Bearing Right by William Saletan
Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War
by William Saletan
California. 327 pp. $29.95
Three decades ago, Norma McCorvey, a broke and aimless twenty-one-year-old facing her third unwanted pregnancy, took the alias Jane Roe and became the plaintiff in a case that led the Supreme Court to pronounce abortion a constitutional right. Now middle-aged and a born-again Catholic, McCorvey was back in the Texas courts this past June, and her subject was still abortion. This time, though, she was petitioning to overturn Roe v. Wade, the momentous 1973 decision made on her behalf.
McCorvey’s about-face may be the strangest turn in the ongoing struggle over abortion, but it is by no means the only one. Contradictory positions, rhetorical oddities, and strange bedfellows have become commonplace over the past few decades, William Saletan argues, a result in large measure of the debate’s shift from the courts to legislatures and the election stump. In Bearing Right, Saletan, the chief political correspondent of the online magazine Slate, provides a detailed chronicle of abortion politics from the mid-1980′s to the present. His thesis—that through these twists and turns we have reached finally a “conservative” equilibrium on the issue—is at once sharp, illuminating, and ultimately unsatisfying.
As Saletan notes at the outset, “no consensus had been built” for the “nationwide regime of abortion rights” imposed by Roe. By 1986, when his account begins, many states were seeking ways to limit the broad sweep of the decision, particularly by banning the use of state funds for abortion (the 1976 Hyde amendment had already prohibited the use of federal monies). Still worse from the point of view of pro-choice advocates, the Supreme Court, under the new appointees of Ronald Reagan, seemed inclined to grant the states more power to regulate the procedure. Supporters of abortion rights would have to start playing politics as never before.
Activists at the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL)—the focus of Saletan’s early chapters—quickly realized that a large swath of American public opinion on the issue was still up for grabs. Polls suggested that 60 percent of voters defined themselves as neither pro-choice nor pro-life. With the help of hired political consultants, NARAL came to understand that to fight for abortion rights, especially in the Bible belt, it would have to give up its usual rhetoric about “sexual freedom” and “a woman’s right to choose” and keep its distance from the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), groups that were about as welcome in the South as the Communist party. To seduce conservatives to its cause, NARAL would have to tap into their hatred of government meddling.
Several of Saletan’s scenes illustrating this shift are heavy with irony. He describes NARAL executive director Kate Michelman, a veteran of the civil-rights march on Selma, as she watches members of an Alabama focus group rail against the federal government in George Wallace mode. Soon enough, her own organization was adopting their language. While the more doctrinaire NOW continued to pass out signs saying “Keep your laws off my body!,” NARAL was printing placards emblazoned with “Keep Big Government Out of Our Bedrooms” and “Who Decides? You or Them?” And the strategy worked, not only at the state level, in places like Arkansas, but also in the effort of pro-choice forces to sink the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, whom they successfully cast as a pro-government, busy-body extremist.
But these successes also had a price. One of NARAL’s core demands had always been public funding for abortions for poor women; the group’s new anti-government theme scuttled that position. Compromised, too, was NARAL’s longstanding policy opposing parental-notice and -consent laws. Pro-choice activists began to see the virtue in candidates who, while vowing support for Roe, insisted that abortion decisions should “remain in the family.” A turning point in this regard, according to Saletan, was the 1989 governor’s race in Virginia, where Democrat Douglas Wilder managed to become America’s first elected black governor in large part by emphasizing his support for a parental-notification bill, establishing himself as a moderate against an ardently pro-life Republican.
Nor was suspicion of government the only conservative theme that pro-choicers were willing to exploit. They also embraced law and order. Fending off anti-abortion forces in Louisiana, they reminded voters that some women were pregnant as a result of crimes beyond their control. “Don’t you think poor women who are pregnant because of rape and incest have suffered enough?,” asked one 1989 NARAL ad. When pro-life absolutists countered with claims about the “innocence of the unborn” and objected that women would lie about being raped, abortion advocates were able to charge them with being “soft on crime.”
As Saletan points out, these tactics tapped into notions at which feminists had always recoiled. Pro-choice advocates found themselves casting pregnant women as victims instead of moral actors and accepting the idea that there were more and less innocent pregnancies. They even flirted at times with racist appeals. During the 1990 North Carolina senate campaign, one consultant went so far as to suggest an ad telling voters, “Jesse Helms wants your daughter to have Willie Horton’s baby.” Needless to say, the ad never ran.
By the early 1990′s, Saletan argues, “a new mainstream” on abortion had emerged. On the one hand, Democrats like Bill Clinton endorsed parental-consent laws and restrictions on state funding; on the other, Republicans put aside their efforts to overturn Roe in favor of what George W. Bush called “reasonable restrictions.” For Saletan, this consensus around the “conservative” ideas identified years earlier by NARAL showed how far the pro-choice movement had allowed itself to stray. The activists “had saved Roe,” he concludes, “but in the streets and in their souls they had lost the struggle to define it.”
Despite tackling one of the sorest issues in American political life, and despite being written from the point of view of abortion-rights advocates, Bearing Right is remarkably low on cant and partisanship. In large part this is because Saletan’s concern is less abortion per se than the character of modern political campaigns, a focus that at times, as we follow the same struggle through a multitude of settings, can also make Bearing Right repetitious. Saletan’s achievement is to illustrate neatly the tension between ideals and political success, between advocates devoted to a cause and candidates who have to win votes. He also brings to life some of the interesting characters who inhabit the new age of political gamesmanship, particularly the brilliant political consultant Harrison Hickman, a North Carolinian at ease with both feminists and his Confederate neighbors, and the person chiefly responsible for helping NARAL to refine its message.
Still, Bearing Right‘s picture of the “abortion war” tends to political melodrama where more nuance would have been in order. By framing his analysis in narrow political categories and dwelling on events in Southern “backwaters” like Alabama and Louisiana, Saletan leaves the impression that the abortion debate has been won by a conservative faction. But support for parental-consent laws, for instance, is so widespread in the United States that it clearly crosses conventional political boundaries, encompassing not just Southern Baptists but also soccer moms in the Chicago suburbs.
Moreover, it is far from clear that support for such things as parental-consent laws is an ideologically “conservative” position. Even in “progressive” Western Europe—where public opinion about the size of government, law and order, and family values is well to the left of the U.S.—restrictions like parental-consent laws are the norm, as are waiting periods and major limits on abortions performed after twelve weeks. By Saletan’s logic, these policies would have to be somehow an expression of American-style Reaganite conservatism.
In casting abortion policy as the outcome of a war between ideological factions, Saletan fails to grasp that Americans—evidently much like their Western European cousins—are not so much conservative or liberal on this issue as deeply ambivalent. Parental-consent laws, bans on partial-birth abortion, and waiting periods can be seen as the objective correlative of that uncertainty. Seen from a wider angle, the history Saletan describes looks less like a battle of rival political principles than a messy, democratic way of finding a satisfactory balance between the autonomy of women and the claims of nascent life.
None of this means, as Saletan suggests, that America’s abortion war is nearing an end. After all, for many people, the current balance, such as it is, is a profoundly immoral state of affairs. That is certainly the way Norma McCorvey now sees it, and if she can change her mind, the politics of abortion may yet hold more surprises for us.