Whatever else it is, the pro-life movement of the last thirty-plus years is one of the most massive and sustained expressions of citizen participation in the history of the United States. Since the 1960s, citizen participation and the remoralizing of politics have been central goals of the left. Is it not odd, then, that the pro-life movement is viewed as a right-wing cause? Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the irony of American history and, were he around to update his book of that title, I expect he might recognize this as one of the major ironies within the irony.
These are the issues addressed in a remarkable new book out this month from Princeton University Press, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right , by Jon Shields, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College. The book is by no means a pro-life tract. It is an excruciatingly careful study, studded with the expected graphs and statistical data”but not to the point of spoiling its readability”in the service of probing the curious permutations in contemporary political alignments.
The Port Huron Statement issued by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1962 called for a participatory democracy in which, through protest and agitation, the power structure of the society would be transformed by bringing moral rather than merely procedural questions to the center of political life. Almost fifty years later, Shields notes, some 45 percent of respondents in the Citizens Participation Survey who reported participating in a national protest did so because of abortion. What is more, nearly three quarters of all abortion-issue protesters are pro-life, an unsurprising fact given that the pro-life movement is challenging rather than defending the current policy regime. Meanwhile, all other social issues, including pornography, gay rights, school prayer, and sex education, account for only 3 percent of all national protest activity.
Shields says there are three categories of pro-life politics: deliberative, disjointed, and radical. Representative of the deliberative are Justice for All (JFA) and the Center for Bio-Ethical Reform (CBR), which have trained thousands of young people to engage in nonconfrontational pro-life persuasion on college campuses. The disjointed politics includes innumerable and loosely organized activities such as sidewalk counseling, prayer vigils, marches, demonstrations, and counter-demonstrations. The radical includes what he calls the broken remnants of the rescue movement, focusing on civil disobedience and the closing of abortion clinics. In many respects [the radical] is the exact opposite of deliberative politics, except for the fact that it too is highly coordinated and organized.
He cites striking instances of the campus efforts of groups such as JFA and CBR meeting with frequently vicious hostility, often led by faculty members. The truth is that such hostility reflects vehement opposition to civil deliberation and argument about abortion. Pro-life students eager to engage others in serious discussion find this very frustrating, but it is not entirely surprising. Shields writes: Such frustration is fueled by NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood, whose leaders discourage their campus affiliates from debating or even talking to pro-life students. NARAL’s Campus Kit for Pro-Choice Organizers,’ for example, gives this categorical instruction: Don’t waste time talking to anti-choice people.’ The campus organizer for Planned Parenthood told Shields that she discourages direct debate. Feminists for Life has had more success on campuses, mainly because its members shake up conventional notions on the woman question. As leaders of the organization put it, the goal is not to fit into a man’s world on men’s terms, which means above all not troubling employers with their fertility problems. As they repeatedly assert, Women deserve better than abortion.
But pro-abortion intolerance of discussion or debate is sometimes given dramatic expression. In San Francisco, the city and county board of supervisors unanimously declared January 22, the anniversary of Roe v. Wade , Stand Up for Choice Day and officially declared San Francisco a pro-choice city. Supervisor Bevan Duffy declared that pro-lifers were not welcome in San Francisco. Supervisor Tom Ammiano complained about the audacity of pro-life activists who think that they can come to our fair city and demonstrate. The head of the Golden Gate chapter of Planned Parenthood was outraged that activists have been so emboldened that they believe that their message will be tolerated here. The Free Speech Movement at Berkeley in the mid-1960s has come to this.
A?Movement for Change
The pro-life movement is a movement for change, indeed for what some view as the radical change of eliminating the unlimited abortion license. Meanwhile, writes Shields, the pro-choice movement is a conservative movement defending the status quo. Pro-choicers have little to gain from engaging their opponents and from the deliberative norms that facilitate persuasion. And, of course, they have the establishment media massively on their side. The head of New York State Right to Life explained to Shields that a major part of her work is simply trying to convince journalists that pro-life activists are normal.’ It is hard to imagine a pro-choice leader describing her work that way.
The current demographic makeup of the pro-life movement, writes Shields, also confounds the politics of motherhood. The conflict is often depicted as one between housewives and career-oriented women. But a striking percentage of pro-life women are university educated, and many have given up professional careers to do pro-life work full-time. Although Shields does not mention it in this connection, it is also striking how many female leaders in the pro-life cause had one or more abortions, an experience that helped turn them against the current license. He does note that surveys indicate that pro-life citizens, men and women, are only moderately less likely to be very concerned’ about women’s rights than pro-choice respondents. The pro-life movement, he writes, is actually quite diverse, and abortion politics more generally does not [as some claim] pit working-class Catholic housewives against professional, career-oriented women. In short, it has over the years increasingly stretched credulity to claim that the pro-choice cause is a woman’s movement.
An influential book in these discussions is Kristin Luker’s Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood . Luker’s argument is that the abortion debate is not so much over abortion as it is an expression of worldviews in conflict, along the lines of some analyses of the culture wars. Shields arrives at a different conclusion: The great conflicts in American history, especially slavery, civil rights, and abortion, have been unusually hard fought and passionate because they cannot be understood as symbolic fights over different worldviews or cultures. Instead, they are better understood as clashes over how common liberal values should be extended to different categories of humans. These conflicts have been disagreements over who counts as a human person.
Well yes, the abortion battle is over abortion and whether the unborn child counts as a human person, but where one comes out on that question is, I believe, powerfully influenced by a host of other beliefs and attitudes aptly summarized in the pro-life language of a culture of death versus a culture of life. There are two cultures, one focused on rights and laws and the other on rights and wrongs; one focused on maximizing individual self-expression and the other on reinforcing community and responsibility.
Shields is, I believe, on firmer ground when he writes: The sociology of the academy may matter as well. Perhaps Luker’s book has been so appealing to academics because they do not want to entertain the possibility that these conservative reactionaries might be agents in progressive history. Central to the self-understanding of liberalism is the belief that the left cares about justice and human rights, while the right is obsessed with crabbed cultural preoccupations such as gay lifestyles, pornography, and traditional gender roles. Conservatives, in this view, must be seen as reactionaries to the civil rights movements rather than its heirs. If this is right, Luker’s book may say more about contemporary American liberalism than it does about abortion politics.
Of particular interest is Shields’ analysis of the role of intellectuals and intellectual inquiry on both sides of the conflict. The reluctance of the pro-choice leadership to engage in public debate is another mark of its conservatism. As Shields writes: As a movement that wants to preserve the status quo, it simply has nothing to gain from engaging its opponents, especially on college campuses where the pro-choice view is a default progressive position for many students. But the pro-choice movement does have something to lose if bested in public debate. Moreover, pro-choice advocates know very well that even the minds of activists in their ranks can be changed. Prominent examples include abortion providers and the cofounder of NARAL Pro-Choice America, not to mention many less prominent rank-and-file activists.
While the pro-life cause welcomes, and has been greatly bolstered by, the support of many distinguished intellectuals, the same is not true of the pro-choice movement. On the contrary, intellectuals who share their policy preferences are always raising inconvenient questions about the intellectual coherence of arguments advanced in favor of the unlimited abortion license. For instance, Rosamund Rhodes of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine confessed three decades after Roe that abortion proponents are simply not prepared to explain how or why the fetus is transformed into a franchised person’ by moving from inside the womb to outside or by a reaching a certain level of development. One of the most prominent of abortion proponents, Judith Jarvis Thompson, concedes that the prospects for drawing a line’ in the development of the fetus look dim. And of course there is Peter Singer of Princeton, who has written, Liberals have failed to establish a morally significant dividing line between the newborn baby and the fetus. Singer concludes from this that it is therefore permissible to kill babies outside as well as inside the womb. Needless to say, his argument is not helpful in advancing pro-choice politics. In short, pro-life intellectuals, like pro-life activists, insist on talking about the science and moral reasoning pertinent to the moral status of the unborn. So do the more honest of pro-choice intellectuals, which is why they are more hindrance than help to the pro-choice movement.
But it all comes back to the much touted participatory democracy of the 1960s being turned upside down. The writings of Robert Putnam of Harvard on social capital and civic involvement have received much attention. It is with a palpable sadness that Putnam writes, It is, in short, among evangelical conservatives, rather than among the ideological heirs of the 1960s, that we find the strongest evidence for an upwelling of civic engagement. As Shields writes: In the 1960s liberal intellectuals and reformers longed for a more ideological politics. Greater moral controversy, in their view, would revitalize democratic life. Yet today many observers of the culture wars, particularly those on the left, claim that our democracy would be more participatory, deliberative, and just if controversial moral issues were pushed to the margins of American politics. They got the moral controversy that they wanted, but it appeared in the form of controversy about issues they would prefer to see ignored.
In his 1969 work The End of Liberalism , Theodore Lowi wrote of a politics deprived of conflict over great moral principles. As Lowi saw it, American politics was dominated by opaque interest-group bargaining, which left the public paralyzed by a nightmare of administrative boredom. We have already mentioned the Port Huron Statement, which began with the declaration: Making values explicit”an initial task in establishing alternatives”is an activity that has been devalued and corrupted. Shields puts the matter nicely: One might suppose that present-day conservatives would have declared war on a political system that was largely engineered by 1960s liberals. Yet it is liberals who are mounting a counterattack against this liberal revolution. What is more, their arguments often have a surprisingly conservative ring to them. For example, those who hope to enlist centrist voters against divisive moralists sound much more like Richard Nixon than Tom Hayden. In a strange political turn, they have embraced what Nixon called the silent majority’ as the source of their salvation from 1960s liberalism.
Again, the pro-choice proponents are the defenders of the status quo. They routinely cite data indicating that a majority of Americans do not want to see Roe overturned. As has often been pointed out, these same Americans believe that Roe created a restrictive abortion policy. In what sociologist James Hunter calls mass legal illiteracy, it is widely believed that Roe permits abortion in the first trimester, allows it for serious reasons in the second, and forbids it in the third. But, of course, as Roe and companion decisions make clear, the law as presently imposed by the Supreme Court allows abortion at any time for any reason and up through the fully formed baby emerging halfway out of the birth canal. As Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has written, it is the most permissive abortion regime in the Western world. When those same Americans are asked about the circumstances in which abortion should be permitted, a great majority says that abortion should not be permitted for the reasons that 90 percent of abortions are procured. It is understandable, however, that pro-choice advocates trumpet popular support for Roe , dependent as they are on the ignorance of the silent majority.
Shields’ study concludes with thoughtful reflections on the apparently inevitable connection between passion and participation. Whatever the limits of deliberative partisanship, there has simply never been a social movement of moral skeptics and doubters; only strong convictions mobilized and sustained them. So, however desirable metaphysical doubt might be in theory, it collides with the democratic ideal of participation. To put the trade-off starkly, perhaps a degree of close-minded certainty is the price of a more participatory democracy. He cites James Madison on the dangers posed by factions. Madison argued that deliberative decision-making was possible only in institutions that are insulated from public passions. Therefore, keeping the public weak and distant from their representatives was a necessary though insufficient condition for deliberative decision-making. Obviously, that is not how the American experiment in representative democracy has worked out.
One of the great political ironies of the past few decades, writes Shields, is that the Christian Right has been much more successful than its political rivals at fulfilling New Left hopes for American democracy. Far more than any movement since the early campaign for civil rights, the Christian Right has helped revive participatory democracy in America by overcoming citizens’ alienation from politics. As one has all too many occasions to observe, history has many ironies in the fire. To the 1960s proponents of participatory democracy, the maxim applies: Be careful what you hope for. To those flirting with despair in the face of an Obama presidency, the advice is offered: You might want to get a copy of The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right by Jon Shields. And all of us would do well to ponder the wisdom in the observation that there are no permanently lost causes because there are no permanently won causes.