Abortion and the Politics of Protest

In a recent piece for First Things On the Square, Kathryn Walker reviewed a book called Raised Right: How I Untangled my Faith from Politics by Alisa Harris.  I hadn’t so much as heard the book before, but my interest is certainly piqued now.  Harris, like so many others in my generation, finds herself, despite having been given a full-blown fundamentalist, pro-life, right-wing upbringing, having somehow wandered across the political divide, so that she is now unmistakably left-wing, though still, I take it, evangelically Christian.  In this book, she chronicles her journey and tries to explain why.  For a fuller summary of the book, I certainly recommend Walker’s excellent review; if I ever get around to reading it myself, perhaps I’ll offer my own review, but for now, I simply wanted to pick up on one interesting question that Walker raises.

Walker does not share Harris’s newfound sympathies for the Left, but she does at least give her a fair hearing, and grant that she may have some good points.  But for Walker, the most important issue is still abortion, and she can’t accept Harris’s rationale for minimizing that issue.  Harris remains pro-life, but has lost her sympathy for the pro-life movement, it’s foot-stomping and sign-waving, and wants to invest her effort into caring for women, rather than politicking.  But Walker asks toward the end of her review why Harris happily engages in sign-waving in protest against Bank of America—”she embraces public displays against injustice, and it’s hard to see any difference in the latter over the former ones, except for the causes themselves. And in this case, it’s not clear why corporate greed trumps infanticide in degrees of heinousness.”

Walker’s question set me pondering a bit, because I must confess I find myself feeling a lot like Harris at times.  Of course I still think abortion is a great evil, a heart-breaking crime against the defenceless children, and often against desperate mothers as well, who are pressured into it.  But I have so little sympathy left for the pro-life movement.  There, I said it.  I’ve admitted it.  I cannot make myself care all that much whether a candidate is pro-life, as a litmus test for voting for or against him.  Of course it’s relevant, but then, so are the candidate’s views on gasoline taxes.  I simply cannot get worked up about the issue as a political issue (though I can get worked up about the issue in other respects; I found the portrayal of abortion in Ides of March heart-rending).  But, I do get worked up about corporate greed.  I don’t sympathize with sign-waving abortion protesters, but I can be brought to sympathize with sign-waving Bank of America protesters.  Is there any good reason from this, or is it just some kind of hypocrisy or something worse? 

Well, there may be a few good reasons, or at least partial reasons, and I wanted to explore them.

There are, I suppose, two distinct issues, though I have elided them here.  One is protesting, the other politicking.  Protesting is of course generally political in its orientation, but is essentially indirect, seeking to influence the attitudes and the milieu within which political decisions are made.  By the latter, I mean direct lobbying for legislative, executive, or judicial action, crafting laws, promoting candidates with desirable positions on an issue and attacking candidates with undesirable positions.

Skeptics like myself (and I would take it Harris) doubt whether the politicking is a meaningful or useful way of advancing a pro-life agenda.  Certainly, prima facie it would seem to be misguided: (1) abortions were widespread in the US well before Roe v. Wade; (2) Roe v. Wade was a judicial decision, not a legislative one, and the judiciary is by far the most independent branch of our government, and the most difficult to influence through political action (rightly so); (3) empirically, it is hard to see that 39 years of feverish pro-life politics have yielded any significant gains.  Digging deeper, it seems like abortion is not really by its nature primarily a political issue.  Of course, legal systems have an obligation to protect life and prosecute murder, but legal systems can only function within a framework of broadly shared moral assumptions.  If a culture has reached the point where no one sees the problem with something, then trying to stop it by outlawing it is like spitting in the wind.  (Of course, this is oversimplistic—there are other less drastic ways of trying to legally limit abortion, which may be effective.)  But of course a second point to note here is that few people get abortions because they think it’s a perfectly fine thing to do.  I don’t know statistics, but my guess is that most women who get abortions don’t like the idea at all, but they’re frightened or pressured or desperate enough to do it anyway.  In such a case, making a law against it isn’t necessarily going to change many of their minds.  It might dissuade a lot of abortion doctors, but there will still be plenty willing to supply a black market.  

Contrariwise, it seems clear that political action is a meaningful and effective way of confronting economic injustice, particularly when that takes the form of large corporations engaging in dubious behaviour that prioritizes short-term profits over long-term considerations and the well-being of society.  I would argue that, normatively, regulation of justice in economic exchange and justice in distribution of goods is one of the core functions of a well-ordered government.  But of course, nowadays conservatives have gotten it into their heads that in fact, it is precisely economic decisions that are private and individual, lying outside the proper purview of public justice.  To be sure, such regulation will not be wholly effective, but the fact that the injustices in question are not simply or even primarily the result of individual decisions, but are structural and institutional in nature, suggests that legislative action is a natural, appropriate, and effective way of addressing these problems.  Indeed, I could go further, and point out that the very mechanisms by which investment banking is made possible do not simply spring out of the state of nature, but are the product of political and legal structures.  The corporation itself is a legal creation, as are the securities with which an entity like Bank of America makes its money—they simply would not exist apart from some kind of legal edifice.  Therefore, to call on the law to redress their abuses, one might suggest, is the most natural thing in the world.  Empirically, we could point out that politicking against particular abuses by big business, in favor of the rights of labor (in the first half of the 20th century primarily) and the rights of the consumer (in the second half of the century primarily) yielded enormous, measurable gains.


When it comes to protesting, well, it is worth asking exactly what protesting is intended to do?  Protesting is, to be sure, often quite directly political in orientation.  But such phenomena as pro-life marches and the Occupy movement are not best described as a kind of popular political lobbying.  In its most coherent form, protesting is a form of public witness against injustice—it seeks to call attention to, to name, an evil that is being done amongst us, with the intent of influencing the perpetrators to rethink their actions, and, perhaps more plausibly, of influencing our fellow citizens to become attentive to the injustice so that they will share our judgment of it, and join their voices with ours in calling for an end to it (whether that end come from individual, social, or political action).  

When we put things this way, I think it is possible to see why someone might consider this a rather clumsy response to the issue of abortion.  For it makes sense that a protest should be as public as the sin itself is.  Adultery is rampant in our culture, and while there are plenty of Christian voices calling it to account in appropriate ways, there has not been, to my knowledge, a National Anti-Adultery Rally, or a National Right to Fidelity March, or anything of that sort.  Of course, part of this is because we now consider adultery a sin but not a crime; but that’s not all of it.  For neither are there regularly large Anti-Drunk-Driving protests, despite the widespread deploration of drunk driving and its disastrous consequences.  For these problems, widespread as they are, are essentially an aggregate of individual, essentially private (though I do not mean to say that any sin is entirely private) sins or crimes.  They do not rise to the level of a public sin, a structural sin.  They do not have an institutional form that can be witnessed against in public.  

One could argue that similarly, abortion is essentially an individual sin and not a structural sin, that “the abortion issue” is simply an aggregate of individual evil abortions, rather than a unitary public evil that is greater than the sum of its parts.  The problem is not “abortion” as an abstract force of injustice, but particular acts of abortion—individual agents in the midst of individual crises, making individual wicked decisions.  The situations that lead women to seek abortions are unique to each woman, and so the best way to stop abortions is to work with individual women to help them.  Not, of course, that there are not many wonderful Christians out there doing just this; but we are asking now whether the sign-waving, marching, protesting side of things contributes to this work at all, or rather undermines it.

And of course, there is a “structural” element to the problem of abortion too—the poverty and abuse that drive so many women to desperation, to a sense that abortion is the only way out, the treatment of women as useful objects for sex, for which pregnancy is an awful inconvenience (this is not to say that there are not a great many abortions that are simply wicked unconstrained decisions of convenience).   But it is precisely this structural element that the pro-life movement, as a political movement, tends to most ignore.  

On the other hand, the Occupy movement, inasmuch as it has a coherent message, is bearing witness against a public, structural, institutional sin.  The greed, inequality, usury—however you want to label the core problem—that today infects our society is a structural sin.  Yes, of course, there are greedy individuals, and if no individuals were greedy, then perhaps we wouldn’t have all the problems we’ve had in recent years.  But the evil, and the harm that it does, far transcends individual greedy decisions; it would be possible for most of the investment banks’ employees to be good decent people just doing their job, and for all the problems still to persist.  The systemic usury and injustice of the financial system is the result result of warped incentive structures, poor laws, a loss of sense of the true purpose of financial institutions, collusion amongst the powerful to protect one another and veil their dealings from the public, etc.  Therefore, public protest, as a way of calling attention to the systemic problems, as a way of naming this evil and inviting us all to join in decrying it and undermining is foundations, seems highly appropriate.  

(Of course, I acknowledge that the abortion issue has a counterpart to this kind of corporate corruption, in the so-called “abortion industry”—doctors, clinics, pharmaceutical companies, entrenched advocacy groups, etc., that have a vested interest in perpetuating abortion, hiding the truth, and manipulating the powerful.  I think that pro-lifers perhaps overstate their case here sometimes, but inasmuch as this is a real power, a real fortress of evil, it warrants a forceful public witness.)

Having said all this, though, I think it is fair to admit that neither of these is, I think, the real reason why Harris (and myself) find ourselves naturally more sympathetic with sign-waving against crony capitalism than with sign-waving against abortion.  The real reason is that the former is new and the latter is old.  We grew up with the latter, and we frankly find it a bit tiresome and grating now.  It feels like our sub-culture has been harping on the same old problem forever and ever and it’s time to just deal with it and move on.  Whereas, although for our parents protesting the evils of capitalism might’ve been a common enough part of their experience, for us, it’s new, fresh, and a bit exciting.  

Now, I say all this in a tone of somewhat mocking self-criticism, but there’s more that needs to be said here as well.  For one thing, just because something’s appeal lies partly in its newness does not render it invalid.  I think stodgy Baby Boomers are right to point out that the enthusiasm for social justice causes among the rising generation is partly fuelled simply by the novelty (to us) of the cause; but I would also make the case that the cause still happens to be a very just cause, worth getting passionate about (and yes, perhaps protesting about, though that’s really not my cup of tea).  

More importantly, the newness factor makes an objective difference when one is asking about the appropriateness of the rhetoric of protest.  No doubt part of Harris’s antipathy to pro-life protest arises from her sense that, after more than three decades of it, any positive potential has likely worn off, and it is much more likely simply to have the effect of hardening opponents, and alienating potential sympathizers who are simply sick of the conflict and polarization.  A protest movement is always at its most effective when it is brand new; pretty soon, it starts to grow stale and tiresome, and people just sound like they’re whining, or obsessed, or pathologically combative.  Indeed, just look at three months of the Occupy movement.  A couple weeks in, they were cool.  A couple months in, and it’s like, “C’mon guys, enough already.  Pack up your tents and stop digging pit toilets in the park.”  After the initial point has been made, and awareness has been raised, it is usually time to turn to more constructive, concrete, and patient means of bringing about change.  In large part, to be fair, the pro-life movement has certainly done this, and has succeeded thereby in incrementally reducing the rate of abortion and in some cases improving the legal restraints upon it.  But inasmuch as portions of the movement continue to adopt the posture of angry protest, demonizing opponents and refusing to vote for any political candidate who does not share their fervour on this particular issue, it risks not only failing to be an effective voice in American culture and politics, but also continuing to drive away young evangelicals, contributing to a widening political gap between the generations that threatens to further fracture American evangelicalism and harm our witness to a watching world.

6 thoughts on “Abortion and the Politics of Protest

  1. jvangeld

    I have not involved myself in abortion protests, but a number of my teachers have and I have talked to a number of people who do. And from these conversations, I gather that they all carry the same burden you speak of. When they protest outside a Planned Parenthood, they are very consciously not saying, "Get your abominable hides out of our town!!!" No, they are begging the women to "Don't go in there, they will do terrible things to you and your baby." More than that, they all have a burden for the women and work with crisis pregnancy centers to help the women. Some even open their own homes. To the best I can tell, the days of anger in the pro-life movement are past. Yeah, there probably are some raving madmen out there, but they are a microscopic minority. Instead, the movement is pushing things like the Morning Center.


  2. Andrea Francine

    I wonder if the effect of the decades-long unrelenting advocacy of abortion-on-demand (couched as women’s rights) is being underestimated. The psyche of the American Female has not been left untouched these 40 years since Roe vs. Wade. I know several women who have had abortions, and they were not frightened, pressured or desperate. They did not want a baby, and so they “took care of it,” as the dreadful euphemism goes. It really was as simple as that. The thought that they were taking a human life never occurred to them because it did not have to. The question of morality does not arise as much some may want to think, as the legality of a thing goes a long way toward bestowing on it moral sanction. I know these women, I love these women and my guess is that they are far more representative of the type of women who have abortions. Those who do wrestle with the decision to have an abortion do so because they have encountered a view of human life that is now almost, tragically, counter-intuitive. Which only makes sense. After all, with only those protesting, politicking pro-lifers to provide a counterpoint, young women in this country have been told every which way that an unborn child is a cluster of cells, not a baby, a clump of tissue, not a person, and its removal from a woman’s body has no more moral significance than the removal of a mole.Obviously, the legality of abortion reflects the hearts of the people, and so the laws will not be changed before hearts are changed; and yet I will not soon shake the belief that laws can have some effect. And even if that were not true, sometimes politicking is the Christian thing to do. Partial birth abortions are barbarisms that no civilized society should countenance. Those horrors, which do violence not only to the innocent child but to the souls of the woman and doctor, would still be legal if not for politicking. There may be some shame in how we go about politicking and protesting, but there is no shame in that we do them. And certainly it is a false choice that says we can either protest/engage in politics or care for women. It is possible to do both. Indeed for the pro-life protestors I know “caring for women” is not some abstract principle. They open their lives to the women they meet, they give of their love, money, prayers and more. Also, whatever else it is, abortion is a social justice issue, particularly among communities (black and Latino) that are underserved, and to hear Ruth Bader Ginsberg tell it, undesirable. In a 2009 interview with New York Times Magazine Justice Ginsberg had this to say about Roe vs. Wade: “Frankly I had thought that at the time [Roe vs. Wade] was decided there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don't want to have too many of." (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/12/magazine/12ginsburg-t.html?pagewanted=all)Sarah Palin mispronounces a word and it is in the news cycle for days, but a sitting U.S. Supreme Court Justice says that Roe vs. Wade was the response to “populations that we don't want to have too many of” and there is no retraction, there is no clarification, there is not even complaint about context. And of course there is not because there is no mention of her comment at all outside some conservative new sites and blogs. Anyone who knows the history of abortion in this country is not shocked by Ms. Ginsberg’s casual racism.


  3. Andrea Francine

    As for the abortion issue being “old and busted” and Occupy Wall Street, the “new hotness,” I think that can partly be attributed to the relative ease of getting worked up over one’s own victim status. Except for some State-connected wealthy, most Americans have been negatively affected in some way by corporate corruption and greed. Occupiers did not mobilize on anyone else’s behalf but their own. Not saying there is anything wrong with that, just saying. Whereas the victims of abortion are unknown and unseen, much like the civilian victims of U.S. drone attacks or chemical warfare. No muss, no fuss, just the nameless and countless disfigured and dead and out of sight, out of mind.


  4. Brad Littlejohn

    J, Thanks for the comment. Yes, that may well be so. My impression is indeed that this is indeed the direction that most pro-lifers have gone in in recent years, and you are right that even most sign-waving protesters have generally been offering the message "Please don't go in there"–even if that isn't always how they are perceived. And if what you say is right, then I wonder why the perception (which is partly my own perception) is so often skewed. Is it because the movement really did used to project more anger than love, and that impression still lingers, though unfairly?That being said, the vitriol and name-calling over this issue does still seem to persist in the political arena (although, truth be told, evangelicals are now more likely to demonize Obama for threatening their pocketbooks than threatening unborn children, which is hardly an encouraging sign).Andrea,Yes, there's no doubt something to that, and that's why it's hard to be too sympathetic to the Occupy movement. However, it would be unfair to over-generalize that criticism; plenty of people involved in or supportive of the Occupy protests (or any things of that sort) have been folks who are themselves quite economically secure, and are trying to express solidarity and sympathy with those who aren't. Perry,Can you elaborate on your comment? I'm not sure what you're getting at here; indeed, I'm not even sure which line of reasoning in the post (there were several, and not all in the same direction) you're referring to.


  5. Brad Littlejohn

    Sorry, Andrea. I hadn't seen your longer comment yet, as for some reason, Squarespace had saved it for me to approve before it showed up. But that's all quite helpful. Part of my problem, perhaps, is too much faith in the milk of human kindness…the product of a sheltered upbringing, no doubt. I can't help but assume that most pro-choicers must really be very uncomfortable with abortion, but feel nonetheless that it must be kept legal. And of course there are some who are. But if Mohler's perspective and your anecdotes are right, it may be a lot fewer than I thought. Do keep in mind that I was not saying that that the pro-life movement is not a good thing, but was only trying to explore why it might be that folks like Harris (and myself) sometimes get frustrated with it, justly or unjustly, and, more significantly, what differences there might be in the sort of response appropriate to issues of economic injustice vs. the abortion issue. In any case, I certainly agree with you over the relationship of morality and legality. Resolving the legal question without resolving the moral question will be pretty darn useless, but so would resolving the moral question without resolving the legal question. Law expresses and affects morality, and we ignore that at our peril. (Of course, the great irony is that the Right routinely does ignore that on most issues besides abortion and homosexuality.)


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