We Could Have Made Roe Irrelevant
Instead, the movement lost the plot and widened the divide
In Embracing Curiosity, I step away from writing about travel to comment on the bigger journey of life, exploring my faith and politics with curiosity and nuance.
I remember where I was when I found out that Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
My heart sank, because I knew that now, the fight I had heard was coming finally appeared to be at our doorstep.
I was raised in a pro-life household. I’ve written about my evolving views and approach to the abortion question and how it has changed over the years. But at the heart of it all, I hold onto three important beliefs.
First, I believe that all life is precious and should be given the opportunity for thriving where that life is planted. Second, we are complicated human beings with wildly different stories that contribute to the truths that we hold. Third, those two beliefs become significantly more complex when we put them in the crucible that is pregnancy.
In short, being a human is hard, growing humans is hard, and in the years after Roe was decided, we did a terrible job of having honest conversations about all of it.
Because during my childhood and young adulthood, I heard a lot of discussions about the need to end legal abortion, but very little meaningful action to end all abortion.
And they are not the same thing.
I wasn’t the only person who became increasingly concerned about what a post-Dobbs world meant for the pro-life movement. In The Dispatch, David French wrote about his own concerns about whether the pro-life movement was ready for a post-Roe world. An ardent supporter of the movement who has worked on legal cases and written extensively over the topic, French has increasingly expressed concerns that the political rhetoric from the Right, much of it coming from people who claim to be pro-life, doesn’t bode well for the immediate future. He calls out the punitive legislation being passed in state after state and says that a commitment to life carries a commitment to love, commenting “But life and love are countercultural on too many parts of the right. In a time of hate and death, too many members of pro-life America are contributing to both phenomena.”
I wish he was wrong, but the violent rhetoric leading up to the 2022 election only serves to support that argument.
One of my biggest frustrations as someone who grew up deep in the pro-life movement is that adulthood has shown me just how flawed the overall movement was. The movement could have used the last fifty years to make the abortion discussion completely irrelevant by pouring time and money and resources into improving health care, living conditions, education, and labor conditions.
Instead, the vast majority of the time and money and resources were spent trying to elect politicians who would find a way to overturn Roe, politicians who fundamentally opposed the very policies that would have guaranteed an even more significant drop in abortions than the drop we have seen in the last fifty years. (In fact, the number of abortions had reached its lowest level in over 40 years before the Dobbs decision, and that is with a growing population of women of childbearing age.) People I love and grew up admiring were so focused on a single goal, they missed out on the opportunity to show love for their neighbors and fellow citizens in the here and now.
Like Beth Allison Barr, who wrote her own reflections shortly after the Dobbs decision, I struggle with where the pro-life movement finds itself. I see the long-standing inconsistencies of not caring for lives outside of the womb as much as lives inside of the womb. I think about the billions of dollars that have been raised to elect politicians who do nothing to make life easier for women who choose to have their babies. I see little to no effort to improve the lives of women who might choose to have their babies if they had access to free healthcare, paid maternity leave, and affordable childcare. I see few attempts to reform the criminal justice system to ensure that men and women are at home providing for their families instead of in prison because they can’t afford better representation, perpetuating the cycle of poverty.
I know wonderful people who are the perfect example of what it is to be pro-life. They fight for policies that make flourishing possible, hold their politicians accountable, and only donate money to causes that directly help women and babies. They have concerned themselves with preventing the need for abortion. But they aren’t the ones that make the most noise. Unfortunately they aren’t the ones making headlines. Humble service makes a direct difference in individual lives, but it isn’t sexy enough to get national attention. They see people, not causes. They answer cries for help, but don’t judge or accuse.
Unfortunately, their anti-abortion teammates have made it incredibly difficult for me and many other women like me to align with a bigger movement that lacks empathy and imagination.
It’s the inability to imagine the many circumstances that would cause a woman to get an abortion. It’s an inability to imagine the very real reasons why abortion, as an inadequately large blanket term, will always be necessary to save the health of some mothers. It’s the inability to imagine public policies that would make having children both desirable and fruitful. It’s the inability to imagine a world in which abortions are both legal and rare.
And yet, that is the ground on which most Americans can agree, with 61% agreeing that abortion should be legal in all or most cases.
Here’s what I’ve come to understand after years of listening: There are women who are genuinely afraid of the loss of their bodily autonomy and there are men who have never considered the emotional and physical cost of childbearing. There are people who love babies and their mothers and genuinely want to save both of their lives. And there are people who will always need a cause that riles up their base to keep them financially and politically relevant.
I realize that, one week out from a mid-term election, there will be elements of this argument that will already be out of date by the time some people read this. We are in an ever-changing landscape in post-Roe America. But I hesitate to believe in either a consequence-free “abortion-free” pro-life utopia or a feared militant Handmaids dystopia. The first is an impossibility that humankind has never been able to achieve. The second is a nightmarish hellscape that should remain only a fictional reality.
Instead, I’m asking those in the pro-life movement, the one that defined my politics for far too long, to take a step back from hyperbole and scare tactics. Laws and regulations and standards are going to be constantly changing for the foreseeable future, but what will not keep changing is the importance of working together to create a society where the abortion question is largely irrelevant. A society focused on the thriving of all citizens and the freedom to do so.
I just hope that I’m not asking too much.
For another view of the abortion debate that complicates the binary discussion, check out this Substack post from Men Yell At Me:
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