It’s not Just Abortion, Stupid

It’s not Just Abortion, Stupid

Progressives and Abortion

Progressive men and women have found it extremely difficult to address issues of reproductive and sexual behavior-abortion, above all. Reproductive politics, in left circles, is not just about fighting the antiabortion movement or right-wing sexual conservatives for the hearts and minds of “Middle America,” though there is plenty of that. Mirroring in some ways other gender struggles after the emergence of second wave feminism, there is a long history of reproductive rights activists striving to make such issues legitimate on the left. (Indeed, 0such struggles go back to the early twentieth century, when Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger fought a mostly losing battle to persuade their left-wing contemporaries to take seriously the campaign for legalizing birth control). And within the contemporary reproductive freedom movement itself-composed as it is of large mass membership organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW), Planned Parenthood, the Feminist Majority, and numerous smaller grassroots groups, only some of which identify as “progressive”-there is hardly unanimity as to how best frame positions on abortion.

Abortion as Albatross?With some exceptions, the discomfort with abortion on the left has not been focused on the morality of the procedure, but rather on the political costs of an association with the issue. From the sixties to the present, many leftists have feared that embracing abortion too strongly would alienate potential allies who would be otherwise sympathetic to the progressive agenda on economic grounds.

And these fears have not been unfounded. Shortly after the Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion in 1973, a very powerful antiabortion movement began to mobilize, which was a significant factor in the rise of the New Right, precursor to today’s Christian Right. It is opposed not only to abortion, but also to a host of related positions associated with the reproductive freedom movement. Gay rights, comprehensive sex education (that is, not “abstinence only”), teenagers’ access to abortion and contraception without parental notification or consent, public funding of family planning domestically and internationally: all these soon became key issues for the conservative movement. The so-called “Reagan Democrats”-white workers who switched their allegiance to the Republican Party in part because of “values” issues such as abortion-were just the first indication of abortion’s strong capacity to realign American politics.

In the recent election campaign, abortion and gay marriage worked as wedge issues to drive away groups-including some African American pastors and their congregants, as well as unemployed workers-that would normally be drawn to the more progressive agenda of the Democrats. For most of the campaign, John Kerry and John Edwards barely mentioned their support of abortion, assu...


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels