Elizabeth BruenigJanuary 09, 2017
At the March for Life on Jan. 22, 2016, a police officer warns pro-choice activists to make way for pro-life marchers. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)At the March for Life on Jan. 22, 2016, a police officer warns pro-choice activists to make way for pro-life marchers. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Even before the election, 2016 had been a strange year for the politics of abortion. After that contest’s surprising results, the upheaval is only more pronounced, and activists on each side are likely to underestimate the twists and turns of the road ahead. Both camps are ready to press their own advantages, but they do not yet seem to have developed plans for engaging voters on the opposing side.

The Republican primaries elevated Donald J. Trump, a recent convert to the pro-life cause who showed little familiarity with the contemporary movement, as the political champion of opposition to abortion, though he did not prioritize the issue in his campaign. Meanwhile, the Democrats nominated Hillary Clinton, the only candidate in history to receive a presidential primary endorsement from Planned Parenthood. Abortion issues were a significant focus of her campaign, with the party platform calling for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a 40-year-old compromise forbidding the use of government funds for abortions.

With Clinton’s victory predicted by almost all major polling outfits, pro-choice activists appeared poised for momentous gains. The Democratic Party consensus moved strongly toward destigmatizing and expanding abortion access, buoyed by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt earlier this year. And with Mr. Trump at the helm of the Republican Party, some conservatives worried the pro-life movement was doomed to suffer profound setbacks.

Then the election happened. Mr. Trump’s upset win seems to have ignited new fervor in pro-life activists around the country, encouraged by his opportunity to shape the Supreme Court. Mr. Trump has signaled his intention to appoint justices who would be amenable to overturning Roe v. Wade, which would return decisions about the legality of abortion to each state.

But pro-life activists are not waiting around for a case to make its way to the Supreme Court. Following the election, Ohio state legislators passed a bill that would limit legal abortion to only about the first six weeks of pregnancy, or as soon as the fetal heartbeat could be heard. Though Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich vetoed that measure, nicknamed the “heartbeat bill,” he signed into law a 20-week limitation in December. Efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, both as part of the promised repeal of the Affordable Care Act and from Medicaid at the state level, have been renewed.

Legislators in pro-life states sense that the winds have changed in their favor. As Mr. Trump appoints justices and pro-life advocates size up their chances, state legislators might begin designing laws with the specific intent of placing the matter before the Supreme Court. If their efforts are successful, the pro-life movement could score the win it has been angling for over the last several decades.

But the solidity of any new pro-life legal tilt is still years from being established. Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement, though perhaps facing political disadvantages, shows no signs of backing down—especially when it comes to claiming the cultural high ground for their position. The actress Lena Dunham recently said on a podcast that though she has not had an abortion, “I wish I had,” so that she could contribute her personal story to the effort to reduce the stigma around abortions. In that same vein, Harvard University Press will publish Carol Sanger’s About Abortion next year; the book’s aim, according to the publisher, is “to pry open the silence surrounding this public issue.” Ms. Sanger argues that the stigma surrounding abortion is a significant obstacle to activists looking to expand abortion rights, and it is likely that the movement to diminish any social consequences of abortion will continue to grow as a form of backlash to whatever pro-life accomplishments may be on the horizon.

Thus, it appears likely that pro-life activists will spend the next few years waging a legal war against abortion, while pro-choice activists mount a renewed culture war in an attempt to undercut the energy behind those efforts. With few pro-life voices or think tanks producing arguments in favor of their position in mainstream culture, it is difficult to imagine how pro-lifers will push back against the abortion destigmatization effort. Likewise, it is not clear what success, if any, pro-choice advocates will have in the legal arena.

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Kevin Murphy
4 years 5 months ago
I wouldn't quote Ms. Dunham in any discussion involving reality. She's in her own, narcissistic universe. The one cited was her most perverse statement, but give her time.
Derrick Weiller
4 years 5 months ago
Nicely laid out, Ms. Bruenig. Thank you.
Robert Lannan
4 years 4 months ago
"With few pro-life voices or think tanks producing arguments in favor of their position in mainstream culture, it is difficult to imagine how pro-lifers will push back against the abortion destigmatization effort." And yet the pope saw fit to suggest in this publication that the Church should downplay its opposition to abortion. The good news released this week is that we're down to about 920,000 of these procedures annually in the United States. That's a little more than the population of Austin, Texas. At its all-time high, this figure was about 1.6 million (closer to today's population of Philadelphia). And we shouldn't "obsess" over Austin, should we?
Vincent Gaglione
4 years 4 months ago
Another misrepresentation of Pope Francis’ point of view? For enhancing the social stigma and criminalization of abortion, the Catholic Church in the United States has lifted the issue to its pre-eminent and seemingly sole moral and political issue in the nation. It gets preached from pulpits and propagandized in public relations events. (All the while we are also proclaiming religious liberty while ignoring the fact that there are numerous religious bodies of believers and non-believers in the United States that do not regard abortion to be morally reprehensible, especially in the early days after conception. But consistency is certainly not one of our hallmarks, witness the sexual abuse scandals.) We have yet to make a convincing argument to all people, including our own members from the pulpits, that we are truly “pro-life” and not just “pro-birth”. Many of the same Catholics who fervently advocate for anti-abortion legislation, calling themselves “pro-life”, nonetheless object to tax increases for the social support of all children born to parents who choose not to abort, support the death penalty, reject refugee settlement in the nation, and advocate muscular military interventions around the world. Pope Francis, it seems to me, would argue that a bit more broadness in our national political advocacy might be something to consider while we lobby so vociferously against abortion. It is not the only and pre-eminent moral issue that we Catholics need to advocate.
Robert Lannan
4 years 4 months ago
Every one of the arguments you have made here I have read and heard many, many times. And all but one of them fail to hold up to scrutiny. “[T]he Catholic Church in the United States has lifted the issue to [a] . . . seemingly sole moral” status. Go onto the U.S. Catholic Bishops’ website and skim the content on social responsibility. You can start with this document: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf You’ll see a lot of public policy concerns listed other than abortion. Then look at the departments Catholic Charities organizations in dioceses throughout the United States, and you’ll see a lot more ministries than just those helping women with crisis pregnancies. “It gets preached from the pulpits . . .” Actually, not that often outside of a small number of conservative parishes and dioceses. My sense is that in most parishes, it gets mentioned from the pulpit maybe one or two Sundays every year. But don’t take my word for that. Ask other practicing Catholics who are members of middle-of-the-road parishes. In response to your religious liberty argument, I'll say that I’m glad that the religious abolitionists of the 19th Century, or religious civil rights leaders in 20th, did not refrain from condemning maltreatment of African Americans from the pulpit and demanding public policy changes simply because other believers and non-believers disagreed with them and were free to disagree. As for the pro-life/pro-birth argument, I’ll refer you back to the NCCB website. A lot of it reads like a socialist platform. And they’re strongly against the death penalty. They have been for years. But I will agree with you on one thing. For the Catholic Church in the United States (at least the bishops), human life issues—and abortion in particular—have been “pre-eminent.” But shouldn’t they be? If someone truly believes (as Pope Francis has said he does) that an embryo is a human life, then he or she must concede that abortion kills about a million human lives in the United States alone every year. And if one truly believes that a million innocent human lives are killed in our country every year, why wouldn’t one want to put that issue up front? I would imagine that if a million one- or two-year-old babies were deliberately killed in the United States every year, the Church (among other institutions) would talk about little else. I believe by the time of the Civil War in this country, the Catholic Church opposed slavery. Imagine a pope in the 1850s arguing that, while he technically agreed with them, religious abolitionists in the United States should stop “obsessing” over that issue.
Lisa Weber
4 years 4 months ago
The backlash I would anticipate is from those who believe that abortion is wrong, but hesitate to make it illegal because women die from botched abortions when it is illegal. One-issue voters helped bring a corrupt and incompetent man to the presidency. When he causes a disaster of some kind - take your pick on the most likely one - voters are going to look back and blame it on the pro-life movement. Men have most of the control of the public arena, so they tend to want the discussion to stay in their area of power - make laws, publish papers, have the Church issue pronouncements... Women control most of what happens in the arena of reproduction because they carry the pregnancies. Women can choose to use contraception or not. They can choose to carry the pregnancy or not. Women make those decisions depending on their personal choice and the influence of those closest to them. These are essentially private decisions and always will be. Men can make laws, publish papers, make pronouncements and formulate doctrine and thereby persuade themselves, but they have to persuade women in order to affect the abortion rate. And how do you persuade a woman? Listening is good. Allowing women to speak is good. Supporting women in the struggle to bear and raise children is good - maybe not having to worry about healthcare for herself and her children would be helpful. The pro-life movement needs to realize that persuasion is the only effective means of preventing abortion because a woman always has a choice - laws or no laws.
Robert Lannan
4 years 4 months ago
Have seen the articles about the anti-Trump women's march organizers kicking a pro-life women's group off their sponsorship committee? https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/womens-march-abortion.html?_r=0 Who is refusing to listen in that story? Plenty of pro-life people voted against Trump, including me.
Lisa Weber
4 years 4 months ago
I have seen the articles. I am tired of the issue of abortion derailing every discussion in which the subjects of women and politics intersect. It is a lot like ordination to the priesthood derailing every discussion about women's leadership in the Church. It would be nice to move away from this highly emotional and totally futile focus on abortion as a political issue.
Jim Lein
4 years 4 months ago
So right about listening and supporting, including financially if it is needed. Jesus' way of love and concern and not Caesar's way of cold, hard legalism. How did the church get on a legal kick anyway?
Michael Barberi
4 years 4 months ago

The elephant in the room called 'abortion' is the definition and moral arguments of the issues of 'direct' and 'indirect' abortion. This is an argument that has been waging for the past 50 years. Does the 'Phoenix Case' an issue of direct or indirect abortion? We know the Church's position (e.g., it was declared direct abortion) but this is not the majority theological position. Until the magisterium permits the termination of a pregnancy to save the life of the mother, Catholics will continue to disagree with the teaching on abortion. Don't get me wrong, I am against abortion on demand, at any time for any reason. However, when it comes to exceptions, the Church fears that any exception will render the underlying principles in support of their teachings dangerous and destructive. Instead of rigid positions, we need 'responsible doctrine development'.

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