Is There Any Situation You Can’t Put “in the Womb”?

The catchphrase that turns any topic into an anti-abortion slogan.

People hold signs saying "choose life" and "both lives matter: mother & baby."
Anti-abortion advocates in Sydney on Aug. 6. Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Early this morning, the Washington Examiner published an essay about abortion and Greta Thunberg. What does one have to do with the other? Glad you asked! According to the headline, “Climate change activists want to save future generations, except in the womb.”

The phrasing was familiar. To anti-abortion advocates, no issue can be more important than their preferred cause. And so, whatever topic may be currently dominating political conversation, they’ve discovered they can seize on it and spin it back toward their preferred argument, simply by adding “except in the womb.” No matter how righteous a progressive cause may sound, a certain segment of the right knows it as self-evident moral hypocrisy, once it’s been enfolded in the all-encompassing womb.

Even so, today’s headline seemed like such a stretch, I decided to Google “except in the womb,” just to see what other left-leaning policies and politicians had been expertly deflated by that exact phrasing. And boy, what a collection of womb-flouting causes I found!

Sometimes, it’s used as a moral trump card to discredit the other side in actual questions of abortion access. Abortion care coverage for Peace Corps volunteers in the field? That’s supporting peace, except in the womb. Opposed to Indiana’s ban on abortions sought due to fetal genetic disorders? That’s celebrating people with disabilities, except in the womb.

But its real power comes when the issue has nothing to do with abortion at all. When Kamala Harris called for stricter gun laws after the Parkland shooting, it showed she cared about children being slaughtered—except in the womb. When Nancy Pelosi condemned Basher al-Assad for killing children with chemical weapons, she said she told her grandson the victims were “children wherever they are”—except in the womb. (Caught up in the logic of the rhetorical maneuver, one of her detractors went on to argue that Assad was merely exercising “freedom of choice.”)

In replies and quote tweets on Twitter, conservatives regularly append the phrase to anything a perceived liberal says that rests on human decency or a shared set of morals. They’ve tacked it onto a March for Our Lives sign that said “I don’t want [kids] to die,” to Rep. Eric Swalwell’s claim that he wants to protect children’s dreams, to Planned Parenthood’s post–Christchurch massacre tweet that said, “we all deserve to live free from fear and violence,” and to many, many invocations of #BlackLivesMatter. All around the internet, “…except in the womb” is the anti-abortion activist’s “…in bed.”

On the right, the womb is a powerful symbol. When invoked in response to calls for justice or political action, it becomes a vessel whose contents deserve greater consideration than the actual people living and dying outside of it. It shuts down appeals to common values: Instead of explaining why it’s worth it to allow kids to die by gun violence so that other people can stockpile assault weapons for fun, conservatives point to the womb as the necessary first stop, or only stop, for people who are true anti-kids-dying advocates. They don’t have to explain their own moral landscape, nor the contradictions therein, if they divert public attention back inside the comfy confines of the uterus.

The ultimate message of “except in the womb” is that no one is allowed to try to change the world for the better until they try to criminalize abortion.

Today’s example, the climate change one, is particularly illustrative of this point, because there would seem to be some overlap in views: Anti-abortion advocates tend to show greater concern for “pre-born babies” than for living children, and on climate change, progressives also care a lot about people who haven’t yet been born. The Washington Examiner piece tries to maneuver around this possible point of agreement, accusing climate justice activists of being “eager to save the planet for the future, but not the future for all originally destined to inherit it.” It’s a strange, defeatist inversion of the right’s own logic: better to potentially sacrifice all life on the planet than to lose some of those potential lives. A barely habitable Earth seems like it would a poor outcome for every part of life—including the wombs.