Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

In her review of the newest pro-choice manifesto by Katha Pollitt, Hanna Rosin expresses frustration at the “muddled middle” of the pro-choice movement. These are the kinds of people who believe abortion should be legal but avoided, who give lip service to Roe but in a “fog of regret:”

We shouldn’t need a book explaining why abortion rights are important. We should be over that by now.

The reason we’re not, according to Pollitt, is that we have all essentially been brainwashed by a small minority of pro-life activists. Only 7 to 20 percent of Americans tell pollsters they want to totally ban abortion, but that loud minority has beaten the rest of us into submission with their fetus posters and their absolutism and their infiltration of American politics. They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good.

“Only 7 to 20 percent” goes by so quickly you might blink and miss it. It’s an admirable sleight-of-hand: The actual number is closer to 21% who believe abortion should be “illegal in all circumstances.” So if 2 in 10 Americans believe abortion should always be illegal, and roughly 5 out of 10 believe it should mostly be illegal, that leaves 3 in 10 Americans who agree with Rosin and Pollitt that “abortion is a positive social good.”

Pollitt and Rosin’s explanation for those tilted numbers is that pro-lifers have done a good job of creating a culture of shame around abortion, so that even well-intentioned activists get caught looking at their shoes when discussing why abortion should be legal. It’s not clear whether they think that pro-choicers are too afraid to own up to what they really believe or if there is genuine worldview confusion within the pro-choice camp. If the latter is the case, then books like Pollitt’s are necessary to re-educate the children of 1973. If the former is the case, pro-lifers should be made to shut up.

We’ve seen some recent efforts by the pro-choice camp to do just that. The Supreme Court unanimously snuffed out one such attempt by the Massachusetts legislature this summer, ruling that the state’s “buffer zone” between abortion clinics and demonstrators was unconstitutional. “One more attack on women’s rights,” cried Sandra Fluke, apparently equating women’s rights with enforced absence of dissent. Then there is continued opposition to abortion information laws, such as sonogram and parental notification requirements. A cynic might say this sounds a lot like “Abort first, ask questions later.” That sounds harsh, but it also comports uncomfortably well with Rosin’s argument.

Of course, this makes sense if you believe that abortion is self-evidently good, as Rosin and Pollitt believe. They should be commended for their transparency and willingness to correct several years of misleading pro-choice rhetoric. “Safe, legal, and rare” always failed its basic logic test (things that are safe and legal don’t tend to be rare) but it did allow pro-choice Democrats to frame abortion as an issue of privacy, one that allowed no “legislating beliefs.” As views like Rosin and Pollitt’s become more advertised, that will be a tough illusion to maintain. Either abortion is a social good that should be encouraged for most people for any reason, or it is legal homicide that should be explicitly written out of society. Neither the clinic nor the unborn are helped by obfuscation.