The pro-choice movement is losing the abortion debate

If there’s one reason why people hate engaging in debates with one another, it’s because nobody ever feels understood. As American politics becomes poisoned by toxic polarization, issues have become zero-sum. Beliefs are no longer things we disagree about but are now things we feel threatened by.

Consequently, we have lost the ability to politically empathize, meaning we refuse to step into the shoes of those who believe differently than us. When we have debates, they are two ships passing in the night. No example of this is clearer than our debate about abortion, the most controversial issue in American politics. Everyone has an opinion about it, and yet no one seems to understand anyone else’s.

Take the way the pro-choice movement engages with pro-life arguments on abortion. In response to concerns about the preservation of life, pro-choicers revert back to their key talking points: “If you don’t like abortion, don’t get one.” “It’s a woman’s right to choose what to do with her body.” “Stop interfering with others’ medical choices.”

For those who value autonomy, these arguments make sense since abortion rights seem like a clear priority over the concerns of pro-lifers. But for the pro-life movement, their argument is not that they dislike choice. To them, choice is not in conflict with the position that abortion is fundamentally immoral. Rather, it is about prioritizing the rights of the fetus over the rights of the mother.

To understand how important this distinction is, it’s worth reiterating that pro-lifers think abortion is literally murder. Therefore, to say that women have the right to do what they want with their body is akin to saying they have the right to make choices at the expense of another human life. Choice is a secondary consideration because in their eyes, abortion is a choice that affects not just the mother, but another human life.

This puts the abortion debate in a weird place. Both sides have claimed a monopoly on values: pro-choicers claim to be the gatekeepers of autonomy, and pro-lifers the value of life. The reality is that both sides value the same thing, but are simply prioritizing those values differently.

Now that the deadlock in the abortion debate has been identified, why is this so important to the pro-choice movement?

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For context, the world the pro-choice movement exists in is one where abortion rights are under attack. On the state level, local governments are working to make abortion harder to access. Just this month, Ohio’s governor signed into law a heartbeat bill, which bans abortions the second a fetus has a detectable pulse.

On the national level, the threat to abortion has never been more clear. The Supreme Court is now reliably conservative, meaning the next court challenge to abortion rights could modify or overrule Roe v Wade.

All of this has been made easier by the pro-choice movement’s refusal to take pro-lifers seriously. When anti-abortion activists are able to persuade the public that pro-choicers are missing the point, they’re more able to create buy-in for their movement.

Most importantly, pro-choicers are losing moderates who are undecided on whether they support abortion restrictions. They do this by making the job for pro-lifers extremely easy: what better way to convince others to side with you when you can cast your opponents as condescending and dismissive?

The pro-choice movement is losing the fight because they are losing the argument. Defending choice in a vacuum is no longer persuasive. Instead, they should defend the preference of the woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy to preserve their own autonomy over that of a fetus. Argue ferociously for a woman’s right to evade a physically, mentally and emotionally life-changing process that nobody should have to endure for another human being. Emphasize the importance of being able to choose a career without the economic burden of a child. Scrutinize the patriarchal society that expects women to bear the emotional labor of caretaking.

Arguing abortion as preferring a woman’s right over the fetus is useful because it connects abortion to a presumption we already hold in society: when in conflict, we prefer the rights of the autonomous. For instance, we already accept that murder is acceptable when it protects the rights of others — see the unquestioned right of self-defense.

We also value the rights of the autonomous when limiting their rights could preserve the rights of others. Hospitals can’t repurpose your organs even after you’ve died unless you consent while alive.

These are just some of the many ways the pro-choice movement can directly engage with the pro-life arguments that are dictating reproductive health policy all across the country. To beat them, they must take their arguments seriously and start engaging, even if it means taking a bold stance.