Abortion, Bill Clinton once said, should be safe, legal, and rare. The quote is quintessential Clinton: liberal, but not too liberal; feminism moderated by a touch of good old common sense. You can still buy bumper stickers with his quote on it, if you want to tell the world that women should control their own bodies — in the right circumstances. Clinton hasn’t been president since 2001, and pro-choice advocates have disavowed such timid language in the years since his departure. But the notion that abortion is sad, a thing to be avoided and disliked, persists. We’re all pro-life, Alyssa Milano told Chris Cuomo, not long after Georgia governor Brian Kemp signed a bill that would, if it goes into effect, ban abortions after six weeks.
It’s unwise, probably, to pay much attention to Milano. Her fame does not make her a spokesperson for feminism. But her opinion is not as unusual among liberals as it should be, and that makes her difficult to ignore. Consider the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, now fundraising for Representative Dan Lipinski as if he’s a regular incumbent. But despite being a Democrat, Lipinski vehemently opposes abortion rights. The party is working against its most important pro-choice allies in a district that a more progressive candidate could realistically win.
Were I still Evangelical, and still longed to end abortion, I’d have many reasons to celebrate. When your enemies pick up your arguments and tolerate your allies in their midst, you can be relatively confident that you’ve achieved the social and political dominance that you’ve worked toward for years. Milano and the DCCC have walked directly into a trap that abortion opponents set for them, and they don’t even seem to realize what they’ve done. Anything less but the prioritization of women over the pregnancies they carry cedes ground the left cannot afford to lose.
When abortion ends a wanted pregnancy, it is one grief-sodden moment in a series of tragedies. But the assertion that nobody wants an abortion, ever, directly affirms anti-choice narratives. Though abortion opponents do try to deploy science to bolster their objections, their position ultimately rests on philosophical convictions about personhood and the beginning of human life. Life begins at conception, they believe; from that moment, the fetus in the womb is a person with a right to exist. Milano doesn’t seem to share these views, nor are they the views the Democratic Party has written into its platform. But in rhetoric and in deed, they lend credence to right-wing arguments against abortion. If we’re all pro-life, and the Democratic tent has room for Dan Lipinski, the morality of abortion becomes an open question. Why dread the termination of unfeeling cells, or campaign for an anti-choice man, if abortion is really so integral to the liberation of women? The liberal stance on abortion rights looks equivocal, just when conservatives are as certain as they’ve ever been.
Whatever cracks appear in the anti-abortion movement now, with the Alabama law making headlines, are superficial. Abortion opponents have never been entirely unified on a legal prescription for ending abortion, or on the necessity of punishing patients along with providers, but they are of one mind on the same basic premise: Abortion kills a person. Pat Robertson, who believes that you should pray over anything you buy from a thrift store because demons can hide in the fabric, says that the Alabama bill is “ill-considered.” But Robertson has also committed his one wild and precious life to the fight against abortion. Though his extreme idiocy makes him an oddity, he isn’t the only abortion opponent to suggest that the Alabama bill goes a bit too far. It’s gauche, maybe, to say the quiet part loud, which is what the bill does. Alabama Republicans simply took the anti-abortion movement at its word. If abortion kills a baby, then it is a great evil. The law recognizes no exceptions for rape survivors who murder children. Child murder is child murder, no matter who wields the knife. The anti-abortion movement built this bill, and liberals can’t afford to help them evade responsibility.
Alabama’s abortion ban contains no exceptions for rape and incest. It is written to end a mass murder which has, it says, destroyed “more than three times the number who were killed in German death camps, Chinese purges, Stalin’s gulags, Cambodian killing fields, and the Rwandan genocide combined.” Its architects admit that it is designed to challenge Roe v. Wade, and that gambit that could pay off now that Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. If Roe falls, or is weakened into inefficacy, we know what follows. We know, from the history of pre-Roe America and the imprisonment of women in other right-wing governments, that women will suffer. Some will die, from pregnancy complications or from the back-alley abortions that many, the poor especially, will inevitably seek. Whether an abortion ban criminally penalizes women or not, the outcome punishes them all the same.
I don’t believe that female pain is a policy goal for all abortion opponents. But they do weigh the suffering of women against the prospective life of the fetus, and favor the fetus in the end. “The imaginary futures — the ‘personhoods’ — of the unborn have taken moral precedence over the adult women in whose bodies they grow,” Rebecca Traister wrote for the New Republic, back in 2014. To abortion opponents, the potential person seems to be the one true innocent in the world. The woman carrying it, though, is a different matter altogether. She can make mistakes. Maybe she skipped her pill. Maybe she didn’t take a pill at all. Maybe she was young, unmarried, and sexually active when churches would rather she be abstinent. Mistakes have consequences.
I’ve never needed an abortion. But I’ve been in an abusive relationship, and I think, still, of all the ways it could have been worse for me. I could have gotten pregnant, and I think that would have killed me. I was a 22-year-old student at a Christian university that expelled students for having sex outside the holy bonds of hetero matrimony. I was suicidally depressed, and when I look back at myself across the valley of a decade, I’m still surprised to be alive. I think of the people I knew then, and how so many of them would have told me to carry a baby to term even if it destroyed me. I think of the words God wrote on the walls of sinful Belshazzar’s feast hall — words of judgement, words to bring down a king. Mene, mene, tekel upharsin. God numbered you and found you wanting, and will bring you to an end. Pregnancy would have been a punishment, not a miracle.
Nothing I lived through will convince an Alabama Republican to change his mind. To them, nothing I’ve done in my 31 years on the Earth — none of my accomplishments, none of my happiness — elevates my worth above that of an embryo. There are stories bleaker and more violent than mine, and they won’t persuade Alabama Republicans, either. There is only one just and moral response to the anti-abortion movement, and that is to strike down its arguments in their entirety. A fetus is a possibility, not a person. While abortion can be the tragic end to a wanted pregnancy, it’s never murder. The opposite position is extreme, and a threat to the health and safety of women. There is no compromise, not on the personhood of women. You can’t find middle ground. Invite them into your big tent, and you threaten the most vulnerable people inside it.