Commentary Magazine

The Liberal Fetishization of Abortion

AP Photo/Eric Gay

As Americans gird themselves for the sound and fury of a Supreme Court confirmation “fight,” they should prepare to hear one poll-tested expression repeated with Pavlovian consistency: “extremism.” The label could be applied to any number of conservative policy preferences, but Democrats seem especially prepared to direct the epithet at conservatives’ belief that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided. On its face, this is a sound political decision. Senate Democrats cannot prevent Republicans from confirming the next Supreme Court justice, so the party’s best bet is to motivate its voters by implying that the new Court will strip them of their right to access abortion services. That’s a message to which Democratic voters are very receptive, but there is a thin line between motivation and fanaticism. The pro-choice party that once stood in opposition to the outright prohibition of abortion has begun to make a fetish of that procedure.

In deference to that peculiar fetish, the comedian Michelle Wolf is the latest liberal talk-show host to confuse being provocative with cleverness. Adorned in cartoonish patriotic regalia evocative of “John Philip Sousa’s America,” Wolf spent her Independence Day staging a “salute to abortion.” The performance consisted of gushing over the life-affirming practice of voluntary pregnancy termination, a few off-color jokes, and some self-soothing techniques typical of “the party of science.” For example: “Some people say abortion is ‘killing a baby,’” Wolf noted. “It’s not! It’s stopping a baby from happening.” The more you know.

There was some comedy offered along with what was otherwise a series of deliberate challenges to standards of basic decency in there somewhere. Of course, comedy is subjective. What is of note, though, is how these and other similar expressions of cultish devotion to abortion would have repulsed even liberal Democrats not that long ago. Today’s liberal activists do not see Wolf’s display as a tasteless expression of fidelity to a distasteful but occasionally necessary practice that cannot be prohibited without unintended and undesirable consequences. For the left, the days of “safe, legal, and rare” are long gone.

In 2013, the state of Texas sought to impose some medical standards on abortion clinics. These included compelling doctors to have admitting privileges to local hospitals and clinics in order to meet ambulatory surgical standards, which would have effectively closed many rural abortion providers. State Sen. Wendy Davis responded with a failed filibuster. The Supreme Court ultimately struck down the Texas law, arguing that it erected an “undue burden” on abortion seekers established in Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Some might have conceded that conservatives have a point about the Court’s rulings on Casey and Roe if ambulatory care standards represent too high a bar for abortion providers to overcome, but not the left. They were too busy turning Davis into a rock star.

The liberal blogosphere and the press marveled at Davis’s many “amazing facial expressions,” her biography, her choice of footwear, and her t-shirts. Davis instantly became a major Democratic fundraiser and the subject of a major motion-picture script with Sandra Bullock attached as the lead. Davis’s stardom convinced her to make a run at the governor’s mansion. But by the time Texans voted, the bloom was off the rose. She turned in the worst Democratic performance in a gubernatorial election since 1998, in part, because she was never the talent the center-left media ecosystem made her out to be. Davis thought she was the driver, but she was only the vehicle.

In the intervening years, Americans on the left have composed even more preposterous devotionals to the practice of aborting fetuses. They’ve formed advocacy organizations with titles like “Thank God for Abortion,” advocated depicting abortion in cartoons aimed at young children, praised the destigmatizing effect of abortion jokes, and penned columns advocating the late-term abortion of children diagnosed in utero with autism. And while Democratic officeholders are cautious about mirroring their base’s off-putting pro-abortion enthusiasm, they are still content to vote with them when it counts. In 2016 and again in 2018, the party united to block a ban on aborting a child after the 20th week of gestation—when the child has a functioning heart and brain, and has developed fingers, toes, and external genitalia. Senator Dianne Feinstein called the effort an “attempt to harm women by criminalizing their healthcare.”

Liberal confidence is buttressed by polls that routinely show voters oppose overturning Roe v. Wade by two-to-one margins. But virtually unfettered access to abortion is a similarly unpopular position. Since the mid-’70s, Gallup has found Americans prefer some restrictions on abortion rights. A 2017 Marist survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus found nearly six in ten respondents backing a ban on the practice after 20 weeks with exceptions if the life of the mother is in jeopardy. That figure is virtually unchanged from 2013 when a Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that a majority support a 20-week ban. Dive deeper into the weeds, and you’ll be privy to heated arguments about what stage of the pregnancy actually constitutes 20 weeks (there is a valid debate on the matter), but none of this suggests that the general public has any stomach for reverential pro-abortion passion plays.

Almost from the moment that Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement, liberal commentators and columnists pronounced Roe v. Wade dead. They parsed the validity of arguments that had not been made in cases that had not been brought and they reached a predetermined conclusion. All the while, the activists to their left have made a golden calf out of abortion. When it comes to practice, the Democratic Party’s activist base is out of touch with the rest of the country, but they haven’t seemed to notice.

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