By Jonathan Mitchican
The United States Supreme Court’s recent decision not to stop a Texas law that bans abortions after six weeks from going into effect has generated worry and ire from people you might not expect. The notoriously conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page attacked the law for relying on false premises and flimsy legal tricks that make it more likely to be overturned in the long run, doing more damage to the pro-life movement than helping it. “Sometimes we wonder if Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is a progressive plant,” the Journal quipped in frustration.
Yet in the first few days following the court’s decision, social media was flooded with pro-choice memes and slogans that made it sound like the defeat of Roe v. Wade — if not the end of the world — was imminent. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and the always erudite TikTok became filled with hot takes and soundbites that let us know that “this is all about controlling women’s bodies” because “pro-lifers don’t actually give a damn about children.” The hashtag #TexasTaliban began to trend, making the case that not just the new Texas law but any restriction on abortion is tantamount to the kind of violent repression and mass murder of women and girls that was once a regular feature of life in Afghanistan and is now returning in the wake of American withdrawal. Pro-lifers have been more mixed in their assessment of the new law, but that has not stopped supporters of the law from being just as apoplectic and uncharitable as their pro-choice counterparts. As one tweet put it, “Imagine being upset that you can’t murder a baby after it has a heartbeat.”
Since the 1970s, abortion has lived at the center of the culture wars, and the debate has always suffered from a lack of context. Both pro-choice and pro-life activists have long made a habit out of talking past each other and questioning each other’s motives. This has only intensified in the age of social media when anger and outrage drive revenue, banishing nuance and thoughtfulness in the process. Pro-lifers may say they want to protect the lives of children, but really they hate women and want to subjugate them. Pro-choicers may say they want to protect women from losing their bodily autonomy, but really they hate babies and want to see as many of them executed as possible.
Of course, both sides have a right to try and poke holes in the other side’s argument. For a free society to be healthy, debate on important issues should be encouraged. It is absolutely fair for pro-choicers to question whether a commitment to ending legal abortion without creating better conditions all around for poor women and families is truly helping children, just as it is absolutely fair for pro-lifers to question whether the financial incentives enshrined into law for the abortion industry are more about making certain people rich than about women’s health. But that kind of give and take requires an open and fair exchange of ideas in which both sides argue in good faith, taking the other side at their word when they describe their motivations. Hot take culture crushes all that, making every debate into a zero-sum game in which there is no real engagement with arguments, only mindless competition for political power and social capital. Both women and children lose. Only the rage peddlers win.
It is hard to imagine an issue where the divide is more stark and deeply personal than abortion, but once upon a time there was some acknowledgement that there are things both sides have in common. In 1991, the pro-life writer and activist Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote an article for a conservative think tank in which she said, “There is a tremendous sadness and loneliness in the cry ‘A woman’s right to choose.’ No one wants an abortion as she wants an ice-cream cone or a Porsche. She wants an abortion as an animal, caught in a trap, wants to gnaw off its own leg.” Five years later, Mathewes-Green acknowledged in a column for The Washington Post how surprised she was to see her quote popping up regularly in pro-choice publications:
I realized I had stumbled across one of those points of agreement. We all know that no one leaves the abortion clinic skipping. This made me think that there was common ground, that instead of marching against each other, maybe we could envision a world without abortion, a world we could reach by marching together.
In 1996, perhaps this seemed possible, but is it still possible in 2021? The coarsening of the dialogue in recent years has led to a hardening on both sides. Pro-choice rhetoric has gone from President Bill Clinton’s assertion that abortion should be “safe, legal, and rare” to the “Shout Your Abortion Campaign” which argues that “abortion is normal” and encourages women who have had abortions to celebrate them loudly and proudly.
At the same time, the pro-life movement has vigorously endorsed the notion of “‘pro-life’ judges at all costs.” Other issues of importance for a consistent ethic of life — and especially to Christians — such as war, torture, the treatment of refugees, capital punishment, protection of the family, and even individual liberty can be sacrificed so long as the courts are seen to be tilting in an anti-abortion rights direction. The new Texas law is a product of this mentality, protecting the lives of many unborn children but also creating financial incentives for individuals with no connection to a given abortion to bring lawsuits against anyone they suspect of being involved, including the person who drives a woman to the clinic or even someone in an online forum who offers encouragement.
None of this is meant to be an argument for neutrality or even compromise. As a Catholic and as a human being, I long to see an end to the barbarism of legal abortion which has killed more Americans since 1973 than the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the AIDS epidemic, the COVID-19 pandemic, and every war America has ever fought in combined. But the way to get there will not be through hot takes and straw man arguments. Both sides in the abortion debate will end up destroying themselves and abandoning their ideals if they do not re-examine their own first principles and learn to listen carefully to the arguments of their opponents. There are serious questions which fundamentally divide us and which need to be debated robustly, but we will never have the opportunity to address those questions if we continue to view abortion as just one more rallying cry for us to pick a side, something to click on and share while the corporate barons of our social media dystopia laugh all the way to the bank.