There’s much to like about Kate Pickert’s Time cover story (hidden behind a paywall) on abortion rights 40 years after Roe v. Wade. Unlike the majority of big media stories on this issue, this one actually portrays abortion patients accurately, particularly pointing out how most of them are grown adults with children at home and notes the wide range of feminist activism—from fighting for women’s economic rights to promoting contraception access—that actually results in lower abortion rates. Pickert even mentions the phrase “reproductive justice,” a framework that takes a more holistic approach to improving people’s reproductive lives and one that appeals strongly to younger activists, especially activists of color.
Too bad, then, that Pickert portrays the increasing restrictions on abortion access as the result of the failings of the pro-choice movement, a narrative which inevitably leads to blaming pro-choicers for being “hard line,” “tone deaf,” and lacking “nuance.” This is not a new line: Many are fond of telling pro-choice activists they need to be more apologetic about the existence of abortion, but how this strategy is supposed to sell abortion rights to the public is never fully explained. It makes no sense to start pretending that we agree that abortion is murder to better sell it to the public, and it makes just as little sense (again, none) to invite more hypocritical sexual moralizing into the conversation.
And what does “nuance” even mean in the abortion debate? I guess it’s supporting abortion rights for the good girls with the “valid reasons” but not for those dumb sluts who you may have heard use abortion “for birth control.” But there is no policy that can sort the slutty from the chaste (nor would we want there to be), so the entire cultural obsession with policing women’s sexuality ends up leading to more abortions. More liberal countries with fewer obstacles to contraception and abortion consistently have lower abortion rates because of it.
The reason that anti-choicers have been able to encroach so effectively on abortion rights has little to do with the failures of pro-choicers to pander to the public’s perceived unease with women having so much control over their own sexualities. Two-steps-forward-one-step-back is the ugly reality of progressive politics. Civil rights activists successfully litigated Brown v. Board of Education, but after decades of community organizing, conservatives have successfully resegregated the schools without overturning the decision. The labor movement successfully created a unionized America, but conservatives have chipped away at that, too. The fate of progressive activists is to always be fighting for the victories they already won.
But the biggest failure in Pickert’s piece is to frame the pro-choice side as losing, when in the big picture, it’s winning the culture war. Even as anti-choicers have successfully chipped away at abortion access, pro-choicers have made tremendous gains on all other fronts. Pro-choice efforts to increase contraception use have been wildly successful. STD prevention has become a major public health concern, resulting in a vaccine for HPV—and maybe soon a vaccine for herpes. Teen pregnancy is on the decline. The age of first marriage is way up. Pickert describes abortion as the “right heralded as a crowning achievement of the 20th century women’s movement,” but the bigger one by far is the right to vote. As this last election demonstrated, that’s the one that will ultimately defeat the anti-feminist movement’s attempts to turn back the clock on women’s rights.