Partisan polarizasion of the abortion debate

Abortion used to be legal in the U.S. under Common Law, which criminalized abortion after a pregnant woman experienced quickening (the first movement of a fetus within a womb). It was in the wake of the Civil War (1861-65) that states began revising their laws to prohibit abortion at any stage of pregnancy. In the 1850s professional male physicians, organized into the American Medical Association, launched a campaign against abortion, alongside their attempt to oust midwives from the practice of delivering babies. By the early 20th century all the states prohibited almost all cases of abortion, though no federal laws regulated abortion.

This anti-abortion regime started to change since the 1960s. Partly as a result of the Second-Wave Feminist Movement’s pressure for legalization of abortion, several states revised their laws to relax its limitation on abortion, and in 1973, SCOTUS legalized abortion as the constitutionally protected right of privacy in the Roe decision.

Immediately afterward, however, anti-abortionists launched movements to overturn the Roe decision. Consequently, In the 1992 Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey decision (the Casey decision) relaxed the conditions on which aboriton could be legally restricted. Since then, many conservative states, especially Southern and Mid-Western ones, revised their abortion laws to further limit the range of legal abortion. Backed by the “pro-life” political coalition, the Republican administrations appointed more and more conservative judges to the Federal courts, finally leading to the Dobbs decision. The Dobbs decision encouraged conservative states to introduce strict anti-abortion laws, and currently 15 out of 50 states have anti-abortion laws, some of which unconditionally prohibit abortion even in case of rape and incest. These anti-abortion states include populous ones such as Texas, bringing deteriorating impacts on women’s reproductive rights.

Now, we should pay attention to the social backgrounds of pro-life (those advocating criminalization of abortion) and pro-choice (those who support legality of abortion) activists. Pro-life advocates claim that they are trying to protect life of fetuses, rather than depriving women of their rights. They suggest that abortion is nothing but homicide to be prohibited by law, for they perceive that the fetus is human from the stage of conception. Socially conservative voters support this position, many of whom are Evangelicals (conservative denominatuions of Protestantism), and most of whom are concentrated in the Southern and Mid-Western states.

On the other hand, pro-choice voters believe that the government should secure the women’s right of choice in reproduction. Regardless of the faith, these people give priority to poersonal liberty and the right to self-determination, and they have urban educated middle- or upper-class background.

If we look at the overall American public opinion, the national majority voters support legality of abortion. Nevertheless, the pro-life groups are politically influential because they are well mobilized to constitute a strong voting bloc for the Republican Party. The pro-life voter moblization was so strong that since the 1970s the Republican Party gradually became right-leaning and moderate pro-choice politicans were marginalized from the party mainstream. In the meantime, the pro-choice group affiliated with the Democratic Party, and pro-life conservative politicians iincreasingly quit the Democratic Party. As a result the abortion issue played a role of cataclyst in polarization of American party politics.

Pro-life activists’ hypocricy: silence on lower-class and nonwhite women’s right to childbearing

Due ro the Civil Rights and Feminist reform in the 1960s and 1970s, formally respecting rights and voices of women and minorities became the political norm. In this framework the pro-life groups claim that they are not against women’s rights, and that they aim at defending the right to life of fetuses as a “minority” group who cannot raise its own voice. These days they also frequently argue that they are women’s rights advocates because they are trying to stop women from committing murder of babies by prohibiting abortion.

Before the Dobbs ruling, conservative states had enacted laws to limit legal abortion in the name of protecting mothers from unsafe or unnecessary abortions. For example, some state laws required patients to take pre-abortion counseling, observe a moving fetus through ultrasound echography, and to have 72-hour waiting time before operation. These laws aimed at encouraging patients to refrain from abortion. The premises of these laws were that women are not equipped with rational and independent decision-making ability, that women are by nature the gender to give birth, and that if women follow their nature, they must choose to give birth. I must say that the pro-life movement wants not to protect women’ rights and dignity but to protect the patriarchal notion that women should not avoid their duty to be mothers.

The pro-life groups argue that they respect human life, but they often betrays their claim by their own words and deeds. They are not interested in proactive healthcare services for pregnant women and mothers. They do not advocate for financial support for prenatal and postnatal healthcare for low-income mothers and children.

They also have shown no interest in environmental pollution issues causing damage on human health and life. They didn’t display any attention to a notorious tap-water pollution case in Flint, Michigan. Many researchers surveyed spike in miscarriage rate in the city, and evidence indicate that the significant increase in miscarriage is due to lead pollition. However, the pro-life groups remains silent on this issue. The large proportion of Flint’s population is low-income and/or nonwhite, and that may be the reason why the pro-life activists, overwhelmingly white, are not interested in this scandal.

On the other hand, the pro-choice group movement is also not free from questions. In the first place, even if people could choose abortion, it may be financially difficult for many low-income class people to realize it. Conversely, it is considerably costly to give birth safely. The death rate of babies and pregnant women in the U.S. is at the same level of developed countries when it concerns only white people, but when it concerns non-white people, the rate is more than double that of the white population. However, because people in the middle class and above are in the center of the pro-choice movement, the mainstream of the group does not see it as a problem. This is also a source of dissatisfaction amongst black female activists.

Untold things are as suggestive as what they told

When the conflict between the pro-life groupss and the pro-choice groups is deteriorating and many people are wary of the political and social polarization, the new movement called “reproductive justice” emerged, offering the third way to the controvercy. The reproductive justice advocates attempt to overcome the rigid dichotomy of pro-life and pro-choice—the outright prohibition of aboriton versus the choice as negative freedom from legal restraint on abortion practices. While they criticize the pro-life movement as antithesis to women’s rights, they also criticise narrow-mindedness of the pro-choice activists, who are not interested in substantial guarantee of exercising right to choice but just in lifting the legal ban on abortion. The reproductive justice activists point out that people should be substantially guaranteed to exercise their right not only to avoid undesired pregnancy and terminate undesired pregnancy, but also to bear and raise their children in healty and safe environment if they desire to have children. They mean not just full legalization of contraception and abortion but public supports for people’s access to contraception, abortion, healthcare for mothers and children, and securing safe and healthy childraising environment if necessary.

African-American women are pioneers in this movement, but they demand reproductive justice not only for themselves but for all American people, arguing that everyone—men and women, white and non-white, middle-class and lower-class, heterosexual cisgdender and LGBTQ—should enjoy rights to life, health and freedom.

It is a recent political trend in the United States that conservatives criticize anti-racist, anti-women, anti-LGBTQ activism as the “identity politics” seeking special privileges. But they are in fact trying to maintain their historically and structurally inherited privileges based on the identity of traditional middle-class white hetero-cisgender male. In the new political culture of minority rights and diversity, they find difficulty in making explicit claim for racial and gendered privilege, so they argue that the existing social institutions are already gender and race neutral (“color-blind”), and that minorities and women demanding further change are actually privilege-seeking propagandists of identity politics. Before 1960s, white and male supremacists argued for explicit privilege based on whiteness and maleness, but since then they try to restrict freedom and equality of women, non-white people, working-class people and sexual minorities under a different pretext.

In order to notice the hidden context of their arguments, it is important to see what they do not tell and what their discourses make invisible, as well as what they tell. While they severely attack certain people’s ways or claims, they may not say much about others. One of the typical cases are the pro-life activists’ silence on Flint’s pollution, and the pro-choice groups’ attitude toward problems of poverty in reproductive rights is another one.

Since the Civil Rights and Feminist reforms most of contemporary laws and institutions seem formally neutral and they are presumed to correct explicit discrimination based on race, gender, or sexuality. It has led many voters belonging to the majority to believe that the U.S. has already solved problems of race, gender, and sexuality. They are often unaware that they still continue to enjoy, use, and maintain their privileged position in the society. I should say that this logic also applies to Japanese society. Are we aware of the privilege we are implicitly enjoying? Are we blind to deep-rooted racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia in this society? Do we believe that our society is already free from discrimination?

* The information contained herein is current as of April 2024.
* The contents of articles on are based on the personal ideas and opinions of the author and do not indicate the official opinion of Meiji University.
* I work to achieve SDGs related to the educational and research themes that I am currently engaged in.

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