Democrats must make abortion the center of their politics

Conservative Christians rewrote history so they could tell each other their whole religion hinged on abortion. It doesn’t, but the fundamental rights of laborers absolutely do.

Democrats must make abortion the center of their politics
Demonstrators gather in front of the Supreme Court to protest the draft decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on May 3, 2022. Brendan Smialowski, via Getty.

Edited by Sam Thielman

IN THE MID-1970’s, two sociologists at the University of Washington, Larry R. Petersen and Armand L. Mauss, set out to investigate whether there was any quantifiable association between religious beliefs and attitudes toward abortion. This question might strike contemporary readers as downright silly, given the abundance of evidence in the affirmative, but the conclusion was far from obvious to the authors, whose study noted both the paucity of academic research on this correlation and a sense that the spirit of the time was changing.

“Although a recent Supreme Court decision [Roe v. Wade] has apparently abolished most state and federal laws restricting abortion, there still remains much opposition in this society to so-called ‘abortion on demand,’” they wrote, “and a social movement is simmering which has the definite prospect of challenging the Court's decision by means of an amendment to the federal constitution.”

The study did conclude that there was a correlation between certain religious views and anti-abortion attitudes, chiefly among members of Catholic and conservative Protestant denominations who were regular church-goers—but they also noted that this correlation did not extend to political affiliation. “Republicans are usually considered to be more conservative than Democrats; therefore, we might expect Republicans to be more opposed to abortion, but this is not the case. The original relationship between denomination and attitudes on abortion still holds for both parties,” wrote Petersen and Mauss, further noting that, excepting Catholics, “Democrats are slightly more opposed to abortion than are Republicans.”

That said, the authors further observed that it had become fashionable for conservative politicians—including former President Nixon and then-governor of California Ronald Reagan—to speak openly of their opposition to abortion in a way that distinguished them from their predecessors. Something new was indeed in the air.

IT’S GOOD TO BE REMINDED that political alignments and associations many take for granted today are no older than Generation X. The example of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country’s largest Protestant denomination, is illustrative in this regard. Even according to its own account, “the SBC has not always been on the right side of this pro-life debate.” Rather, according to a 1970 poll, “70% of SBC pastors supported abortion to protect the mental or physical health of the mother, 64% supported abortion in cases of fetal deformity, and 71% in cases of rape.” In 1971 the SBC further adopted a resolution to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” A short time later, the SBC newswire, Baptist Press, praised Roe v. Wade for advancing the cause of “religious liberty, human equality and justice.”

By the same measure, it is uncanny to encounter these time capsules from the Age of Aquarius today, with their allusions to a context that is almost unrecognizable. They evoke a moment before culture wars become the dominant GOP electoral strategy; before a group of law students from Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago (noted centers of moral virtue and populist agitation) founded the Federalist Society to nurture originalist jurisprudence; and before one could assume all sorts of things about the correlations between religious faith, Republican party affiliation, and opposition to abortion. Less than fifty years separates us from this distant country, but in that time those political alliances scattered, and their components reassembled into platforms and coalitions that would have been unimaginable in years past.

Making sense of why anti-abortionism has become central to today’s GOP requires taking stock of what else the American Right has been up to in the intervening decades. The story most often told is that abortion became the cornerstone in the culture wars as a result of a calculated strategy that was both cynical and highly effective; that along with race-baiting, nativism, and anti-LGBTQ campaigns, abortion serves to distract from the party’s demonstrably unpopular economic platform. Cultural issues, according to this assessment, act as the spoonful of sugar that helps the free market go down.

There is certainly some truth to this analysis. The GOP’s culture-wars pivot largely tracks the neoliberal realignment of American politics, occurring against the backdrop of deindustrialization, declining union strength, deregulation, and a massive upward wealth redistribution, all of which have conspired together to produce record levels of economic inequality. Propelled by the conviction that social provision is best left to the marketplace, rather than being secured through political action, these structural shifts have left housing, healthcare, and education increasingly unaffordable to vast portions of the population. In response, the Democratic Party has done very little about this broad reorganization of state and society, instead tacking right in the hope of attracting mythical moderates, and abandoning all pretense of using government to give people anything they actually want.

However familiar and even compelling in parts, this story is also woefully incomplete. As Jenny Brown has argued, treating abortion as a “cultural issue” overlooks what the fight is truly about: social reproduction. It is thus material and economic to its core. Who will bear children, at what cost, and for whom? In making her case, Brown notes that declining birth rates have fueled a low-grade panic among political actors across a broad spectrum, and restrictions on immigration place additional onus on American women to produce; to create the next generation of workers to feed into the meat grinder of capitalism.

But having babies is hard, dangerous, expensive, and emotionally and physically taxing even under the best conditions. And no one can pretend that the United States—a country without paid family leave, universal healthcare, or a public system of childcare—is anything near hospitable to parents. In lieu of robust public investment to support the work of voluntary social reproduction, the Right’s strategy has been one of coercion and now, criminalization. You will bear children whether you want to or not, whether you can afford them or not, even if it might kill you.

The “you” in this statement is not universal, of course. Women with means will continue to have greater access to reliable birth control and to abortions when they need them, even if those abortions require a trip out of state. The rest—chiefly black, brown, and poor women—will be forced to grin and bear it, with new abortion bans serving as 21st century vagrancy laws to compel participation in the literal labor market.

THE OVERTHROW OF ROE crosses a new threshold in the right’s reorganization of government into an apparatus that is chiefly punitive, that can punish far better than it can provide. To view the GOP’s anti-abortion realignment primarily in terms of culture is to badly underestimate its centrality to the broader project of reconfiguring the purpose of the state in those terms.

What does all this mean in practice? To start with, analyses that paint the conflict as one between liberal vs. traditional values, or secularism vs. religion, not only miss the mark but are completely counterproductive in terms of mobilization. At the most elementary level, there are plenty of “religious” people who support abortion, and who make the argument for equity and autonomy from within their traditions. This is true even within the narrow bands of dogma that dominate the politics of American Christianity; moreso among American Jews and Muslims (the myriad bad takes from liberals about the Christian Right moving to implement “shari‘a law” miss that the latter would be preferable).

But the larger problem is that to approach abortion as a question of culture or values is to cede a wholly undeserved position of ideological permanence to anti-abortion arguments. Culture, values, and even theology are remarkably fluid and flexible instruments, as the Southern Baptist Convention’s own evolution has shown. The notion that present alignments are ancient and essential rather than newly-minted and contingent deprives people of what is perhaps history’s only salve: the knowledge that things were not always the way they are now, and therefore need not remain so in the future. Given this context, it is a strategic misstep to make this struggle about religion or values when it is in fact about labor, social provision, and power.

In short, Democrats cannot build the coalition needed to protect abortion rights without advancing a platform that offers people something beyond Tesla chargers. Access to abortion needs to be part and parcel of a broader vision of government: how it can be used to advance the causes of equity and genuine human freedom, which the term “reproductive justice” (not incidentally coined by a group of black feminists) so eloquently conveys. That freedom is “(1) the right not to have a child, (2) the right to have a child, and (3) the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments.”

This project is diametrically opposed to the prevailing view that the state’s purpose is chiefly punitive, and it necessitates a whole lot of things that Democrats have been afraid to even offer, from universal healthcare to public childcare to paid family and medical leave. The idea that people do not really want these things is belied not only by public polling but by a burgeoning National Conservative movement that rejects neoliberal orthodoxies in an attempt to return the (white, male) American worker to his former, bread-winning glory. American Compass is among the right-wing organizations that appeal to working class concerns and calls for a “pro-family social contract” as a means to boost the fertility rate through expanded and pooled benefits for households. That is to say, the new Right has a platform that offers people something of material value and ties that agenda to preserving and even resurrecting old gender and racial hierarchies. How are today’s Democrats going to compete with that vision while reassuring wealthy donors that nothing fundamental needs to change?

Asserting that Democrats must choose between economic appeals to the “working class” and virtue signaling about “social issues” that animate well-off liberals is not merely tired—it is the recipe for continued defeat. Adopting a reproductive justice framing allows us to situate abortion access within a broad platform that makes lives more equitable and free. It is not a distraction from the economic issues that “really matter” but fundamental to building a society in which both individuals and families can flourish.