The pro-life movement has always been accused of opposing the progress of women, trying to expel them from the workplace and entrap them in the home to do nothing but prepare food and bear children.
Now that women lead the pro-life movement (a development that not even the Washington Post and the New York Times could fail to note), that claim has lost some plausibility, but pro-choice activists haven’t stopped making it. Witness the vitriol Ross Douthat attracted when he wrote about the nation’s declining birthrate, the claim that conservatives are making “a bid to roll back the gains and freedoms that feminism has managed to earn for women,” or the invocation of The Handmaid’s Tale in discussions of pro-life politicians and arguments.
Upholding the myth of pro-life gender-traditionalism-bordering-on-misogyny in the academic world is a study now almost thirty years old: Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood. As Jon Shields (whose article “Roe‘s Pro-Life Legacy” appeared in our January issue) wrote in the journal Contemporary Sociology last year, “no other work on abortion politics has approached [Luker's book's] influence.” Her thesis in a nutshell: “While on the surface it is the embryo’s fate that seems to be at stake, the abortion debate is actually about the meaning of women’s lives.” This may have been true in the early 1980s when Luker did her fieldwork, but it’s no longer the case.
Using data from the National Election Survey, which asks respondents about their views on gender roles and abortion (among other topics), Shields demonstrates in his paper (PDF) that a clear majority of today’s pro-life Americans are gender egalitarians, with only a handful of believing that women’s place is in the home. Or to slice the data another way, “the average moderately pro-life citizen [now] is a stronger supporter of gender equality than even the typical strongly pro-choice citizen was in the early 1980s.” Furthermore, “the divide over women’s roles nearly disappears entirely among young pro-life and pro-choice citizens.”
The battle over abortion, Shields concludes, “will be fought increasingly by gender egalitarians.” Just don’t expect the pro-choice movement to admit it.