes, that’s why we’re doing it” and point to the practical ways in which theirs are also the most pro-family states.

Then, to the extent that there is a continued turn away from abortion (despite a recent uptick, there are still far fewer abortions today than a generation ago), it will be helped along not just by the force of a given red state’s anti-abortion law but also by that of its pro-family policy.

Perhaps, in some states where abortion is restricted, a more populist GOP that is more responsible and less unfettered in its capitalist policies can rise to this opportunity. Perhaps in others, pro-life Democrats can make a comeback. The remote possibility that local politics can become more salient (and national ones less so) in ways that disrupt the polarization along cultural lines that has taken such dire hold in these two dysfunctional, rotten political parties is a rare ray of long-term hope in an otherwise somber moment.

As for the states where access to abortion remains comparatively unfettered, it is true that the end-game of the pro-life movement cannot actually be to have babies vulnerable to being killed on demand up until the moment of birth in some states but not in others. I am not a legal scholar, and I cannot speak to the reasoning of a national abortion ban (in general or after some point in pregnancy), or how such a measure would square (or not) with Justice Alito’s argument in Dobbs. But what I can say is that when it comes to abortion, culture is indeed upstream from politics.

Apropos that observation: In what are now blue states, persuasion (and embracing rather than repelling the persuadable) remains the pro-life movement’s only tool. Any mainstream embrace of so-called “abortion abolition” or loud jubilation in the face of this ruling (quiet resolve would be more appropriate given the profundity and gravity of the issues at play), are the opposite of persuasive to pro-choice people of good will.

In the end, the truth will set us free. But only if we get out of the way, and take the narrow, overdetermined self-conceptions that are incentivized by our defunct ideological labels with us. Although many pro-life Americans identify as conservatives, it is the typical pro-choice American who is resting her argument on the values of individual autonomy and maximal productivity. The typical pro-life American, by contrast, is resting her argument on the values of dignity, inclusion and care for the least of these. It’s long past time that we pro-lifers own this vindicating fact — and act, advocate and live accordingly.

So, this is not a time for rejoicing in all the work that has been done to get here. This is a time for working with both greater intensity and greater compassion. With great power comes great responsibility.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew writes about culture, politics and religion for various publications, including America magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.

Tags Abortion debate Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization John Roberts Roe v. Wade supreme court abortion ruling US Supreme Court

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