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Why Roe Will Fall And Obergefell Won't
The case for returning the abortion question to politics
There is no question, it seems to me, that abortion is an issue where the burden on women vastly outweighs the burden on men. Up to nine months of carrying and then caring for an infant has no male equivalent. The intervention inside a person’s body is also entirely one-sided. Women alone face this restriction on their control of their own physical personhood. If they do not have control over that, with respect to both men and government, what does having (habeas) a body (corpus) ultimately mean?
The question I’ve often pondered, however, is whether that makes abortion a “women’s issue,” as it has been framed by the pro-choice movement for decades.
If you believe that a fetus is the moral equivalent of a human person, and that a fetus can be male or female, then abortion obviously affects everyone who was once a fetus. That makes it more than a “women’s issue” for many people. Equally, if you believe that biological sex doesn’t exist, and that the fetus cannot therefore be either male or female (the current woke position), then the question also affects everyone.
It’s messier still because no abortion can take place without a male somehow being responsible at some point (I still hold the now-cancellable idea that you need sperm to make babies). And we obviously don’t restrict the franchise to women when it comes to this or any question. In a democracy, majorities of both sexes rule. And it is hard to argue that women are a minority, with full minority rights, when by definition, they’re actually a tiny majority (50.8 percent).
But the most salient evidence that abortion cannot be simply defined as a “women’s” issue is that there is absolutely no consensus among American women about it. Check out the long-term Gallup analysis of views on this question. It shows that a remarkably steady one-fifth of American women want all abortion banned by law. And that proportion has barely budged in 50 years. The other trend-lines in opinion are not quite as stable, but still relatively consistent. Over nearly half a century, the proportion of women who want some legal restrictions on abortion has gyrated between 45 and 63 percent. And the proportion favoring the full-on pro-choice position has wavered between 22 and 36 percent.
So what is routinely presented in the MSM as the women’s position on abortion applies in fact to only around a quarter to a third of women. (The same paradox applies to events like The Women’s March, which coopts all women for the causes supported only by liberal and lefty women.) It turns out that many more of us belong to the deeply conflicted middle than you’d ever surmise from the public debate.
Do women favor legal abortion more than men? Yes — but not by much. The trend-lines look pretty similar over time between the two sexes, with marginally more men favoring some restrictions, and marginally fewer supporting no restrictions at all. How big is the gender gap? Well, it’s not appreciably bigger than those that Gallup records for the validity of same-sex marriage, for example. The cross-tabs from 2021’s Gallup poll show 73 percent support for marriage equality among women and 67 percent among men. And it would be weird to think of marriage equality as a “women’s” issue.
So abortion is not exclusively a women’s issue; and it isn’t a minority rights issue either. But the comparison with marriage equality tells you a great deal more. In the last 50 years, in stark contrast with abortion, the public’s view of marriage for gays has been transformed. In 1975, when the Gallup abortion polls began in the wake of Roe, the gay marriage question was so unthinkable it wasn’t even asked. The first poll on the question — in 1996 — shows just 27 percent support. But by 2021, that’s 70 percent. Compare that with support for fully legal abortion-on-demand: in 1975, it was 22 percent; in 2021, it was 32 percent (but it was down at 25 percent in 2019). One issue has provoked a seismic change of hearts and minds in both parties; the other hasn’t.
Why the underlying substantive difference? Here we have two critical social issues, both decided by the Supreme Court. Both were very influenced by religious views; both defined cultural polarization at one point; both have been used as wedge issues by both sides; and both are tied to questions of unalienable identity, womanhood and homosexuality. So why such disparate outcomes?
First, timing. In Roe, the Court tried to jumpstart a consensus and failed to secure it, with public opinion very similar now to where it was half a century ago. In Obergefell, the Court waited until there was majority support, which arrived, according to Gallup, in 2011, and the Court then validated a still-growing societal consensus four years later.
Second, the unique gravity of abortion. It’s an issue, to many, of literal life and death, and of the ultimately unknowable question of when a human being’s life begins. For many, a wrong answer to this question can result in mass killing. It’s also an issue that affects women far more than men — and the right to one’s own body is about as basic as you can get. Marriage equality, in contrast, contains nothing close to that profundity. No one’s life is at stake. No one’s bodily autonomy is either. And when an issue is as profound as death, when it directly affects a human body, and when it does not concern an easily-outvoted minority, imposing a one-size-fits-all national policy by judicial fiat is doomed to failure … if it cannot, over time, generate sufficient public support.
And it hasn’t. That’s why abortion in all likelihood is headed back to the democratic arena, where it exists in most Western countries. Because it never should have been excluded from it in the first place. Again, it’s not exclusively a women’s issue. It’s not a minority rights issue. There is no national consensus — and none is on the horizon. It’s a moral-political issue, and a deeply complex and difficult one. No answer will satisfy everyone; but some kind of answer can and must be worked out. And if we cannot let liberal democracy work on that kind of issue, and come up with some kind of state-by-state compromise, we’ve essentially given up on liberal democracy itself.
I guess we’re about to see if it really has gone extinct.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: my review of the new Beatles documentary; my reaction to the French presidential ad from right-wing populist Éric Zemmour; a bunch of reader dissents over my stance on the Steele Dossier; continued debate with David Frum over Russiagate; a long and lovely convo with Femsplainers Christina Sommers and Danielle Crittenden on gender and the culture wars; six notable quotes for the week; a dozen pieces from Substack writers we enjoyed this week; an Yglesias Award that reflects poorly on Fox News; a Cool Ad Watch with cute disabled dogs; a Mental Health Break of dubbing the new movie Dune; my conversation with Rob Montz about politics, life, and death; a window view from on high in Brooklyn and another one from a neighborhood in Nantucket; and, as always, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a re-subscriber:
Well, in a time of tight finances and a kid in college, I wasn’t going to renew my subscription. But your column on the media overkill on Russiagate sealed the deal. Sign me up for another year. Since 2000, the Dish has been a welcome respite for other opinions, differing views, and intriguing windows. Hope it continues for another 20.
Another reader asks: “I love your podcast and emails, but how do I give a Dish subscription as a Christmas gift?” Here’s the link — and you can schedule the gift to arrive on any date. Why not also think of my essay collection, Out on a Limb, as a Christmas gift? You can buy and gift it here.
The Tao Of The Beatles
The thrill of Peter Jackson’s epic documentary of the making of the Beatles’ last live performance is that it demystifies something almost never shown in public: how a song comes to be.
(Read my full review here)
New On The Dishcast: The Femsplainers + Frum!
I’ve been meaning to invite Christina Sommers and Danielle Crittenden on the pod since they first had me on theirs, Femsplainers, two years ago. This week we talked about men and women, trans and cis, gay and straight, and they drank rosé and I smoked half a joint, as we did on their pod. For two clips of our conversation — on whether more women staying home during Covid was a good thing, and on how gender nonconformity is often a source of strength — head over to our YouTube page. Listen to the whole episode here.
That link to the pod page also includes a bunch of reader dissents over my views on the Steele Dossier (and even more dissents are below, on this page). Speaking of Russiagate, at the last minute we invited Danielle’s husband, David Frum, to join the Femsplainers episode, because we both wanted to hash out our latest differences over the Trump-Russia media coverage. I think David and I made some progress in finessing where we differ, and why. But you be the judge. Things got a bit heated here:
Looking back to our episode with Steven Pinker, a listener touches on a topic that Christina and Danielle discuss this week:
The Pinker interview was enjoyable and illuminating, and it provided a nice topical break from the heavier, oft-depressing (but nonetheless necessary) political conversations that you typically have each week. I am a center-left Independent, but I have a number of MAGA and MAGA-sympathetic friends. On the issue of Covid, they invariably state the panoply of right-wing canards: masks don’t work, vaccines are unproven and/or dangerous, Covid is not that serious, the death count is overstated because people died from co-morbidities not Covid, etc.
In a handful of our conversations, my friends referenced someone they know who works in the healthcare industry — a hospital administrator, ER nurse, or their own doctor — who told them that the MSM, the CDC/NIH, and the Democrats all are wrong on Covid. Whether my friends really know such healthcare professionals with such opinions (I am willing to stipulate they do), this nevertheless serves as a handy rhetorical device to give them an advantage in our debates: “I know a medical insider who knows the real truth, ergo I am right and you are wrong about Covid.”
A single doctor, nurse, or administrator’s perspective on Covid is anecdotal at best, quackery at worst, and it can’t match the gravitas of the epidemiological and medical community consensus on the disease/vaccines/masks. Listening to the Pinker interview, it struck me that this rhetorical device is likely a fallacy of logic, but I wonder if it has a specific name.
If you ever have your own comment or story related to a Dishcast episode, or want to recommend a future guest, our in-tray is always open: firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There Is No More Time To Reform France”
I embedded Éric Zemmour’s full campaign ad above to show how potent reactionary feelings can be in politics, and how foolish it is to ignore them.
(Read the rest of my take on the Zemmour ad here)
Dissents Of The Week: The Steele Dossier As Straw Man?
Many readers are pouncing on my latest column, “It Wasn’t A Hoax. It Was Media Overkill.” This dissenter looks to a decade ago:
I have two words in response to your condemnation of the media for its breathless, overwrought coverage of the Trump-Russia relationship: Palin’s pregnancy.
Every punch you’ve thrown against MSM figures for unfounded speculation could be said about your 2008 crusade, and then some. The only difference I see is that the media’s hounding of Trump involved a sitting president who refused to come clean about numerous conflicts of interest and clandestine communications with a major geopolitical adversary. On the other hand, your sleuthing of Palin involved the questionable timeline in a mother’s account of precisely when she went into labor.
Yes, Palin was an unqualified fabulist and quack, but to make that point, was Trig’s birth really the most relevant thread to pull? How does that stack up with Russiagate in terms of the public interest or even common decency?
Read my long response to that dissent, along with five other dissents and my responses, here. For more dissents over my views on Russiagate, check out this week’s pod page. As always, keep the criticism coming: email@example.com.
Readers also have two corrections on last week’s column: “It’s the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, NOT ‘Nordstrom pipeline’!” The other: “My grandchildren would shout at you if they could: it’s ‘Peppa Pig,’ not ‘Peppa The Pig’!” Mea culpa.
I sat down with the talented young filmmaker, Rob Montz, to chat about CRT, Trump, immigration, Hitch, and staring grimly into the darkness:
The booger on my beard as I discuss mortality is mwah.
In The ‘Stacks
If you’re new to the Dish, this is a weekly feature in the paid version of our newsletter spotlighting about a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substack writers. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the Thanksgiving culture wars, the generational divides over feminism, and the radical trans lobby in the UK. Below is one example, followed by a brand new substack:
Cathy Young tackles the disturbing right-wing cancellation of Allyn Walker, the academic falsely accused of endorsing child molestation.
The great short-story writer, George Saunders, makes the jump. Welcome!
Go here to browse all the substacks that Bodenner and I follow and read on a regular basis — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? (Hint: An annual event is happening here next week.) Email your guess to email@example.com. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a three-month sub if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for the last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today.
See you next Friday.