FOR THE noisy extremists on both sides of America’s abortion war, the real enemy is not each other but the more moderate majority in between them. Despite the passions the issue excites on the margins—among the 29% of Americans who think abortion should be legal in all circumstances, and the 18% who want it banned—an unyielding majority of Americans take a more nuanced view. “Abortion greys”, as they are sometimes called, have for decades thought abortion should be legal. They are strongly against repealing Roe v Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that recognised abortion as a constitutional right. But they don’t like the grim practice, suspect it is wrong, and want it to be restricted, especially in the later stages of pregnancy.
Hence pro-lifers have seized forcefully upon the new abortion laws recently passed in New York and drafted in Virginia, which would make it easier to terminate a fetus in the third trimester. President Donald Trump describes the laws as a Democratic plot to allow “children to be ripped from their mother’s womb right up until the moment of birth.” Such rhetoric has traditionally been employed by anti-abortionists, along with pictures of dismembered fetuses and threats of hellfire, as an argument for a blanket ban. Yet that is unimaginable. Even if Roe were overruled by the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court bench, around 35 states, run by Democrats or moderate Republicans, would carry on providing abortions regardless. Indeed, the New York and Virginia initiatives were fuelled in part by a desire to ensure uninterrupted abortion services in those states in the event that Roe is scrapped. The more limited curb on late-term abortions Mr Trump says he wants, by contrast, could be popular. Polls suggest two in three Americans who consider themselves to be “pro-choice” are against late-term abortions.
This tactical move among pro-lifers is part of a recent trend, and broadly welcome. Trying to represent the view of the majority is better than their longtime losing battle to shift public opinion to the extreme. But it is notable that banning late-term abortion would have little impact on the roughly 630,000 abortions carried out in America each year. Only about 1% take place after 21 weeks. And they are often a response to the sorts of exceptional circumstances, including threats to the mother’s life or abnormalities in the fetus, that existing state-level bans on late-term abortion, as well as public opinion, tend to allow. The main reason Mr Trump is harping on the issue is political.
In a tight election a tiny movement of well-placed voters can be decisive. And the voters who seem likeliest to be swayed by an argument against late-term abortions are likely to be among the most coveted next year. They are working-class Catholics, concentrated in the Midwestern states, such as Michigan and Ohio, that Mr Trump won narrowly in 2016. Hard-up and moderately religious, they tend to hold socially conservative views, but not to vote on the basis of them. Presented with an uncompromising Democratic champion of abortion rights, pro-lifers hope they might be persuaded to make an exception to that. And with the Democrats veering to the extreme on this issue, among others, that is possible. Mr Trump’s emotive language, as many have noted, exaggerated the potential effect of the changes in New York and Virginia. Hardly any abortions are or would be carried out in America after 24 weeks, when fetuses are considered to be capable of feeling pain. Yet such nuance is equally absent from the way leading Democrats speak about abortion. According to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a 2020 hopeful, there is “zero place for politicians to be involved in these very complicated medical decisions.”
The obvious lesson, which pro-lifers appear at least temporarily to have learned, is that politicians willing to compromise have the broadest appeal. Indeed, the resistance that abortion greys have shown to the polemics of both sides, over three decades of abortion warring, is impressive. Some liberals anticipated that, post-Roe, Americans would become as relaxed about abortion rights as they were fast becoming about civil rights, gay rights and other liberal matters ruled on by the court. That has not happened, in part because of the abolitionists, but also because of factors beyond politicians’ control. These include religious faith and developments in medicine, which have made fetuses viable at an earlier stage, provided more graphic pictures of their emergence, and made even difficult pregnancies less daunting. Such progress has made people who once saw abortion primarily as a medical issue—or, in the case of formerly pro-choice Republicans, as a social welfare and fiscal one—likelier to see it as a moral one, in which the mother and the unborn child both have a stake.
Yet the abortion war mainly illustrates how far from moderation politicians have nonetheless been pushed—first on the right, but increasingly also on the left. Until the late 1970s Republicans were deeply divided on the issue. They formed a unified view of it as a moral crisis only after the party’s alignment with the religious right. The endurance of that position, even as the abortion rate has since plunged, also reflects the way energetic minorities, such as pro-lifers, have been able to control internal party debate through the primary system. On the left, in this and other ways, the extremist drift came later and is more modest. Yet Hillary Clinton’s gravitation from calling abortion “sad, even tragic” in 2005 to the more conventionally pro-choice line she espoused in 2016 was a significant change.
Better late or never?
The argument over late-term abortions is worth having. At the least, most Americans seem to consider it important and necessary. But the abortion war looks essentially irresoluble. Only a drastic political realignment, to end the wider culture wars it has done so much to inflame, could terminate it. As a barrier to more productive politics, the resulting deadlock is another tragedy.