When The Issue Isn’t Really The Issue

Thanks to the effort by Texas to totally ban abortion, the issue of reproductive choice has once again taken center stage in America’s interminable culture war.  But as Thomas Edsall has recently pointed out, a purported issue isn’t always, or necessarily, the real issue.

I always read Edsall’s essays in the New York Times, because he draws on both the history of whatever issue he is exploring and on a wide range of scholarly research in order to craft his conclusions. This particular piece is no different. As he tells us,

As recently as 1984, abortion was not a deeply partisan issue.

“The difference in support for the pro-choice position was a mere six percentage points,” Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University, told me by email. “40 percent of Democratic identifiers were pro-life, while 39 percent were pro-choice. Among Republican identifiers, 33 percent were pro-choice, 45 percent were pro-life and 22 percent were in the middle.”

By 2020, of course, that situation had changed, with 73 percent of Democrats taking the pro-choice position (only 17 percent were “pro-life”–the other 10 percent were in the middle). That year, 60 percent of Republicans claimed to be pro-life; 25 percent were pro-choice, and 15 percent were in the middle.

If Edsall was commenting only on the growth of the partisan divide, that would be interesting but hardly surprising. What was surprising was the association between opposition to abortion and–wait for it–racial attitudes.

Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures. This is part of a larger picture in which racial attitudes are increasingly linked with opinions on a wide range of disparate issues including social welfare issues, gun control, immigration and even climate change. The fact that opinions on all of these issues are now closely interconnected and connected with racial attitudes is a key factor in the deep polarization within the electorate that contributes to high levels of straight ticket voting and a declining proportion of swing voters.

I have previously posted about the origins of the anti-choice movement. Historians of religion have located those origins in conservative rage over the denial of tax benefits to the Whites-only academies that had been established to avoid integration. They had politicized abortion in order to motivate Christian conservative activism while dodging the less-palatable race issue.

There are other, less surprising associations: according to one scholar cited by Edsall, people who are active in the “pro life” movement are more likely to be committed to a patriarchal worldview in which control of reproduction, and female sexuality in particular, is important to the maintenance of  the gender hierarchy they support.

Women have noticed…

Edsall offers historical evidence that the issue of abortion has “evolved”–lending credibility to the claim that it is a proxy for a worldview that encompasses far more than religious convictions about reproductive choice.

Fifty years ago, the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in St. Louis approved what by the standards of 1971 was a decisively liberal resolution on abortion:

Be it further resolved, that we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.

Edsall cites historian Randall Balmer for an observation often made by people critical of the anti-abortion movement: “the beauty of defending a fetus is that the fetus demands nothing in return — housing, health care, education — so it’s a fairly low-risk advocacy.” As pro-choice folks frequently point out, what is called a “pro-life position” is often merely “pro-birth,” since so many of the people espousing it are uninterested in feeding, clothing and educating the child once it emerges from the womb.

And of course, there’s the recent spectacle of anti-choice folks claiming “my body my choice”as justification for refusing vaccination. (Not only is that hypocritical inconsistency infuriating,  a woman exercising reproductive choice isn’t infecting her neighbors…a distinction that clearly eludes them…)

Edsall’s essay explains what, for many pro-choice advocates, has been a conundrum: why are opponents of abortion not seeking wide accessibility to birth control? Surely they should want to avoid  the unplanned, unwanted pregnancies that lead to abortion, so why are some of the most fervent “pro-lifers” actually opposed to birth control?

Edsall and the scholars he cites have provided support for the answer many of us have suspected. For far too many of these “warriors for life,” the issue isn’t really the issue.


  1. It’s also interesting that, making abortion illegal requires a woman to give her body to host the fetus she is carrying, typically not by choice to get pregnant. But a mother can’t be required to donate a kidney or half of her liver to save the life anyone, including her own offspring. If we’re going to require a woman to host a fetus, why not require family members to donate organs to save the lives of their relatives?

  2. There seems to be NO redeeming feature of these toxic people. Their lives must be bereft of any love or joy. Just lots of hate and control.

  3. I wonder if that’s why the USA has been dragging its feet on getting vaccinations to Africa, and why the Haitians were cracked with whips versus the lighter brown asylum seekers.

    I’ve been reading a lot about the developments within the Russia/China global initiatives in Eurasia, BRICS, and the Middle East. Basically, the contra-Atlanticism of the West.

    Not from the US/UK propaganda outfits, either.

    Considering the direction we are heading with Tory leadership in both the UK/US, we are fixing to get our asses handed to us in the near future.

    Russia/China are building multilateral commitments based on diplomacy versus warfare and economic development that is not dollar-centric. They are developing countries while we extract from countries.

    The Euros better pivot quickly or else they’re going to look up one day and see themselves deeper in their grievances because our oligarchic leaders were too short-sighted and hypocritical.

  4. It has always seemed to me to be about the economic subjugation of women than about abortion itself, which explains the reluctance to provide education and effective contraception in their efforts to prevent abortion. But, perhaps more generally, it is really about power, as it always is.

  5. Anti-abortion and gerrymandering are in lockstep; both based on racism with dictatorship the goal. Full control of the birth rate and suppressing voting rights have minorities in the winner’s cross hairs. Trump’s 2020 census brought out the fact that numbers of minorities in this country are increasing while numbers of whites are decreasing; NOT the results he was seeking with his concentration on locating Hispanics. The white girls and women caught in the anti-abortion trap are expendable to his party; just as the white families trapped in low-income areas are expendable voters.

    The “issue” is controlling the increasing numbers of minorities by limiting their birth rates and ability to vote. Due to the current economic division in this country; gerrymandering is the perfect way to contain minorities and voters by drawing lines around their living areas. Are Republicans using Trump’s 2020 census results to accomplish this? Gerrymandering appears to have begun in earnest after the release of the census numbers.

    The anti-abortion issue isn’t really the issue.

  6. Yes, the issue has always been one of bigotry and control. “Proxy” is exactly the word for the entire “pro-life” issue. the hypocrisy is not noticed by those folks because cognitive dissonance is what they do best.
    As in the case of the school board in Pa., which eventually rescinded its long list of banned books, purportedly established to protect their children from “feeling guilty” about the history of racism in the U.S., the excuse was another bit of proxy horse manure.

  7. I am one of those who despise the labels. Most of my pro-choice friends are also pro-life. Most of my pro-life friends are pro-birth. Some of my younger friends who are pro-life aren’t even aware that not everyone’s religion states that life begins at conception (neither did theirs, until power became an issue for churches – think Thomas Aquinas). We really need a better educated public.

  8. JoAnn tells it like it is today. It’s all about power, and racist pro-lifers use covers such as abortion to hide their real intent. It’s not only abortion that serves such purpose. Money is also power, and wage and wealth control, like abortion, amounts to another such assertion of power dressed up in moral homilies to maintain and expand capitalist power over us near serfs while their organs of communication spew out stories of American exceptionialism and the freedoms we enjoy.

    “Freedom” to live under the bridge and/or from meager paycheck to meager paycheck has much in common with a lack of reproductive choice. Power and money? Synonyms.

  9. Thanks for pointing out the inconsistency and hypocrisy of the pro-life movement. Being pro-life on the unborn but wanting to abort the born for lack of vaccine mandates and mask mandates makes them look pro-death to me.

  10. Control is indeed the issue. I believe it to be a deeply rooted psychological need for security (real or imagined) with a compulsion to seek security at all costs. It’s the same compulsion that underlies racism, sexism, homophobia, patriarchy, environmental degradation and all the rest. Those who can gain “security” by exercising domination over others do so. A lot of others, both men and women, buy security by submitting to domination by those perceived to be able to protect them – hence the women who support Trump and his ilk. This is the reason all these things are related – they are all manifestations of the same problem. All of us are susceptible to varying extents. The cure is actually fostered by cultivating healthier networks of relationships, which human beings need and which our modern industrialized lives increasingly lack (as in “bowling alone”).

  11. The Catholic Church works tirelessly to outlaw abortion and contraception. Catholics on the Supreme Court are doing God’s work not interpreting the Constitution.

  12. I think we can thank Lee Atwater, Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich and a host of other evil idiots (Thank you, Poppy Bush for hiring this cabal of haters.) for creating this sort of partisanship on emotionally-charged, but ultimately irrelevant topics in order to gain votes… and power. While many of us on this blog go on about this or that political issue, the bottom line for Republicans remains GAINING AND HOLDING POWER. Why? MONEY!!!

    Republican donors are overwhelmingly rich, white males who want to control EVERYTHING! Women? Gotta control them in order to “keep them in their place” and to vote like their white, male husbands tell them to vote. There is NO attempt to govern the nation. It is all about power and money, money and power.

    If we really want a democratic republic that functions for the ideals of our founders intent, then the current iteration of the Republican party MUST be removed from offices at every level of government.

  13. It is no surprise to me that many who are “pro-life” are also racist. Usually people who are bigoted don’t carry just one bigotry. The “pro-life” people could well be homophobic, islamophobic, anti-Semitic, and/or xenophobic. It is not just white men. It is also some white women who have bought into the feminine mystique.

    If, in fact, many who claim to be pro-life are also racist, they are failing to recognize that the birth rate in African-Americans may be higher than that of whites. And it is often women of color who are most affected by laws restricting abortion due to the inequity of wealth between blacks and whites.

    In the mean time, Alabama has seen more deaths than births in their state which means a significant decrease in their population. I don’t know if poor distribution of the vaccine and/ or anti-vaxxers have contributed to this decline, but I suspect that both are a contributing factor. And I would guess that more people of color than whites are the ones who have died.

    To me no one can claim to be be pro-life who does not believe that all women should have good access to birth control and prenatal care to significantly reduce abortion,who does not believe that we need to protect the living ecosystems of earth, who does not believe that each child should have food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, love, attention, and guidance. No one can claim to be pro-life who prefers to wage war over peace, who supports capital punishment and claims no reforms need to be made to the criminal justice system. Albert Schweitzer spoke of reverence for life so many years ago. If only everyone deeply revered life, the well being of all sentient beings and yes, of women and people of all races.

  14. One of the reasons that Republicans can easily live in denial of the intellectual roots of what their party has become is that they don’t have to understand or believe any of that in order to vote Republican. They can vote Republican because their parents did, or because their buddies do, or because that’s what the good lookers on TV seem to tell them to do, or what the people on their Main Street are talking about doing. They don’t give it much more thought than that because DC is far away and not particularly relevant in their lives.

    Of course, the really rabid Republicans believe it’s what patriots do and they want to be one of those. That’s not even close to true but it’s how they can feel good about themselves.

  15. Larry Shapiro,

    Last time I looked God did not have a position on abortion. I don’t think the Catholics on SCOTUS are doing his work, but they are certainly doing damage to the Constitution.

  16. Why is it always men who seem to be the most vocal about pro life. In fact, it is pro birth since they have no position on how that baby is to be raised to adulthood. Shame on every single one of them! Barefoot and pregnant seems to be their mantra, so they can control their women. Last time I checked this is the 21st century, not the dark ages.

  17. Robin, you have stated so well what I wanted to say, but didn’t have the guts……thank you for putting this out there.

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