The central political fact about abortion in America is that there’s a lot of it. While America’s annual abortion count has fallen to 1.3 million in the late ’90s, it averaged 1.5 million a year between 1973 and 1996, according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, the research arm of Planned Parenthood. That’s more than 34 million abortions. It’s worth noting that the National Right to Life Organization does not contest these figures. Because, if we cast the net as widely as we can–from women who were pushing 40 in the early ’70s to girls who are still teenagers today–only about 90 million women have passed through any part of childbearing age since Roe v. Wade. Even accounting for those who have had multiple abortions, that means close to half of American young women are using abortion–43 percent by age 45, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
In the polls, Americans profess ambivalence about abortion, openly supporting it only for “serious” reasons: for the health of the mother by 84 percent to twelve percent, for grave birth defects by 75 to 21, for rape by 77 to 19. They claim to oppose it for “trivial” reasons–for women who say they can’t afford another baby by 42 to 53, for those who don’t want another baby by 40 to 55, for those trying to avoid a shotgun wedding by 40 to 55. In other words, Americans claim not to back “lifestyle” abortions.
Yet the vast majority of abortions today are for reasons of lifestyle. Only about 14,000 women per year get abortions because of rape, incest, or to save their own lives. Of the other 1,286,000, three-fourths say a baby would interfere with work, school, or other responsibilities; two-thirds say they cannot afford a child; one-half say they do not want to be a single parent or are having problems with their male partner, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Lifestyle always overpowers traditional morality in the war within the Western conscience, and nowhere more obviously than when abortions reach the level of pro-life parody, as they do more commonly than most abortion rights advocates will admit. The British gynecologist P. Greenhalgh writes of a rich mother of three who came to her for an abortion. She wanted a fourth child but not just yet, since the family had already reserved a ski vacation months down the line. Many ob-gyn specialists have stories like this, and, when one hears them, it’s easy to see why women feel so guilty about owning up to the pedestrian nature of their reasons.
But then most people don’t really consider lifestyle pedestrian, especially not their own. In a society organized around a succession of acquisitions and thrills, questions of lifestyle determine one’s identity, one’s rank in society, one’s allegiances, one’s loves and hates. It’s not a matter of monolithic, time-honored religion versus itty-bitty, flighty lifestyle. It’s religion–marginal vestige, subculture, private matter–versus lifestyle–the engine, the symbol, the central organizing principle of the most powerful nation in the history of mankind. The failure of the Southern Baptist Convention’s call for a boycott of Disney gives you an indication of which worldview wins when they clash head-on.
Indeed, lifestyle as a values system grows steadily more powerful as capitalism grows steadily more beneficent. In a socially stratified era antedating mass contraception, an unwanted pregnancy generally meant you’d get stuck in a cramped, limited village existence with the first man you fell in love with, which is probably what would have happened anyway. Today, it still means getting stuck in a cramped, limited existence–but that’s decidedly not what would have happened anyway. What one loses out on is a vastly expanded roster of life choices: education, travel, career advancement, class advancement, money, fine dining, entertainment, and sports, plus a recreational-sex career that can run at full-throttle (if that’s what you want) for 30 years or more.
Republicans, at least the economic conservatives among them, are in a weak position to argue that Americans should throw all of this away. For in no other realm do they argue that the quest for lifestyle is a frivolous thing. The pro-choice position has much in common with their own. It is a market doctrine run amok in the nonmarket world. The underlying Republican defense of the American tendency to valorize, to monetize, to consumerize everything–from happiness to love to pride–has always been that the nature of those eternal pleasures is not altered a whit by having a dollar value attached to them. That ski vacation that the mother of three is aborting her child for might be a repository of all the happiness or love or pride she has.
Even where Americans claim to disapprove most strongly of abortion, they booby-trap their disapproval so that it never results in the actual curtailment of abortion rights. Take the crown jewel of Republican focus-group testing: partial-birth abortion. Following a barrage of graphic advertising and congressional legislation aimed at eliminating the procedure, 73 percent told pollsters they favored outlawing it. But, of those, 60 percent wanted an exception made for the health of the mother. And, while childbirth still has its dangers, it is so safe–with maternal death rates at a fraction of a percentage point–that the health-of-the-mother business is almost surely a cover for something else. Americans want to register their moral disapproval and keep the procedure available at the same time.
Pro-life Republicans themselves have grown so comfortable with abortion as a last resort that they can’t even keep their lines straight. Take Dan Quayle’s remark in the 1992 campaign that, if his daughter got pregnant, he’d “support her in whatever decision she’d make” on whether to abort. (Would he “support her” in anything else he claims to think is murder?) Or take Barbara Bush’s calling abortion a “personal choice.” (Had she and her ostensibly pro-life husband crossed swords in a real abort-or-not argument over the dinner table, who do you think would have prevailed?) This is a pro-life stance that comes from debate prepping, not conviction, let alone traditional morality. Which is to say that, when push comes to shove, when it’s your daughter who’s stuck marrying the psychopath or skipping Yale to take up single motherhood in your retirement home in St. Bart’s, it’s not a pro-life stance at all. It’s idle moralism, freeloading off a pro-choice culture.
The story of Bob Barr, the thrice-married pro-life Georgia congressman who launched the impeachment effort against President Clinton, tells us even more about what pro-life sentiment means in the face of middle-class necessity. Barr’s second wife, Gail, says in an affidavit that, in 1983, the couple found themselves in a situation straight out of a Clinton town meeting: saddled with two toddlers, Barr’s law practice failing, no health insurance, she 38 years old, he in the middle of an extramarital affair and soon to remarry. When Gail got pregnant, Barr drove her to the abortion clinic and paid for the procedure. Barr’s supporters insist he wasn’t pro-life back then. They should realize that that goes without saying.
Abortion turns out to be an indispensable part of the normal middle-American toolkit. If Republicans like Governor Bush are giving up on the issue, it’s because they’ve figured out that, even if Republicans win on abortion, they lose. The most they could hope to achieve is to shake middle-class life to its foundations in the name of values that, at the end of the day, neither they nor the middle class actually holds.
Americans’ claims to be conflicted about abortion are a handy self-deception of the sort all nations engage in when a treasured self-image comes in conflict with a treasured reality. (Think of Britain, which persists in thinking the stiff upper lip central to its national character, even after a royal funeral that showed it to be the most emotional of advanced nations.) We should distrust the pro-life spin that Americans are more conflicted over abortion than citizens of other Western countries. They’re not. What they exhibit is a rock-solid, European-style support for abortion, with American moral posturing plastered on top. The Bauer-Buchanan wing of the Republican Party would court voters by promising to expose them as hypocrites. Lots of luck.
Perhaps what Governor Jeb Bush has come to realize is that bringing down abortion would also bring down many of the implicit rules that govern American life. The result would be more than just a society with fewer abortions. It would be a society that actually was based on traditional moral values. That’s a society that none of us would recognize and even many who call themselves pro-life would find intolerable.