The Battle for Voters’ Imaginations

Post-Dobbs, voters are imagining very different abortion scenarios than the ones the pro-life movement has been pushing for years. That’s an advantage Democrats need to hold onto as the fall elections get closer.

After Sarah Palin lost Alaska’s only House seat, Democrat Pat Ryan won a special election in a purple district, and Kansas voters resounding rejected giving their legislature the power to ban abortion, Republicans are beginning to catch on that November might not be quite the cakewalk they had expected, and the Dobbs decision overturning Roe v Wade is a big reason.

In Michigan, Republicans on the Board of Canvassers are using technicalities to block a referendum that would write the Roe protections into the state constitution. It’s not hard to see why: Not only would that referendum pass, but it would raise Democratic turnout for the state’s other races. Better for Republicans that voters not be offered the choice.

That’s not how the conventional wisdom used to work: Culture-war issues used to be seen as a way to boost Republican turnout. Democrats used to be confident the Supreme Court would protect their reproductive freedom and other personal rights, but now they have to protect their own rights by voting.

Dahlia Lithwick explains:

Efforts of those who have taken the position that forced birth is somehow pleasant and rewarding, even for America’s 10-year-old rape victims, have backfired spectacularly, as have their claims that abortion rights advocates are lying about new dangers that abortion bans pose to patients with high-risk pregnancies or who are experiencing a miscarriage.

For the last six weeks, Republicans have touted their vision of a post-Roe America. It is a place in which rapists get to choose the mother of their children, even if she is 10 years old; in which patients must be dying of sepsis before they can terminate a failing pregnancy; in which doctors who follow their duty of care to perform a life-saving abortion must persuade prosecutors of their proper judgment at risk of incarceration; and in which pharmacists refuse to provide women with autoimmune treatment because they suspect it could be used for an illicit abortion. This reality unfolded in under a month, because it’s the fondest dream of a small minority of uncompromising extremists.

In under a month, even Americans who call themselves abortion opponents have come to see that when abortion is criminal, every uterus is a potential crime scene.

Those situations aren’t the ones anti-abortion activists want voters to imagine. They’d rather voters thought about foolishly promiscuous women who selfishly want to escape the consequences of their actions, not women who are being re-victimized by the law after men and circumstances have already victimized them once.

All over the country, Republican candidates are being caught between their extreme anti-abortion base, whose support has been necessary to get through Republican primaries, and the majority of general-election voters, whose views are far more moderate and nuanced.

The fall pivot. But could they turn this situation around, and make Democrats own the “extreme” views on their side? Marjorie Dannenfelser of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America thinks so:

[Pat] Ryan avoided specifics, couching his position in well-worn, vague terms such as “freedom to choose” and “controlling women’s bodies.” A sharp offense could have punctured this obvious vulnerability, challenging the Democrat to explain exactly what policies he wants and whether there is a single limit on abortion he would support: when the child’s heartbeat can be detected? If not then, what about a first-trimester limit, which two-thirds of Americans support? Or 15 weeks, when some new evidence indicates unborn children can feel pain — a limit 72 percent of Americans support and that sits within the European mainstream? Or like Biden and almost every congressional Democrat, does he advocate legislation that allows abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy as long as a doctor will say it’s for the woman’s health? Only 10 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal that late, and this broad loophole means the bill is far more radical than Democrats would have you believe.

The advantage of fantasy. What Dannenfelser is trying to regain might be called the advantage of fantasy. Whoever gets to construct the hypothetical case under discussion can imagine a favorable one, even if that situation is rare or even non-existent. Should a raped 10-year-old be forced to carry the baby to term? Should a pregnant woman with breast cancer be forced to wait months to begin treatments that would harm her fetus? An overwhelming majority of people would approve an abortion in those cases, and reject a law (or a legislator) who wouldn’t allow one.

But what if a perfectly healthy woman with a perfectly healthy 8-month fetus decides on a whim that she no longer wants to be a mother? In a matter of weeks, her pregnancy could come to a successful conclusion, an infertile couple could have a beautiful baby to raise, and the woman could get on with her life. But she chooses an abortion instead. Do you approve of that choice? Should the law allow it?

Are there such cases? It’s not clear. But if a voter can imagine it, the reality may not matter.

How to respond. If the discussion goes there, a poorly prepared Democrat could be in trouble. On the one hand, the fantasy is ugly, and a pro-reproductive-rights candidate could lose support by owning that ugliness. On the other, nuanced line-drawing is tedious and uninspiring. Why here and not there? [1] And if you draw the line based on polls, as Dannenfelser seems to suggest, your position looks calculated rather than principled. [2]

But what should a well-prepared Democrat say?

First, I think you have to acknowledge the ugliness of the fantasy and disapprove of it, as the vast majority of voters do. If that perfectly healthy pregnant woman came to me asking for my approval of her whimsical decision, I couldn’t give it. [3] My sympathies would be more with the childless couple and the possibilities the healthy 8-month fetus represents.

Very quickly, though, you have to draw the line between your personal approval and the law. The law is not a tool for making every situation come out the way you want. If a friend came to me with his plan to cheat on his wife, I would disapprove and urge him to reconsider. But that doesn’t mean I would support a law against adultery.

Third, point out that the law is a blunt instrument. You can’t just pass a law against this case. A law would necessarily identify a larger set of cases, and would impose a rule on them. In each individual case, the government’s decision would overrule the judgment of the people involved: the woman, her doctor, her family, and all the other friends and moral advisors whose opinions she might seek.

The introduction of a broader class allows you to bring reality back into the discussion, and to take back the advantage of fantasy: If we include this woman in a class, and for the entire class substitute the government’s blanket decision for the judgment of the people who are actually present, what new ugly situations have we created? More than we resolved, maybe?

And if we’re going to substitute our own judgment for theirs, don’t we have to be sure we’re right in the overwhelming majority of cases? Just more-often-that-not shouldn’t be good enough, if we’re usurping people’s most important personal decisions.

A Democratic training video. If you look up “well-prepared Democrat” in a dictionary, chances are you will see a picture of Pete Buttigieg. In a townhall discussion during his presidential campaign, Fox News moderator Chris Wallace tried Dannenfelser’s gambit of trying to make Buttigieg draw a line.

Do you believe, at any point in pregnancy … that there should be any limit on a woman’s right to have an abortion?

But Pete refused to take the bait.

I think the dialogue has gotten so caught up on where you draw the line, that we’ve gotten away from the fundamental question of, who gets to draw the line? I trust women to draw the line when it’s their own health.

Wallace tried again, framing the issue as personal approval of a hypothetical situation:

Just to be clear, you’re saying you’d be okay with a woman well into the third trimester deciding to abort her pregnancy?

And Pete protested,

These hypotheticals are usually set up in order to provoke a strong emotional [response].

When Wallace cut that answer off, saying that late-term abortions actually happen, he appeared not to realize that he had wandered back onto Pete’s turf: reality. There are about 6,000 late-term abortions each year, representing less than 1% of abortions. And now that they were talking about 6,000 real women, Pete could grab control of the audience’s imagination by painting a more realistic picture.

Let’s put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it’s that late in your pregnancy, that means almost by definition, you’ve been expecting to carry it to term. We’re talking about women who have perhaps chosen a name, who have purchased a crib. Families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime. Something about the health or life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice… As horrible as that choice is, that woman, that family, may seek spiritual guidance, they may seek medical guidance, but that decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.

So if you’d been picturing a flighty woman late in a problem-free pregnancy, Pete pushed you to think again. Late-term abortion decisions are full of one-of-a-kind complications. A cookie-cutter decision laid out by armchair moralists, or state legislatures guided by armchair moralists, isn’t usually going to weigh those factors as well as the people in the room will. Maybe never, and certainly not in the overwhelming majority of cases we’d need in order to justify a ban.

How to judge who’s winning. As we go into the fall, both sides are going to try to frame their opponents as captive to their party’s extreme wing. But it’s going to be important to point out that the “extremes” are not mirror images of one another: Republican extremists are extremely interested in making your reproductive decisions for you, and Democratic “extremists” are insisting that you retain those rights across the board.

If the Republican is winning that debate, the Democrat will seem licentious and morally slippery. (“I don’t care. Do whatever you want.”) If the Democrat is winning, the Republican will seem arrogant. (“It doesn’t matter what you decide. I know better.”)

[1] Disputing Dannenfelser’s dubious claims takes the debate down a rabbit hole. Anti-abortion activists are famously dishonest about where such lines actually fall. Religious Americans often imagine that someone who claims to represent a church or a religious movement wouldn’t just lie to them about scientific facts. But in fact, anti-abortion activists are some of the most shameless liars in American politics. Apparently, if you believe you are fighting to prevent millions of “murders”, a lie seems like a very small sin.

[2] Republicans drawing lines based on polls also look calculating.

[3] It’s important to understand how far into fantasyland we are here: That woman doesn’t exist, and wouldn’t seek my approval if she did. Very few people other than me care that much about my approval.

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  • philipfinn  On September 5, 2022 at 8:18 pm

    Pete Buttigieg had it right the last election, and what I’ve been saying from the very beginning: This is fascism, and fascism is about “who gets to say”…
    And that the Fascists dwell among us in such numbers that we’re even forced to have these discussions is, IMO, FAR more significant than even whether Trump will run or not in 2024. 2022 may be our last election.


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