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Polarization over abortion

Updated: Dec 14, 2023

This is an excerpt from Defusing American Anger. It's aimed at helping people see the more rational and well meaning views of people on "the other side" of the debate. It also includes thoughts on how the simplistic, binary language around this issue ("pro-life" vs. "pro-choice") can be seen as amplifying our polarization.

To see all excerpts and learn more about them, go here.


Abortion is one of the more polarizing issues in America. To reduce contempt and animosity on this issue, we should be willing to examine the better arguments on "the other side."

Our story-telling skills can amplify our anger

Part of what drives our anger at the “other side” is our belief that their stances on the issues are uniformly bad across the board. It’s not usually one specific stance that’s offensive to us, because we all know people on our side—friends and family members—who can have some beliefs that don’t align perfectly with their side. (For example, surveys show that roughly 25% of both Democrats and Republicans disagree with their political group’s stance on abortion.) And you yourself, if you have a preferred political party, likely disagree with that party’s stance in a few ways.

All this helps us see that it’s not usually people’s specific stance on any specific issue that bothers us so much, but the whole grouping of their ideas.

And we tend to perceive connections between those stances. For example, it may make sense to us that the Republican party has the grouping of ideas it does, like being pro-life, wanting to reduce welfare, and wanting lower immigration. Let's say you’re a liberal who views conservatives as sexist, racist, and insensitive to the needs of the downtrodden. In that case, this collection of stances makes sense: to you, all those views line up with your opinions about the overall badness of Republican ideas. You have a narrative—a story—about the nature of their badness, and how that badness relates to all their stances.

Similarly, if you’re a committed Republican voter, the grouping of your own party’s stances likely make a lot of sense to you. They connect and tell a story about the values of your group. And you might have a similar story about all the liberals’ bad ideas and how all their common stances are related.

Whether it’s our own group’s views or the others’, we tend to see these groupings of stances as being logical, as adding up to tell us a specific story about these groups. But there’s evidence that a lot of the stance groupings associated with our political parties are not as logical or connected as they seem. Some of them are probably due to randomness and chance. 

Let’s look at abortion: In the early 1970s, being anti-abortion wasn’t yet associated with one party or the other—it just wasn’t yet a topic most people thought much about. For quite a few reasons, which we’ll examine in a bit, it’s possible to imagine the abortion issue going either way. In fact, it’s possible to imagine Democrats and Republicans being reversed on their abortion stances.

One piece of supporting evidence for this was that, before the 1970s, being against abortion was primarily associated with the Catholics—and Catholics were mostly Democrat voters. You may recall that John F. Kennedy, a Democrat, was a Catholic. 

Another piece of supporting evidence: in many other countries, where religion doesn’t play as much of a role as it does in America, the conservative party is the more pro-choice party because that view aligns more with a more libertarian, “keep government out of our lives” philosophy. 

Dan Williams has written several books about the history of the abortion issue in America. Besides being an expert on the abortion issue, he’s also a pro-life activist. Via personal correspondence, Williams wrote the following: 

It’s plausible that the Republican Party would be a pro-choice party. The party’s leadership in the 1970s was heavily pro-choice, and Republicans in that era were more likely than Democrats to favor abortion rights. In nearly every other industrialized democracy in the Western world, the leading conservative party in a country is pro-choice on libertarian grounds. This is the case in Canada, Britain, and Australia, for instance, and it’s also true of most of Western Europe. 

In the 1970s, it appeared that the same situation was developing in the United States. Indeed, throughout the 1980s, the US Senate’s Republican leadership included a strongly pro-choice element. It was not until the end of the 1990s that pro-choice influence in the Republican Party began to rapidly decline.

If the Christian Right had not become such a strong influence in the GOP—and if the Supreme Court had not become a battleground over the future of abortion rights—it is not difficult to imagine a scenario in which both the Democratic and Republican parties would be moderately pro-choice parties, but with the Democratic Party more likely than the GOP to attract a sizeable minority of Catholic and conservative evangelical voters who wanted to restrict abortion. This was the case in the mid-1970s, and perhaps it could have remained the case for decades afterwards if the Christian Right had not developed the partisan alliance that it did. 

To be clear: this is not to say that there aren’t rational, understandable reasons for being either pro-life or pro-choice. It’s not to say that our beliefs on abortion, or anything else, are formed only by peer pressure. The point is that we tend to create stories—and associated meaning—about a party’s overall grouping of stances. 

We form stories about what such things mean, such as: 

“My pro-life stance is connected to my wanting a small government,” or…

“My pro-choice stance is connected to me being pro-immigration.”

But it’s possible some of these stories we tell ourselves about our group—or about the other group—can be based on somewhat arbitrary events that could have ended up in different ways.

The sociologist Michael Macy has researched how the stances associated with each political party may form at random. He wrote a paper about his work called Opinion Cascades and the Unpredictability of Partisan Polarization. (I interviewed Macy about this for my podcast.) 

In that research, they asked self-described Democrats and Republicans to guess how their political party would feel about “future controversies.” These were issues where stances weren’t associated with either political party—questions about artificial intelligence or about stances on classic literature—but that one day might be a point of conflict. This would be similar to asking people back in the 1960s which way they thought the political parties would go on abortion. 

This is from a 2019 article about this study in the Cornell Chronicle: 

The researchers split more than 2,000 Democratic and Republican volunteers into 10 “parallel worlds,” each isolated from the others. Within each world, participants took turns filling out an online survey to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with a series of unfamiliar political and cultural issues. In two of the 10 “worlds,” the survey was private, but in the other eight, whenever a partisan took a position on a given issue, all other participants in their “world” saw a real-time update of how each party was leaning.

The results showed how a handful of “early movers” can trigger a cascade in which later partisans pile on to their party’s newly emerging position, leading eventually to large political differences. The big surprise was that the party that supported the issue in one world was just as likely to oppose the issue in another world. 

“Sometimes the same party’s early movers would go one way, and sometimes the other,” Macy said.

And in each world, participants followed these early movers – often in opposite directions.

“In one world, it was Democrats who favored using [artificial intelligence] to spot online criminals, and in another world it was Republicans,” he said. “In one world, Democrats favored classic books, and in another world, Republicans favored the classics. In one world, Democrats were more optimistic about the future and in another world, it was Republicans.”

This unpredictability has a surprising implication for our world, Macy said.

“Deep political divisions between Democrats and Republicans—which seem like they must have some philosophical or ideological foundation—may turn out to be arbitrary, in that the two sides could have switched but for the luck of the draw among the early movers,” he said.

To reduce anger, it can help to imagine how different issue stances might have gone different ways and how, no matter what happens, people are able to create a story about how those stances ended up. Let’s examine a world where our political parties’ stances on abortion were largely reversed (and this is more plausible a scenario than you might think, and something we’ll examine later in the section on abortion):

Suppose you’re a pro-choice Democrat who views Republican pro-life views as representative of Republicans’ overall meanness. Imagine an alternate world where Democrats were the more pro-life-friendly party: If you lived in that world, you might perceive Democrats’ anti-abortion stances as relating to other ways liberals typically care for defenseless and downtrodden groups, people, and animals. 

If you’re a pro-life Republican, you might imagine an alternate world where Republicans were the more pro-choice party. In that world, you might see that stance as being aligned with other small-government, “keep the government out of our lives” stances. 

Whichever “world” we find ourselves in, we’ll form stories about how each side’s stances fit together. We humans are very good storytellers: telling stories is what sets us apart from animals and makes us human. We tell stories to make sense of the things around us, and we create those stories even if some of the things around us are arbitrary and random. So it can be valuable to question those narratives we have about what the other group’s stances tell us about them—or what our group’s views tell us about us. This can help us lower our anger. 

And again, this isn’t to say that one can’t have logical and examined reasons for being either pro-life or pro-choice. Clearly, we can have many reasons for our beliefs. But these points can help us see how the stories we tell ourselves about our group and the other group can be biased and simplistic, and can contribute to our anger.

Seeing the other side’s points on abortion

For some liberals, pro-life stances are authoritarian, and represent a disregard for women’s fundamental rights. To some conservatives, abortion is murder, or something close to murder. 

People on both sides can have simplistic and distorted perceptions of what the other side thinks and what their motivations are. Liberals will say things like, “The overturn of Roe v Wade represents the encroachment of fascist Christian beliefs.” Conservatives will say things like, “Liberals want to allow abortions up until a baby is born; they don’t care about babies.” People can see the other side as monolithic: as being mostly as extreme as the most extreme people on the other side. 

A 2019 piece by Caitlin Flanagan in The Atlantic was titled The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate. The subtitle was, “Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side.” Flanagan made the case that people on both sides of the debate do themselves a disservice when they caricature the other side’s views and treat them as incomprehensible. If we care about reducing our animosity, we must acknowledge that the other side can have understandable reasons for their beliefs. 

The most effective pro-choice arguments will be those that recognize the rational reasons why people are pro-life. It’s understandable that a person can look at a fetus and feel sympathy for it. It’s a defenseless being that has some sort of awareness and sensation of pain, however slight, and the potential to be a human. It’s hard to deny that images of fetuses are powerful. Considering that liberals are often defenders of the weak and powerless, it’s possible to see what it is that draws some progressive people to be pro-life. 

Flanagan points out in her piece that it’s possible people have become more pro-life in the last few decades due to in-utero imaging technology becoming better and more common. We have the ability to take high resolution images of fetuses and feel like we “know them” more than we used to. 

In short, it’s possible to see how one can be sympathetic to the unborn without it requiring misogyny or a desire to “control women’s bodies.” Roughly a third of women identify as pro-life, and presumably most of them wouldn’t see their beliefs in those terms. 

It’s also possible to see how these kinds of reasons for pro-life-type views don’t require any specific religious views. (In surveys, roughly 10% of atheists have pro-life views.)

On the other side of the argument, the most effective pro-life arguments are those that will acknowledge that this debate isn’t simple. The most effective pro-life activists are those who would acknowledge that forcing women to have babies comes with a lot of serious questions about how much power the government has over people’s bodies and privacy. As political writer Cathy Young puts it, being forced to carry a baby to term can feel like “an intolerable imposition on one’s liberty.” 

Pro-life activists often don’t seem to understand, or don’t want to address, how nightmarish the idea of being forced to have a baby can seem to some people, even apart from the pregnancy and giving-birth part. I can say that for me personally, as someone who sees many of the problems in our world as largely being due to people having children who aren’t wanted and aren’t cared for, I see bringing a sentient being into this world as a tremendous and serious responsibility. And this means that I see bringing an unwanted child into this world as one of the worst things someone can do.

If you’re pro-life, you may be thinking something like, “But if you don’t believe you can properly care for the child, you can just give the baby up for adoption.” 

But if I were the parent in that situation, I wouldn’t know for certain that that child will be wanted, or be cared for. I don’t know when it will be adopted or what kind of people will adopt it. There are a lot of uncertainties, and there’s a chance that child will have a tough life, that it will suffer, and that idea would cause me a lot of stress and a lot of guilt. I’d feel tremendously responsible for bringing that baby into the world, and yet things would be out of my control. If forced to have the baby, I would struggle with whether it was more morally correct to give the baby up for adoption or care for it myself, and in both cases I’d wonder if I was bringing a being into the world that would suffer due to being unwanted. I’d wonder either way if I was doing an immoral thing.  (And again, I give my views not because I think they’re important but just because I have direct access to them.)

In short, it’s possible to view strict anti-abortion laws as a scary, authoritarian infringement on one’s freedom. If you’re pro-life and haven’t attempted to see things through such a lens, are you willing to try to do that? Is it possible that being more empathetic about what scares pro-choice people—both liberals and conservatives—might help you, at the very least, make more persuasive arguments? If you’re someone who believes strongly in personal freedom, and would hate the government to tell you how to make major life decisions, are you able to see how pro-choice people can have that same righteous anger? 

Pro-life activists should also be willing to acknowledge that abortion being totally illegal would result in a significant number of women being hurt and killed. To quote from Flanagan’s piece

In 1969, two physicians, Robert H. Bartlett and Clement Yahia, published a paper in The New England Journal of Medicine titled “Management of Septic Chemical Abortion With Renal Failure.” It included five case histories of women who had attempted abortions, two with Lysol. 

The doctors estimated that 200,000 to 1 million criminal abortions took place each year in America, and that in many parts of the country abortion was a leading cause of maternal death. Overall mortality for patients who had become septic from botched abortions and were admitted to a hospital was 11 to 22 percent, but for those whose abortions had been induced with soap or Lysol, the mortality rate was reportedly an astounding 50 to 66 percent. 

“These young women,” the authors reported dispassionately, “are all potentially salvageable.”

Like many issues we fight about, it’s possible to see well meaning and understandable stances on both sides of the debate. 

If you’re pro-choice and view pro-life people with disdain, or even hatred: do you have the same animosity towards the roughly 25% of Democrats who are pro-life? Considering that only a few years ago, many liberals had significant reservations about abortion, and thought that it should be “legal but rare,” do you feel the same anger towards those liberals in the recent past? Is it possible to see that what a group considers right or wrong can sometimes change quickly, which points to there being some logic in not judging others too harshly? 

If you’re pro-life and view pro-choice people with disdain or even hatred: do you have that feeling about the roughly 25% of Republicans who are pro-choice? If you feel differently about those pro-choice people, is it possible you’re bringing in angry emotions you associate with liberals in general to this topic? How do you feel about the conservatives and libertarians who are pro-choice because they’re against excessive government influence? Do you think those people are moral monsters? Is it possible to see how one’s environment, one’s cultural and political groups, can affect what one views as morally right? 

Abortion views that don’t align with political party stances

Next, I’ll walk through a variety of different views on abortion. Examining the wide variety of views possible on the issue of abortion can be depolarizing. It can help show us that our simplistic views of the other side can be missing a lot of nuance. It can help show us that knowing that someone is pro-life or pro-choice doesn’t necessarily tell us that much about their other beliefs. 

To start with, it’s possible to see how pro-life stances can be held by people who consider themselves politically progressive. Dan Williams has written several books on the history of the abortion issue in America. The following is from the publisher’s description of his book Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement before Roe v. Wade

On April 16, 1972, ten thousand people gathered in Central Park to protest New York's liberal abortion law. Emotions ran high, reflecting the nation's extreme polarization over abortion. Yet the divisions did not fall neatly along partisan or religious lines-the assembled protesters were far from a bunch of fire-breathing culture warriors. In Defenders of the Unborn, Daniel K. Williams reveals the hidden history of the pro-life movement in America, showing that a cause that many see as reactionary and anti-feminist began as a liberal crusade for human rights.

For decades, the media portrayed the pro-life movement as a Catholic cause, but by the time of the Central Park rally, that stereotype was already hopelessly outdated. The kinds of people in attendance at pro-life rallies ranged from white Protestant physicians, to young mothers, to African American Democratic legislators-even the occasional member of Planned Parenthood. One of New York City's most vocal pro-life advocates was a liberal Lutheran minister who was best known for his civil rights activism and his protests against the Vietnam War. 

The language with which pro-lifers championed their cause was not that of conservative Catholic theology, infused with attacks on contraception and women's sexual freedom. Rather, they saw themselves as civil rights crusaders, defending the inalienable right to life of a defenseless minority: the unborn fetus. It was because of this grounding in human rights, Williams argues, that the right-to-life movement gained such momentum in the early 1960s. Indeed, pro-lifers were winning the battle before Roe v. Wade changed the course of history.

In a 2019 Atlantic article titled What It’s Like for Secular, Liberal Pro-lifers at the March for Life, it talks about secular, progressive pro-life activists:  

[...] despite what the popular narrative might suggest—that the pro-life side of the abortion debate is conservative and the pro-choice side is liberal, and the two sides don’t like each other—secular and left-leaning pro-lifers I spoke with said they felt welcome at the March for Life, and that most of the time they feel welcome in the pro-life movement in general, too.

They do, of course, know they’re outnumbered. While I spoke with one marcher with a Democrats for Life of America (DFLA) sign, a stranger bedecked in pro-life memorabilia approached him, exclaimed, “You’re a Democrat? Hallelujah!” and demanded a photo of him holding his sign. [...]

Secular pro-life groups tend to put special emphasis on scientific evidence to support the idea that a human life begins at conception. When I spoke with Murphy last week, she told me she was heartened by the theme chosen for this year’s March for Life, “Unique From Day One: Pro-life Is Pro-science.” At the time, the March for Life had not yet unveiled its full slate of speakers for the pre-march rally, and Murphy was hopeful “that maybe one of our atheist pro-life friends will have the chance to speak from the stage, or at least be up there.” In recent years, the lineup of speakers at the March for Life rally has mostly consisted of politicians (largely Republican), faith leaders, and sports and entertainment personalities. [...]

The lineup of speakers did, however, include an equal number of Republican politicians and Democratic politicians this year (two each)—which Bill Samuel, the former president of the Consistent Life Network, sees as a positive development. 

And, on the flip side, there are some conservatives who see their pro-choice stance as motivated by a desire for less government encroachment into women’s lives. And there are many well known conservatives from the past who had pro-choice stances. Here’s an excerpt from a New Yorker article titled The Loneliness of the Pro-Choice Republican Woman:  

Susan Cullman, a cigar heiress, philanthropist, and pro-choice activist, joined the Republican Party in the nineteen-seventies, when support for abortion rights was widely seen as consistent with conservative ideology. Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate for President in 1964, was himself pro-choice, and his wife, Peggy, had helped to found an Arizona chapter of Planned Parenthood. 

“The conservative view at the time when Goldwater was around was that you don’t want the government in your life,” Cullman said. “The government isn’t supposed to enter your home, never mind your body.” [...] 

In 1991, Cullman, by then divorced from Kudlow (who is now director of the National Economic Council), joined a nascent advocacy organization and political-action committee founded by Mary Dent Crisp, the former co-chair of the R.N.C., called the National Republican Coalition for Choice. “I discovered that I joined an Administration that was starting to reduce women’s ability to manage their own life,” Cullman said. “So I was going to fight them, and I wanted to fight them on the inside.”

The group, renamed the Republican Majority for Choice (R.M.C.) in the early two-thousands, shut down operations two years ago, but many former R.M.C. members remain close. It was these women, all of them white and well-connected, to whom Cullman turned on the evening of Friday, September 18th. She had just sat down to dinner with her stepson and his wife in her home in Stamford, Connecticut, when her stepson’s phone dinged. “Ginsburg died,” he said.

“I felt horror in my bones, just horror,” Cullman said. She left the dinner table, turned on MSNBC, and started e-mailing her “old gang” from the R.M.C. These women had spent decades arguing to G.O.P. leadership that the Party’s increasingly narrow outlook on abortion, as reflected in its platform, candidates, and judges, did not reflect the views of a majority of Republican voters. The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal feminist icon, would give President Trump his third Supreme Court appointment, cementing the rightward turn of the court for a generation or more, and placing the future of Roe v. Wade in doubt. [...]

Decades ago, Republican lawmakers could claim credit for many advances in reproductive rights. In 1967, as governor of California, Ronald Reagan liberalized the state’s abortion law. Three years later, another Republican governor, Nelson Rockefeller, signed a bill, co-authored by the Republican assemblywoman Constance Cook, that made New York the first state in the country to legalize abortion without a residency requirement. George H. W. Bush—a son of Prescott Bush, who was an early treasurer of Planned Parenthood—earned the nickname “Rubbers” for his support for contraceptive access. As a freshman member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Bush co-sponsored legislation that created Title X, the domestic family-planning program that the Trump Administration is now dismantling.

On the Libertarian Party’s website, we can see that they take a much less polarized view of the topic: 

Abortion is likely the greatest wedge issue of our time. However, Americans as a whole are less divided over this question than hardcore left and right politicians would lead you to believe. Pew Research finds that 60% of Americans polled think that abortion should be legal in some or most cases with 26% saying it should be illegal in most cases, and only 13% saying illegal in all cases. [...]

As ever, Libertarians approach this topic differently than the status quo. As the ruling political tribes have sprinted toward their extremes and taught their members to see all others as their enemies, the Libertarian Party has remained consistent, and yet nuanced in the face of a difficult issue that deserves careful thought and debate — not the political football treatment it gets from Republicans and Democrats. 

Amongst Libertarians, thoughts on abortion are varied. 

One of the quotes from a libertarian citizen they include on their site is this one: 

My philosophy as a Libertarian is carried on several key fundamentals: the non-aggression principle, private property rights, self-ownership, and the belief that liberty is the best way to enable individual human flourishing. Reproductive rights fall into that in multiple aspects: nobody else has the right to decide if, when and how you become a parent. Nobody else has the right to impose upon your property or your body without your informed, ongoing and unambiguous consent. 

Some liberals speak as if a pro-life stance is solely or mostly informed by religious views. But this isn’t the case. I personally know several pro-life people who are not religious. In a 2022 YouGov survey analysis, it found that: 

  • Of people who said they were atheists, 6% said they were either strongly or somewhat pro-life, while 2% expressed uncertainty on the subject.  

  • Of people who said their religion was “nothing in particular,” 26% said they were either strongly or somewhat pro-life, while 11% expressed uncertainty on the subject. 

In a 2017 piece by Kelsey Hazzard titled The atheist’s case against abortion: respect for human rights, she writes: 

I am an atheist, a 29-year-old woman, well-educated at secular institutions, and I lean liberal on many issues, including same-sex marriage and climate change.

I am also a dedicated pro-life activist, working to make abortion unthinkable.

The abortion industry would have you believe that people like me do not exist. They would have you believe that the pro-life movement is almost exclusively old white men, with a few pearl-clutching church ladies thrown in. This characterization is insulting to both young and old. The older pro-life leaders of today are the pioneering young adult activists of the 1970s, who courageously dissented from Roe v. Wade. And they have recruited new generations of pro-lifers to follow in their footsteps; millennials in the movement call ourselves the “pro-life generation.”

And some pro-life people can see their pro-life stances as being intimately related to beliefs that many would consider more liberal in nature. In a 2013 National Review piece by Matthew Scully called Pro-Life, Pro-Animal, he made the case to a conservative audience for how his pro-life views connected to his vegetarianism: 

[This evidence for my pro-life beliefs] is offered by way of asking readers, and especially those of shared conviction, to consider another moral concern, cruelty to animals, in the same merciful spirit. I kept thinking of the connection between abortion and extreme cruelty during the trial last April and May of Dr. Gosnell, the specialist in late-term abortions [...], who is now in prison, because it was a case of people numbed to horrors that had become routine and normalized, and a case of euphemisms dragged into the light of day.  

Conservative commentators seized on the hypocrisy of pro-choice liberals, deriding all the cant and rationalization that the Left uses in defense of abortion, and finally shaming the major media—thanks above all to columnist Kirsten Powers, a Democrat—into covering the trial after weeks of silence. I completely agreed, but just wished that those same conservatives might think as clearly and forthrightly about other horrors and other euphemisms.

There’s quite a bit of both, to take just the example closest to home, in the modern animal factories we call farms. [...] The factory farms—producing almost every animal product we see sold or advertised, in our country and most others—are places of immense and avoidable suffering. 

Both sides tend to have simplistic views of what motivates the other side. In a piece about that for titled What Comes Next?, Cathy Young wrote: 

Pro-choicers are wrong to depict pro-lifers as misogynists or subservient “handmaids”; pro-lifers are wrong to depict pro-choice Americans as libertines who hate babies. Pro-lifers often make little effort to understand why an unwanted pregnancy can feel like an intolerable imposition on one’s liberty even if one is fine with giving the child away for adoption after birth. And pro-choicers often make little effort to understand why pro-lifers find it appallingly hypocritical that the value of fetal life—right down to whether one calls it a “baby” or a ”fetus”—is determined solely by whether it is “wanted” or not.

How would you create abortion laws? 

One way to consider the nuance in this area is to think about how you yourself might create an abortion policy if given the power to do so. Some examples of the things you might struggle with: 

  • If you’re pro-choice, you might have trouble deciding what exactly is a good limit for when a woman is no longer able to get an abortion with no questions asked. Even for committed pro-choice activists, allowing a no-questions-asked abortion too close to the due date might seem harsh and even nightmarish, considering you’d be destroying an almost fully formed baby that could survive on its own. But what’s too late? 4 months? 5 months? 6 months? Is there any objective criteria for deciding that cut-off? 

  • If you’re pro-life, there’s a good chance you believe there should be some initial window during which a woman can get an abortion. But how long should that be? A few days? A few weeks? Is there an objective criteria for deciding that cut-off? 

  • If you’re pro-life, you likely believe that it’s okay to allow abortion in some cases, like in the case of rape, or in the case of the mother’s life being at risk. But what exactly do those rules look like? For example, how much risk to the mother is required to permit an abortion? Are there other exceptions that should be allowed? For example, what if the mother is intellectually challenged in some way? What would the exact rules be? 

Our internal conflicts and questions about where the lines should be drawn can be useful in helping us better understand why it is that people can form such different opinions on the issue. 

It can also be useful to examine the arbitrary nature of our abortion laws. Even amongst the most committed pro-life or pro-choice activists, there’s significant room for disagreement within each group. For example, some pro-life people think it’s fine to allow abortion within the first few days, while other pro-life people do not. And some pro-life people think it’s okay to allow exceptions for things like rape and the mother’s health, and some do not. 

Seeing how hard it is to agree, even for people on the same side of the issue, can be helpful, because it shows us that whatever actual rules we end up deciding on, there will always be some degree of arbitrariness. To be specific: if a state passes a law that abortion is allowed for the first 15 weeks of pregnancy, and you agree with that, why should it not be 16 weeks? Or 14 weeks? 

The precise lines we choose for all sorts of laws have some degree of arbitrariness to them, some luck of the draw. If we can acknowledge that even within ourselves we can have doubts about where these lines should be drawn, that can lessen our anger at others for drawing different lines. 

The binary language used in the abortion debate 

As with other issues, our use of simplistic, binary language may be amplifying our divides. We categorize stances as “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” as if there’s not a tremendous amount of nuance present in these categories. 

What exactly makes a stance pro-life? Does that mean someone wants to make all abortions illegal, no matter the situation? Or can it be used to describe someone who wants to limit abortions at a few days? Or even a few weeks? 

What exactly makes a stance pro-choice? If someone is okay with abortions being allowed for any reason up to 15 weeks and also okay with some exceptions being made post-15-weeks for the life of the mother and other circumstances, would that person be pro-choice or pro-life? We can imagine both committed pro-life activists and pro-choice activists strongly disliking that stance. 15 weeks is a common limit on abortions in many European countries, countries that many American liberals often perceive as being quite progressive. In surveys, roughly half of Americans support the 15 week limit, and that includes roughly 20% of Democrats (2022 Wall Street Journal survey). 

A 2022 piece by Reverend Duane Anders was titled Getting to a pro-choice and pro-life position. In that he says: 

For years, we have been forced into taking one of two sides. We are asked, “Are you pro-choice or pro-life?”

Within the dominant conversation on abortion, we have been pushed to the edges. In this framework, you are either for life, for babies, or for choice, for women.

The Rev. Rebecca Todd Peters, a scholar and social justice advocate, writes, “When the issue of abortion is framed as a debate, we are reduced to binary thinking. … The divisive nature of this framing is evident in the false struggle cast between the rights of a pregnant woman for self-determination and the prenate’s right to life.”

These binary frames push us into different moral worlds and understandings of this issue. [...]

These two options, pro-life or pro-choice, leave us little room for where most of us find ourselves. We have been pushed to make a conclusive stand on a question that is more fluid than absolute. Very few people are on the extremes -- abortions at any time or no abortions ever, no exceptions. Most of us are in the middle; we are pro-life and pro-choice. 

As with other issues, the more we try to avoid simplistic, binary language like pro-choice and pro-life, the more we’ll help others see the nuance that many people have on this issue. Using less polarizing language will also help reduce the pressure that polarization exerts on us to choose between two extreme binary choices. 

Roe v. Wade divides

In mid-2022, the Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision. This overturning allows states to restrict access to abortion and to set up penalties for abortion providers and women who get abortions.

There’s a lot of emotion on this topic, for obvious reasons. For some liberals, it represents another example of the creeping fascism they associate with Trumpism. But it’s worth questioning that polarizing narrative. For one thing, even if Trump weren’t around and the current GOP was much less belligerent, it’s easy to imagine Republicans still attempting to overturn Roe v. Wade. In other words: we should attempt to distinguish between the threats we perceive from Trump and the things conservative pro-life activists have been trying to accomplish for a long time. The more we act as if everything we dislike about the other side is connected, and part of a grand plot, the more we’ll amplify our divides and create a similar paranoia and animosity on the other side.  

For another thing, many legal experts have pointed out that the Roe v. Wade decision had flaws in it. Some people who point this out are politically liberal. In a 2022 New York Magazine piece, Benjamin Hart wrote the following: 

The idea that Roe v. Wade was a bad Supreme Court decision—legally, not morally—is hardly an opinion limited to conservatives. Indeed, Samuel Alito, in his fire-breathing draft opinion to overturn the decision, quoted some prominent liberals over the years, including Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Laurence Tribe, who have argued that the reasoning in the 1973 decision, which focused on a woman’s right to privacy, was unpersuasive. And they’re far from alone. 

Some people wanted Roe v. Wade to stand even while thinking it was a flawed decision. Here’s an excerpt from a 2022 piece by Clive Crook titled Roe v. Wade Is a Bad Decision That Ought to Stand

The half-century struggle over Roe v. Wade is again at the forefront of U.S. politics, thanks to a leaked draft opinion which would overturn the 1973 decision and send abortion law back to state legislatures. If the court plans to rule this way, it’s about to make a big mistake—not because the case was correctly decided, but because sometimes it’s better to leave a bad law alone. [...]

First, Roe was a huge mistake, not only as a matter of law—as the draft opinion says, the majority’s reasoning was all but unintelligible—but also because it tore at the fabric of American democracy. Second, overturning this bad law 50 years later risks compounding the damage.

Legal authorities broadly agree on Roe’s constitutional defects. Even pro-choice lawyers who think a right to abortion can be found in the Constitution say it wasn’t where the court’s controlling opinion looked. The late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said the case was wrongly decided—that it should have been grounded in the right to gender equality, not privacy. She also believed the decision should have been less sweeping, to give abortion opponents less of a target, and to allow for a more gradual evolution of opinion.

One eminent scholar, John Hart Ely, also supported Roe as a policy matter, but was more brutal when it came to assessing the jurisprudence. “It is bad because it is bad constitutional law, or rather because it is not constitutional law and gives almost no sense of an obligation to try to be.”

And of course, some people think Roe v. Wade was a good and logical decision. As with most contentious legal debates, there are strong points one can muster on both sides. The main point, for the purposes of depolarization, is to see how rational and well meaning people can have legitimate and genuine disagreements on this topic. 

For some conservatives, the belief that Roe v. Wade should be overturned is related to a belief that states should have the power to decide these kinds of decisions, and many other things. And it’s worth recognizing that that’s a defensible stance, based on a reading of the country’s founding documents. This view of the United States is one in which there is value perceived in letting states have a high amount of control to do things their own way. There is value seen in letting states experiment to find their own solutions to problems, which other states might learn from and then implement. 

From a wider perspective, it’s healthy for us to put our current struggles in context. For many liberals, their anger comes from a sense that overturning Roe v. Wade is clearly wrong, and that pro-life views are fascist, misogynist, and deadly. But like it or not, we’re surrounded by fellow citizens who believe very different things than us, and we’re also very polarized. This means that we’ll often not get our way when it comes to the rules of this country, just as our political opponents often won’t get their way. 

If you’re angry about these things, my goal is not to take away your anger, but to ask you to consider the best way to use and apply that anger, and to consider if some forms of that anger may be widening our divides and not helping. 

For example, if you’re someone who thinks that it’s justified or even laudable to bother Supreme Court justices at their home, or engage in other protests in political leaders’ personal lives, is it possible to see how that makes it more likely that others will take similar approaches, including your political opponents? If you take the stance that it’s okay to bother political decision-makers in their personal lives, does that mean you lose the right to morally object when, for example, pro-life activists harass Democrat decision-makers in similar ways?

Does being okay with such tactics represent a growing belief that our disagreements can’t be resolved within the system, using legal and political means? Does it represent a growing intolerance with the nature of democracy and the reality that our fellow citizens can believe very different things than us? 

Does us being okay with, or even encouraging, such behavior in turn encourage others, on both sides of our divides, to take similar views that uncivil, militant behaviors are justified to accomplish our goals? Is it possible to see how harassing such people may not help the cause, but hurt it, by provoking more anger from the other side? 

If you’re pro-life, is it possible to have some empathy with pro-choice people, who perceive this overturning as a sad and scary curtailing of individual rights? Considering the belligerence of Trump and others who take aggressive and vindictive approaches to politics, are you able to see how these pro-life wins can be seen as part and parcel of Trump’s brand of aggressive us-versus-them rhetoric? There are some fundamentalist Christians that believe there should be no abortion ever allowed, for any reason, not even for threats to the mother’s life or in the case of rape and incest. Does the existence of people with those extreme views help you better understand liberal-side views that pro-life people are heartless? Are you able to see how conservatives and pro-life people can be seen as the bad guys? 

If you’re able to see any of this, maybe you’ll think about how angry, vindictive language only adds to our divides, and also makes your own group less effective. 

We’ll likely become more polarized on abortion 

If we continue to grow more polarized, we’ll likely see more people on both sides become more aligned with their group’s majority stance. In the recent past, liberals have had their stances on abortion become increasingly pro-choice and disdainful of pro-life views. Between 2011 and 2021, the percentage of Democrats surveyed who said that “abortion should be legal under any circumstances” rose from 33% to 50%. In 2017, Tom Perez, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, said that pro-life people “weren’t welcome” in the Democrat party. 

And other Democrat leaders have expressed similar thoughts. In 2022, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democrat New York congressperson, said, “the thing that a lot of people don't like to talk about, is the fact that not every Democrat is pro-choice.” She followed that up with, “The ones that aren't, we really need to reassess if it's appropriate for them to continue to serve in 2022."

The stances of Republican citizens didn’t seem to change that much over the past few years, but that doesn’t tell us much about the stances of Republican political leaders, who seem to be more dedicated than ever to pro-life endeavors, as evidenced by the overturning of Roe v. Wade and various state-level pro-life laws. In a 2018 piece in Politico titled House GOP closes ranks on abortion, it talks about several pro-choice Republicans retiring from the House of Representatives, and how that breed of Republican leader is becoming almost extinct.

If we care about reducing toxic polarization, we should see it as valuable to push back against our group’s increasing intolerance of people with different views being in that group.

This has been an excerpt from Defusing American Anger.

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