Is Abortion Different?

Pessimists, and they should be distinguished from the skeptical, not especially optimistic types like me, have an advantage in political prognostication: because many things don’t work out as expected (such is life) and because times are pretty bad right now, they often are correct in their predictions, not due to any analytic insight, but because of their psychological predispositions. The tl;dr version is that vibes, even gloomy ones, aren’t a substitute for analysis.

Which brings us to an interesting article by Julia Ioffe, whose writing over the last few years has been pretty pessimistic, in which she talks to both Democratic and Republican political operatives about the fallout from the Supreme Court’s decision to end Roe v. Wade. The takeaway on the Republican side is confused: some seem to argue that it’s a complete loser of an issue for Democrats, while others are shocked Democrats aren’t trying to capitalize on it (as well as attempt to protect abortion and related issues, such as healthcare access, while they can).

On the Democratic side, the message is equally muddled, with a combination of ‘why isn’t the leadership doing something’ combined with ‘there’s nothing to be done’ (boldface mine):

You would think that, with a month of advance warning about how the Supreme Court was going to rule, Democrats would have been better prepared for the day that Roe v. Wade finally fell. And yet, when it happened, Democrats did what Democrats do best: make memes, get mad at each other, and do little of consequence.

There was a bit of private pearl-clutching in Washington when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that her fellow party members need to stop fundraising off the repeal of Roe and actually do something. Even Republicans who had spent the last two years peddling the “Dems in disarray” line thought it was a little harsh. “I was surprised at A.O.C. blaming the Democratic leadership,” one G.O.P. aide told me. “I was like, woah.”

But A.O.C. hit on a sentiment that is quietly but widely shared in Washington, especially among Democrats. Even they admit to being in disarray. “What the fuck are we doing?” a Democratic lobbyist fumed. “What the fuck is the D.N.C. doing? I’m on their listserv and I haven’t gotten a fucking thing, have you? Every woman I’ve seen on social media that’s so mad, I’ve seen no link to, hey, here’s where you vote. If this was the G.O.P. side, that whole apparatus would be mobilized. From the Koch brothers to the N.R.A. to big oil, they would be efficiently mobilizing their base right now.” Asked what they expected to see from fellow Democrats, the lobbyist responded, “I think we’re going to see a lot of hashtags, and some rallies, and a lot of useless shit.”

Others felt totally lost and deflated. “People are calling, asking what they should do, and we’re like, Vote? I guess?” one Democratic Senate staffer told me. The end of Roe, after all, returns the abortion battle to the states, replacing a baseline right to reproductive healthcare with a patchwork of restrictions and outright bans arranged atop America’s dichromatic political map. That divide is likely to energize voters in contested purple states where local elections will now be invested with monumental import.

But even people who advise Planned Parenthood told me the organization has little idea—and still fewer plans—for what to do at the national level, other than to fundraise and tell people to vote in the midterms. It’s a call that Democrats themselves know rings hollow. They called on their supporters to vote even though voting in 2018 didn’t stop Mitch McConnell from ramming through Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination in 15 days in a direct reversal of his own doctrine that stole Merrick Garland’s seat in 2016. Democrats voted bigger, better, harder in 2020, got the White House, the Senate, and the House, and it still didn’t get them a Green New Deal, paid family leave, or really much else on their legislative wish list. Nor did it help them, despite the House passing a Hail-Mary bill to codify Roe into law, to save the 50-year-old abortion rights precedent.

It turns out that telling people to vote and vote and vote some more in a system designed for minority rule, and where gerrymandering requires the Democrats to produce bigger and bigger turnout for smaller and smaller margins in Washington, can start to ring a bit hollow. How can you vote and win—and yet still lose so badly? Through the din of rage on social media and spontaneous protest in the street, even the most dedicated Democrats could hear the unmistakable, echoing sound of defeat.

Then Ioffe relates how some Republican consultants (no idea how large ‘some’ is) think abortion isn’t the winning issue, and that inflation and gas prices will be the dominant issues in the fall. Admittedly, what GOP operatives have to say should be taken with a grain of salt: none of them are going to say, ‘we had November in the bag, until abortion screwed us.’ They’re operatives talking their book.

But I think there’s a critical dynamic here: abortion is a huge part of women’s lives, and it’s not just about the percentage of women who’ve had one. At the risk of mansplaining women’s lived experiences, it’s worth walking through this.

Many men, at a visceral level, do not comprehend how much time and energy women between the ages of fifteen and fifty (plus or minus a few years) spend trying to avoid getting pregnant. And I think a large number of women have internalized this crucial behavior to the point where they don’t recognize how much effort they sink into this. It becomes something (or another thing) that just has to be done.

It’s literally a daily exercise if a woman is on the pill, and even if she is using long-term contraception, there still are multiple interactions with the (often annoying at best) healthcare system. Most of the women I know (long-time friends, relatives, or significant others) have had difficulty getting birth control (e.g., traveling or moving, and they to refill or extend prescriptions; having to switch doctors etc.).

Compare this to the experience of a healthy twenty-five year old man–other than a pack of condoms (at most), there’s very little effort or time spent dealing with this*. Again, I’m literally mansplaining what I would hope is obvious. But there are important political consequences here.

If there’s one thing I got wrong during our ongoing COVID pandemic, it’s that I thought the relative immediacy of policy decisions would have more political consequences. That is, a policy decision, such as ending masking, would be experienced only weeks or a couple of months later, and that would affect both policy and politics. This actually is quite different from most policy, where it usually takes a couple of years between enactment and ‘on the ground’ effects.

But with abortion, the effects are already being felt. Women can’t get the healthcare they need, whether it’s abortion or just medication for other illnesses that potentially could harm a fetus, such as medicines to treat rheumatoid arthritis. This is as immediate as it gets, and to return to the mansplaining, it reminds women of all the other ‘biology shit’ they have to put up with. Yes, the economic issues of inflation (and everything else) do matter–I’ve blogged about their saliency many, many times (kinda what I do here…). But abortion now that it is no longer available in many parts of the country seems to me like it could be very salient and not fade, if not to an anti-abortion Republican male political operative.

So maybe abortion is different this time, and despite all of the undemocratic and anti-majoritarian features of our political system, it will affect politics. If it doesn’t, I don’t know what else could.

*This is also one reason why men are less likely to seek medical attention in general: healthy twenty-five year olds don’t really need to see a doctor at all (they should, but they don’t need to do so), so they don’t develop the habit.

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2 Responses to Is Abortion Different?

  1. Elaine says:

    It’s not mansplaining if it’s accurate, and if it imparts an idea or information that may not have been widely disseminated. I wonder how many people have ever thought about what it takes women, in terms of time and effort, to prevent pregnancy? Add in the fact that the religious right, under the pretext of “keeping children innocent” has been working for decades to curtail any meaningful form of sex education. They would rather have women (i.e. girls) get pregnant every couple of years and believe that it is some sort of sacred miracle.

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