Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Cynthia Gorney takes to the pages of the New Yorker to report on abortion in South Dakota. The article itself is not available online, but the New Yorker is promoting the article by posting on its website an interview with the author¯and, in its way, the interview is more revealing than the article.

Gorney is an interesting reporter, and her book on abortion, Articles of Faith , was an interesting account of the first decades of the pro-life movement after Roe v. Wade . She clearly was, and remains, a supporter of legalized abortion, but she found herself impressed with the seriousness and moral purpose of the pro-life activists she tracked. In her reporting on the recent law attempting to ban nearly all abortions in South Dakota, Gorney isn’t exactly nuanced, but she has the impulse, at least, always to try to be fair.

Her interviewer, Ben Greenman, knows no such impulse, and presumably, he knows the New Yorker ‘s audience¯for the whole of the short interview is an attempt to get Gorney to give the pro-abortion crowd some red meat. First he tries to get her to say that the population of South Dakota is too small and homogenous to force this issue on the larger nation, then he tries to get her to say that the law doesn’t really represent the diversity of views in South Dakota. He pushes her to say that the overturning of Roe would result in "chaos," then pushes her to say that it would result in the unifying of the country around the Democratic Party. He wants her to say that everyone against abortion is a fanatic, incapable of distinguishing between "privately held beliefs and convictions that lead to legislation," and then he wants her to say that nobody actually believes in the pro-life cause and the whole thing "is mainly an election-time lever" by cynical Republicans.

Through it all, Gorney dodges and weaves. She’s clearly of the same basic position as Greenman, but his questions are just too vulgar for anyone who actually knows about the topic. She does get sharp with him at one point: When he mentions the chaos of overturning Roe and letting the states decide, she asks, "Is democracy chaos?" But mostly she tries to temper his grotesque and contradictory stereotypes with her conviction that the pro-life movement is sincere and serious, even if mistaken.

South Dakota is not the easiest state for an out-of-town reporter to swoop into and figure out. A small population spread out over a large territory makes for difficulties, and Gorney misses some of the state’s interplay. "One of the markers for a major right-to-life state is the presence of one or two or three particularly effective legislators or lobbyists pushing the issue," she claims. "Another factor is a strong Catholic presence, in combination with a strong conservative tradition. And South Dakota is quite homogeneous. The people are either white or Native American, and I was told that there is a strong Catholic tradition among the Lakota Sioux. The combination adds up."

There are certainly pro-life lobbyists in South Dakota, but it’s worth noting that the February ban on abortion was passed without the approval or support of the mainstream national pro-life groups. Gorney’s reference to the Catholicism of the Sioux is true but a little peculiar. The anti-abortion drive didn’t begin on the Indian reservations, and without the people on those reservations¯nearly all of whom are at least baptized Catholics¯the Dakotas would probably be the least-Catholic states in the union.

The law banning abortion in South Dakota seems clearly a tactical mistake in the pro-life fight, but the most recent news about it has been the inability of abortion supporters to decide whether to fight the law in court or overturn it with a referendum.

Each seems to offer organizations like NARAL great advantages. Roe v. Wade offered one implausible justification for constitutionally mandating legalized abortion, but after two decades of work by pro-lifers exposing the flawed reasoning of Roe , the Supreme Court didn’t reject abortion¯it shifted the ground for legalized abortion in Casey v. Planned Parenthood . Now, after another decade and a half of work exposing the flaws of Casey , a case prompted by the South Dakota ban could well offer the current court, with its pro-abortion majority, an opportunity to shift the ground again and put the pro-life cause back another ten or twenty years.

But a referendum in South Dakota also offers pro-abortion groups some gains. It keeps them in the news, it gains them large donations from their supporters, and it seems to set up the chance for one of their first genuine electoral victories in years.

There’s no reason the supporters of abortion can’t try both, of course: attempt the referendum, and if it fails, then file the lawsuit. As the primaries for the state legislature demonstrated at the beginning of June, the Republican candidates who ran on the platform of opposing the abortion ban went down to shockingly broad defeat.

As Bob Mercer, a great local reporter in Pierre, notes, the "South Dakota MAINStream Coalition" was "formed a year ago as a self-described ‘moderate voice of reason’ by the remaining handful of Republicans in the state Senate who support abortion rights." And in the primaries, three of the coalition’s seven founding senators lost their bids for renomination: "J.P. Duniphan of Rapid City; and the coalition’s political and financial godfather, Sen. Stan Adelstein of Rapid City. . . . . Equally significant, Republican voters refused to nominate four other current or former legislators whose campaigns Adelstein heavily subsidized, as part of his drive to put more abortion-rights supporters in state and local offices."

That seems to bode well for candidates opposed to abortion, but it seems to have become conventional wisdom that the overturning of Roe would be bad for the Republicans. So, for instance, in the New Yorker interview, Greenman asks Gorney, "It is often said that these issues are straw men, that the Republican base does not feel drastically different from the Democratic base, and that abortion is mainly an election-time lever¯like gay marriage¯to get evangelicals to vote. Does the national Republican Party really want this fight?"

Oddly, this wisdom is conventional mostly among Democrats, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Are they trying to warn the Republicans off? Are they consoling themselves for what they perceive as eventual defeat at the Supreme Court? Even if it’s true that the Republican Party would decline after defeating Roe , I can’t make sense of why it should be a talking point on the Left. Perhaps they really do believe that Republicans cynically use the pro-life movement, and that when overturning Roe gets close to reality, the Republicans will back off. But doesn’t this claim weaken Democratic support for abortion? At a moment at which NARAL is screaming that the "right to choose" is at risk, the Democrats’ conventional wisdom is saying that there isn’t much cause for worry.

To her credit, Cynthia Gorney won’t quite go along. In answer to Greenman, she accepts the conventional wisdom: "I don’t profess any expertise on insider Republican politics, but I agree with the people who say that, in many ways, the overturning of Roe v. Wade would be a loss for the Republican Party. It’s much more useful to hold up the decision as a specter. It serves their interests better."

But she also knows that the pro-life movement itself isn’t formed entirely from cynical manipulators: "The right-to-life movement is quite different. It’s made up of people who genuinely believe that millions of babies have been murdered because of a Supreme Court decision thirty-three years ago. If you really believe that to be true, then your motivation is profound. The volunteers who staff these organizations accept this premise and believe there is something so terrible about it that they have to devote their lives to it."

In addition to which :

Father Richard John Neuhaus will be among the speakers in Philadelphia next Saturday and Sunday at the EWTN 25th Anniversary Family Celebration. He will be speaking 9:30 to 10:30 Saturday morning at the Liacouras Center of Temple University, and will be a guest, along with Peggy Noonan, for a live version of Raymond Arroyo’s television program, The World Over , that evening. He will also be signing his new book, Catholic Matters . He says he would be very glad to see you there.

The title phrase is Abraham Lincoln’s, but we must work to make it our own. That is the argument of Paul Johnson’s article “The Almost Chosen People” in the June/July issue of First Things . Johnson, the British historian and author of Modern Times and many other notable books, provides a much needed antidote to the current and reckless talk about “theocracy” coming from those who would divest the American experiment of its intimations of transcendent purpose. Isn’t it time you subscribed ?

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles