I found myself unshocked by the abortion vote in Kansas, and I don’t understand the shock of others. America has come to poll consistently in favor of abortion in the first trimester with support declining in the second and cratering in the third. The people of Kansas were asked if they’d like to remove any right to abortion from their state constitution and allow their legislators to fashion new laws and limits. They said no by 59% to 41%.
That margin in a conservative state might have been surprising, but not the outcome. The proposal would have looked to voters radical and extreme: We’re going to sweep it away, immediately? It’s all or nothing? And we’re going to hand all our trust to legislators in hopes they’ll be wise? I have never met an American who confused his state representative with a philosopher king.
In Kansas, pro-lifers asked for too much. People don’t like big swerves and lurches, there’s enough anxiety in life. They want to absorb, find a way to trust. Dobbs was decided only six weeks ago.
And those six weeks have been confusing and chaotic. Nationally, the pro-life movement spent 50 years fighting for something and then, once it won, its leaders seemed to go silent or sound defensive. It’s possible they were attempting to be tactful as opposed to triumphalist, but it left a void and foolish people filled it.
No compelling leader has emerged as a new voice. National energies haven’t been scaled down to state activity. Pro-choice forces, galvanized when the Dobbs draft leaked in May, raised money, spent it shrewdly, drew in talent and were pushed by a Democratic Party that thought it finally had a game-changing issue. Pro-lifers didn’t have an overarching strategy. But everything we know about abortion tells us that when you turn it into a question of all or nothing, you’ll likely get nothing. Thoughtful, humane legislation has to be crafted in the states, put forward, argued for.
The pro-life advocates who filled the rhetorical void competed over who could be most hard-line: There should be no exceptions for rape, if it even was rape. There should be no exceptions for the life of the mother, that gives dishonest doctors room to make false claims. Maybe we can jail women for getting abortions.
It was gross, ignorant and extreme. It excited their followers but hurt the cause they supposedly care about. There was an air of misogyny, of hostility to women. It was, unlike the most thoughtful pro-life arguments of the past 50 years, unloving, unprotective and punitive.
People heard it and thought: No, that’s not what we want.
Moderate, reasoned, balanced approaches will appeal to the vast middle. Arguments over whether women should be prosecuted for crossing state lines to get an abortion won’t.
The public face of the pro-life movement looks at the moment loony and vicious. Last Saturday in Florida,
the Republican congressman and famous idiot, spoke at a student event and said overweight and unappealing women don’t need to fear pregnancy: “Nobody wants to impregnate you if you look like a thumb.” A 19-year-old pro-choice activist then drew his mockery by responding on
and NPR reports that she cannily used the confrontation to raise more than $700,000 for pro-choice causes.
We live in a democracy. The pro-life side rightly asked for a democratic solution to a gnawing national problem. To succeed, they need baseline political skills. You persuade people as to the rightness of your vision. You act and speak in good faith so they trust you. You anticipate mischievous and dishonest representations of where you stand. You highlight them and face them. There has in fact been a lot of misrepresentation of where pro-lifers stand and why, and what their proposals will achieve. You have to clear the air. You can win a lot with candor and good faith. You can impress by being prepared and ready.
Most important, there is a political tradition in democracy that consists of these words: “That’s asking too much.” Don’t ask people for more than they can give. Don’t go too far, don’t lose by asking for a sweeping decision when people will be willing to go step by step. Ask for as much as they can give, pull them toward your vision, but don’t be afraid of going slow and steady, be afraid of overloading the grid. That’s part of what happened in Kansas: They were asked to take a step they thought extreme, and they don’t like extreme.
You have to be clear in explaining how society will arrange itself if you get the measure you asked for. In this case, the pro-life cause, conservatives and the Republican Party have the chance to speak of, laud and increase state and private help for women bearing children in difficult circumstances. The antiabortion movement will never really succeed unless it is paired in the public mind with compassion for the struggling. The Republican Party had the chance to align itself with women. Has it taken it? Or is it too busy talking about “impregnating” those you find unattractive?
Finally, if you are going to be in politics you had better know what your own people are thinking. NBC’s
noted the morning after the vote that turnout in Kansas was high—276,000 Democrats, 464,000 Republicans and 169,000 unaffiliated voters. The number of votes against the abortion amendment was more than 540,000. That means a lot of Republicans voted no. A lot who identify as conservative and live in deep red areas voted no. You have to know where your own people are and build policy and strategy around it.
Because this is a democracy. Policy is decided by votes. Every loss contains the seeds of victory, every victory the seeds of loss. Nothing is permanent.
This is America working it out. Some states will be extreme in one direction, some in the other. It’s going to be ugly for a while. Sweet reason has seldom been a dominant characteristic of combatants in this fight. Too bad, because in the vast middle there’s a lot of it.
A lot of state decisions will likely come down along lines of where national polling has been—15-week bans, exceptions for rape and the mother’s life. In the end we may wind up where Chief Justice
would have put us. The idea in his concurring opinion in Dobbs was to maintain a federal right to abortion while finally granting states broad authority in establishing laws and limits that had previously been prohibited by Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This approach may have restrained the worst excesses of both sides, removed a sense of alarm and helped ease the country into fewer abortions in a post-Roe, post-Casey world.
The Dobbs decision, though, requires something more immediate: true adults in legislatures of all levels, and activists who are serious and have a sense of democratic give. All who fight for life must think about this and be our best selves. Or we will wind up having won all, and lost all.
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