Ambivalence is a Bad Organizing Tactic


A good Jeffrey Toobin article about the Stupak Amendment ends with the observation that a lot of recent trends in abortion-related messaging have arguably left the pro-choice side disarmed to fight these skirmishes:

The President is pro-choice, and he has signalled some misgivings about the Stupak amendment. But, like many modern pro-choice Democrats, he has worked so hard to be respectful of his opponents on this issue that he sometimes seems to cede them the moral high ground. In his book “The Audacity of Hope,” he describes the “undeniably difficult issue of abortion” and ponders “the middle-aged feminist who still mourns her abortion.” Elsewhere, he announces, “Abortion vexes.” The opponents of abortion aren’t vexed—they are mobilized, focussed, and driven to succeed. The Catholic bishops took the lead in pushing for the Stupak amendment, and they squeezed legislators in a way that would do any K Street lobbyist proud. (One never sees that kind of effort on behalf of other aspects of Catholic teaching, like opposition to the death penalty.) Meanwhile, the pro-choice forces temporized. But, as Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg observed not long ago, abortion rights “center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.” Every diminishment of that right diminishes women. With stakes of such magnitude, it is wise to weigh carefully the difference between compromise and surrender.

The crux of the matter is that whether or not “mixed feelings” about abortion are common, it’s hard to find a stable and coherent middle ground position on the issue. If aborting a fetus is morally similar to killing a person, then banning such activity clearly doesn’t diminish women. But if it’s not similar, then as Ginsburg is saying this cuts the heart of women’s status as free and equal autonomous citizens and bargaining rights away becomes very costly. But you can’t make any real sense out of the pro-choice position on a matter like this if you’re constantly apologizing for yourself. The practical consequences of the Stupak Amendment, like the Hyde Amendment before it, aren’t all that major in the macro sense. But they’re not only very major in the lives of the people directly affected, they implicate important issues of principle. But taking a principled stand only works if you’re prepared to defend the principle.