In the early ’90s, my Catholic grade school hosted a guest speaker, a member of the Pennsylvania state legislature. After giving our eighth-grade class a basic civics lesson, he opened the floor to Q&A. And, in the excruciating hour that followed, every last question consisted of some variation of, “What are you doing about abortion?” You see, my classmates and I had been so marinated in anti-abortion rhetoric that we couldn’t understand why someone in his position could waste time with tax codes when there were so many babies to save. By the end of the session, our local representative was visibly shaken. I wonder whether he ever agreed to speak at a parochial school again.
That episode has been at the front of my mind since news broke of the Dobbs decision, “among the Court’s worst decisions in history.” While there would never be a good time for the Supreme Court to take away a half-century-old constitutional right, there could hardly be a worse time than right now, with major news outlets still committed to a pernicious bothsidesism.
It didn’t take long for the horror of forced-birth policies to become obvious. Less than a month after Dobbs, a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio had to leave the state to seek an abortion. That story, along with many others, convinced some conservatives to recalibrate their message, even if that meant downplaying or—in the case of senate candidate Blake Masters—denying their anti-abortion stance.
A peculiar assortment of anti-abortion pundits has stepped into this morass. Unlike my classmates, these more sophisticated activists hope to salvage some civility from the shitstorm they helped to create.
Readers may have already come across op-eds or expert panels calling on the anti-abortion movement to shift its focus from pressuring the Supreme Court to building some kind of abortion-free utopia, where people with unintended pregnancies find the support they need to carry the baby to term. Major outlets have provided space for anti-abortion activists in centrist drag to lament the abruptness of Dobbs as they call for humility and dialogue.
I’m not the first to notice these efforts at hand-waving and damage control. The Atlantic’s Elaine Godfrey has written about the anti-abortion advocates who claim to support widening the social safety net, even as their plans seem to lack some key details; Savannah Jacobson of Slate.com has criticized the New York Times for amplifying the voices and overstating the charitable efforts of anti-choice activists; and RD’s Mary E. Hunt has called out the Catholic bishops who, after a post-Dobbs victory lap, released a statement touting their work to support pregnant people.
My own bullshit detector has picked up a few trends among these “compassionate” anti-abortion types, starting with a specific kind of pearl-clutching that’s become a genre all its own.
Many of the more polite anti-abortion advocates seem to have only recently noticed how authoritarian and misogynistic their movement is. For example, David French, who’s earned praise as a Trump critic, nevertheless appears unable to see how the movement’s inability to compromise is a feature rather than a bug.
In a recent interview, French stated that, while he agrees with Dobbs, the case was decided at “a bad time” because “we’ve been polarized” (note the passive voice). Three separate times, he describes anti-abortion trigger laws—abortion bans designed to automatically take effect at the overturn of Roe—as merely “performative,” as though the people who passed them didn’t really mean what they were doing. (They did.)
A number of others have expressed a similar view, like the panelists in a recent discussion hosted by Georgetown University who lamented the moral “compromises” that anti-abortion activists have made. Others, like Religion News Service columnist Charles C. Camosy, have—either naively or disingenuously—called on the movement to move past Trump, as though the movement could easily shed its racism, hatred of LGBTQI people, and the other hallmarks of Christian nationalism. I found it amusing that a few (like here and here) called on anti-choicers to essentially abandon the former president without actually naming him.
Even if I were to play along and assume that these experts are sincere, it’s too late for them to notice that the anti-abortion movement might have somehow lost its way. Indeed, the movement has consistently demonstrated that resentment and authoritarianism are among its animating principles. One of the consequences of going down that road is siding with a huckster like Trump, which played the biggest role in the polarization that these pundits find so regrettable. Anti-abortion advocates never hid their anti-democratic tactics, from stealing Supreme Court seats to gerrymandering state legislatures. No one gets to frame the alliance with Trumpism as an “inconvenient truth” that can now simply be reversed without consequences.
We’re here to help!
A second trend I’ve noticed: anti-choicers paying lip service to progressive reforms like subsidized healthcare, while failing to explain whom they’d be willing to vote for, which specific policies they would support, and which policies actually have any realistic chance of being implemented within our lifetimes.
For example, in a commentary from late 2021 anticipating the fall of Roe, Erika Bachiochi, a fellow at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center, suggested that somehow, some way, the pro-life movement can compel the Republican Party to bolster the social safety net. Since then, unfortunately, Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has put forward a Congressional agenda hellbent on gutting social services. In so doing, Scott merely put into words what his party has been trying to do for decades. Meanwhile, Oren Cass, writing for CNN, has touted the Family Security Act, a post-Roe welfare program with no shot at becoming law, and one that would be inadequate if it did.
Conservative Catholic writer Leah Libresco Sargeant has called for more support for pregnant women. Sounds good, until you listen to this conversation with the New York Times. A surreal moment occurs around the 11-minute mark, when Sargeant is asked how she feels about Dobbs’s potentially devastating impact on poor people. She deflects by talking about how European abortion laws are more restrictive than those in the US.
The moderator repeats the question, though this callout has been stricken from the transcript for some reason. Sargeant then concedes the moderator’s point—right before doubling down on her opposition to abortion rights. Fellow panelist Michelle Goldberg correctly summarizes Sargeant’s answer as: “I feel bad for you. I want to help you. But at the end of the day, too bad.”
Sergeant’s nebulous position is consistent with the American Solidarity Party, for which she serves on the board of advisors. If you’ve never heard of the American Solidarity Party, that’s because they have no shot at winning an election anywhere. Ever. The party seems to exist for the sole purpose of allowing anti-Trump conservatives to vote with a clearer conscience.
Anti-abortion advocates in this camp also tend to call for religious organizations to provide the services that pregnant people will need in a post-Roe world. In reality, religious institutions provide a fraction of the services that state and federal governments do, only with no oversight and no accountability. Social Security alone costs over a trillion dollars a year. There’s no possible world in which religious institutions could make a difference, even if they vow to “redouble” their efforts, as the Catholic bishops have done.
These gestures appear to be deliberately meaningless, or hopelessly naive. Is it realistic to expect a kinder, gentler abortion ban from the people who burned everything down to overturn Roe, especially in the states that are the most likely to criminalize the practice? Don’t bet on it. And certainly don’t bet on the bishops threatening to withhold communion from a politician over it.
No follow-up questions, please
A third trend: as many of the examples above show, anti-abortion “centrists” are a little too coy about what they’re willing to accept in order to maintain the criminalization of abortion. This is especially important to me because the simple question of how exactly we would enforce a ban on abortion is what compelled me to change my mind on the issue.
Journalists must press these activists harder on where they draw the line; on what their limits would be. There was a brief taste of this in Chuck Todd’s recent discussion with Mallory Carroll of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. Toward the end, Todd asks Carroll if the movement would be better off with the compromise of a 15-week ban—which was at the heart of the Dobbs case—rather than throwing out Roe entirely. Her answer: “Absolutely not.” In a sense, you have to appreciate her candor. But it goes to show that many anti-abortion activists want people who can become pregnant to live with this newly-located Overton window no matter what comes next. Keeping abortion illegal will always be more important to them than alleviating the suffering that an abortion ban would cause. There’s no turning back.
But the questions shouldn’t stop there. What if the maternal mortality rate goes up? What if the police treat miscarriages as potential homicides? What if Dobbs becomes the template for dismantling other rights? And what about the fascists who’ve been empowered by Dobbs, like Doug Mastriano, who could become the next governor of my home state of Pennsylvania? Would the anti-abortion movement support the person—a Democrat?!—with the best chance of defeating someone like that? Or would they simply rationalize this latest deal with the devil, like they did with Trump?
The criminalization of reproductive healthcare is a looming disaster, not a mere policy distinction. We should treat it like one, even if it means telling certain people that dialogue with them is a waste of time. Humility and dewy-eyed optimism about conservatives having a change of heart simply aren’t enough. These activists have scored their big victory. Instead of spinning it as a promising new beginning, they should instead spend more time thinking about what they’ve done.