Friday, December 7, 2012

Opposition to Abortion and the Political Right

Pro-life feminism is back in the news, as I mentioned in a recent post. Writing about the history of those activists proved to be a complicated endeavor. As I argue in a forthcoming article, in the decade after Roe, pro-life feminism had been a vibrant, diverse, and influential movement, lobbying for laws protecting women again pregnancy discrimination, allowing women to take credit in their own names, or funding childcare or contraception. In the later 1970s, these feminists found themselves marginalized, as the antiabortion movement formed an alliance with the New Right and Religious Right. I did not realize how invisible these advocates were until the leaders of an organization called All Our Lives contacted me. Recently founded, the organization opposes abortion but favors contraception, GLBQT rights, and sex education. My experience again raised the question of why left-leaning abortion opponents tend to attract so little political attention.

The Second Edition of Reva Siegel and Linda Greenhouse’s Before Roe: Voices That Shaped Abortion Debate Before the Supreme Court Ruling (New Haven: Yale Law Library, 2012) may offer part of an answer to this question. Siegel and Greenhouse show that before Roe, the abortion-rights movement worked particularly closely with Republicans, from Governor Nelson Rockefeller to Senators Jacob Javits and Edward Brooke. Nixon’s Southern Strategy—an effort to lure Catholic voters away from the Democratic Party—began to redraw party positions about abortion.

Political party realignment continued after Roe, as the 1980 Republican Party platform became the first to endorse a fetal-rights amendment to the Constitution. This realignment had significant consequences for the identity and priorities of the antiabortion movement. Some movement members had long identified themselves as conservative Republicans (Anthony Lauinger, a leading activist in Oklahoma since the 1970s, told me that he had worked to unite the movement and the Republican Party since the mid-1970s). With the mobilization of religious conservatives and the gradual emergence of the Republican Party as “the party of life,” however, the movement had new and compelling political reasons to move to the right. In the 1970s, antiabortion organizations struggled to raise money or establish a clearly defined place in party politics. Over the objection of many members, the movement shifted to the right as a matter of political necessity.

It is worth asking whether the partnership between conservatives and abortion opponents today is a marriage of convenience. In the 1970s, the apparent conservatism of the antiabortion movement at least partly reflected changing political opportunities rather than any deeper normative commitment. Is something similar true today?


Tim Lacy said...

Professor Ziegler: The union between conservatives and abortion opponents is, I think, a marriage of convenience. It's convenient for some voters because it (seems to) simply matters (yes/no switch, for/against). Any political group that advocates for a more complicated agenda (e.g. Democrats for Life of America or All Our Lives) will not be *politically* useful in a two-party system that traffics in extreme rhetoric to "get out the vote." Left-leaning abortion opponents and right-leaning choicers are, by definition, left to fend for themselves. They are points of symbolism in highly contested contests. Speaking broadly, this phenomenon goes toward the anti-intellectualism (defined as revulsion to complexity) of the average American voter (including those with college degrees). One's tolerance for complexity signals a willingness to embrace "off-beat" groups DFLA or All Our Lives. Otherwise it's inconvenient for the two parties. - TL

Mary Ziegler said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Tim. I wonder to what extent your observation can be generalized and to what extent it reflects our moment in history. We should not take for granted either the contemporary party alignment vis-a-vis abortion or the relative invisibility of activists in groups like All Our Lives. Particularly in the immediate aftermath of Roe, the world of abortion politics looked quite different from our own. I don't think that it was inevitable that we identify legal abortion with choice, progressivism, or the Democratic Party. But it certainly is true that simple political narratives about those on opposing sides have consistently served a valuable purpose, both for those inside and outside organized movements.

Tim Lacy said...

I was definitely speaking in the present only. I'm sure you're right about my generalization not applying historically. - TL