There is a bad argument for the proposition that Roe was secretly bad for abortion rights that runs something like this: abortion was going to be quickly legalized almost everywhere anyway, so by jumping the gun the Supreme Court created intense opposition for no real benefit. This is a bad argument because it’s ignorant of the actual state of abortion politics in 1973. Particularly after a few of the most sympathetic states had been picked off, getting legislatures to repeal abortion statutes that were selectively enforced and hence didn’t really affect the most affluent women in the state was enormously difficult, and the legalization drive had almost entirely stalled by 1971. Contrary to myth, anti-abortion forces became very well-organized and very effective at the state level following the initial wave of successes in the late 60s. Absent Roe, abortion would have almost certainly continued to remain illegal in a majority of states for a long time, a problem that would get even worse as southern states became ever more Republican-dominated (which was going to happen no matter how Roe was decided.)
There is, however, an even worse nominally pro-choice argument against Roe. Which brings us to Bloix, who yesterday reminded us of his unfortunate response to Michael Berube’s classic decimation of David Brooks. After gesturing towards the first bad argument, Bloix makes a different kind of bad argument:
An argument that Brooks does not make, but one that I believe, is that Roe killed feminism’s opportunity to become a majority movement. Far and away the most radicalizing event for a young woman before Roe was the need to deal with an unwanted pregnancy. After Roe, pregnancy became an issue of “privacy” between a woman and her doctor, a personal “choice,” with no political implications at all. The entire premise of feminism as a movement– “the personal is political”— vanished for the generation after Roe.
This was a terrible loss for progressives in America. Instead of a mass movement organizing around the right to an abortion, we have seen a mass movement to prohibit that right, while those who should be out in front politically — women and their partners who have made use of their right to an abortion — are embarrassed to discuss it in public.
There are some rather obvious problems with this argument on its face. First of all, abortion is (to put it mildly) not the only feminist issue out there. As Michael notes, the failure of the ERA didn’t cause the right to back down or notably increase feminist mobilization. There’s also an additional assumption that feminists were weaker than groups that were less successful or relied less on litigation which doesn’t actually withstand scrutiny. Labor, which has been getting routed and doesn’t have a viable path through the courts in most cases, has continued to get routed. Abortion, conversely, was the one issue that Bill Clinton wouldn’t sell out on. The ban on D&X abortion is a classic New Democrat kind of compromise — terrible, irrational legislation, but popular and not affecting that many women. But Clinton refused to sign it twice. What does that tell you?
But leaving aside its empirical failures, on a logical level this argument is a Pacific Ocean of fail. While the first bad argument says Roe was bad because it was superfluous, Bloix’s bad argument says Roe is bad because it worked too well. The radicalizing effect of having to seek black market abortions, of course, can only happen as long as abortion is criminalized, and vanishes as soon as bans on abortion are defeated. The argument is just an argument against winning, which isn’t any less irrational than it appears. To quote myself:
Arguments about the political benefits of overturning Roe ultimately prove too much. By the same logic, one can argue that allowing Social Security to be privatized would create tensions in the conservative coalition and a backlash that might help Democrats politically. This is hardly good reason to hope that it happens. The fact that commentators making the political case for abandoning Roe never apply the same logic to other issues reflects a general tendency to take women’s rights less seriously. That same unseriousness is revealed by the fact that pundits searching for issues on which Democrats can appeal to social conservatives are more likely to cite abortion than, say, church-and-state issues, where the liberal position is far more unpopular and compromises would have far less direct impact on people’s lives. Ultimately, to call these contrarian arguments “pro-choice” is a non sequitur. They’re only compelling if the value of protecting a woman’s right to choose is accorded almost no weight.
Arguing that women should consider to suffer under abortion bans because of hypothetical political benefits make about as much sense as arguments in favor of using third parties as a vehicle for progressive change because 1. Throw elections to Republicans 2. ??? 3. ??? 4. ??? 5. President Avakian and Speaker of the House Chomsky! It’s not a coincidence that such arguments have comparatively little appeal to people upon whom the contradictions will be most heightened.