Guest Post: Should Progressives Make Space for Nuanced Views on Abortion?
by Aly H
First, some housekeeping. When I say “nuanced,” I’m referring to stances on abortion that fall between the “illegal in all” or “legal under any” poles. About half of Americans reject all-or-nothing legal stances on abortion, according to a 2015 Gallup poll. And if you’re a Mormon who agrees with the Church’s position on the matter, then your views also occupy this middle space.
I recognize that there is a lot of variation to be found between the “illegal in all” or “legal under any” extremes. Still, there are a few principles that I think those with nuanced views could agree on:
1) That in at least some cases, women should have the option to access a safe and legal abortion;
2) That at least at some point in a pregnancy, a fetus has at least some rights that ought to be protected; and,
3) That at least in some cases, abortion is a morally complex issue without easy or simplistic solutions.
For the sake of brevity, then, and also because I want to be clear that I’m not suggesting that the left (or anyone, please) should hold space for the kind of hard-right “pro-life” stance that, for instance, actually cares far more about appearing righteous than they do about protecting life, I’m going to use the “nuanced views” phrase for the rest of this post.
So, back to my question: What is the cost of excluding people with nuanced views on abortion—many of whom identify as pro-life—from socially progressive spaces?
This is something that has been on my mind since this very thing happened a few days before the January 21st Women’s March, when organizers went back on a decision to officially include what they called “an anti-choice organization” from the event. The organization that was publicly disinvited, New Wave Feminism, bills itself as “pro-life” and has nuanced views on abortion; and in an official statement addressing the situation, March organizers iterated that the event would be “pro-choice as clearly stated in our Unity Principles,” which (among other things) describes “open access” to abortion.
This decision on the part of the Women’s March irked me for a few reasons.
First, because (right or wrong) the Women’s March—which has been called the largest protest in U.S. history—was seen by many (supporters and opponents) as a unifying and clarifying moment for the left in a deeply divided America. Within this context, the March’s decision to make “open access” the only acceptable view predictably encouraged the kind of false but effective all-or-nothing message that angry, far-right conservativism thrives on: basically, that progressive causes are a package deal that includes a non-negotiable, hard-left view on abortion—take it or leave it.
And second, because it’s 2017, and America has a president who is openly racist and xenophobic, who is reckless and deceptive and self-obsessed and unprincipled. It’s true that many Americans (including Mormons) found all of this either attractive or overlookable. But for many, this unprecedented moment has driven us to engage and resist in unprecedented ways—whether it’s attending our first protest or making our first call to a congressional representative or simply considering certain causes and perspectives with new eyes. These shifts happening in the minds and hearts of many Americans right now are providing a defining opportunity for a left that admits that what they overlooked, ignored, and underestimated cost them the election.
For what it’s worth, the decision on the part of the Women’s March didn’t deter me from participating, mostly because the March was about many issues I care deeply about—from immigration to women’s healthcare (which involves a lot of things) to LGBTQ rights to the environment; and while I don’t agree with every moral stance taken by every one of the loudest voices of the progressive movement, it’s likewise worth noting that I stand with people every Sunday that I don’t always agree with on every moral issue, too. Lots of people who disagree with a hard-left pro-choice stance on abortion still marched. Connecting with people we share convictions with despite our disagreements has value.
At the same time, I get why many were dissuaded by the organizer’s decision to officially restrict the March’s principles to a hard-left pro-choice stance.
And on a larger (and far more consequential) scale, while I voted for Hillary Clinton in the general election, I can understand friends who feel skeptical towards and hesitant to give their full support to candidates or causes with ties to a political party that has removed the word “rare” from their discussion of the need for “safe and legal abortions.”
I’m no political analyst. But I think there’s evidence to suggest that progressives’ hard-left stance on abortion seems to be another byproduct of liberal echo-chamber oversight when polls show that not just most Americans but most people who identify as pro-choice disagree with unrestricted abortion access; when even pro-choice advocacy groups acknowledge that there is a “stark intensity gap” between self-described pro-life and pro-choice voters; and when data indicates that many progressives feel that there’s some disconnect between a hard-left pro-choice stance on abortion and other progressive views they hold. As an October 2016 Slate article described, “On issues from race to sexuality to drug law, Americans are used to seeing each new generation become more progressive than their parents; with abortion, it’s not happening.” Many who support human rights/life find consistency in the belief that “sacred personhood is worth protecting whether it’s tucked inside a womb, waiting on death row, fleeing Syria in search of a home, or playing beneath the shadow of an American drone.”
I wonder if perhaps progressives don’t realize that hard-left ultimatums on abortion don’t just offend white, evangelical, pro-birth-at-any-cost Republican voters, but many self-described pro-lifers who “are skeptical of the [pro-life] movement’s long-held ties to the GOP and the Christian right… [and who instead use] the language of feminism, human rights, and the Black Lives Matter movement to make their case for a new culture of life.”
Some have theorized that a Democratic party that already embraces measures proven to decrease rates of unwanted pregnancies and provide support to low income mothers would “be unstoppable” if they were to make space for nuanced views on abortion. For what it’s worth, as a Mormon from rural Wyoming whose Facebook friends are politically conservative with few exceptions, I see indicators that at least for many Mormons, and especially at this moment when the current administration has diverged dramatically from well-known moral positions of the Church, the left’s pro-choice stance is the last major barrier preventing many from stepping more fully into more progressive spaces.
What do you guys think? Would a willingness to make space for nuanced views on abortion do much to address the Democratic party’s dwindling numbers? Do you think significantly more Mormons would have voted for Hillary if she’d openly advocated that safe and legal abortions also be rare? Or do you sense that the association between progressive causes and a hard-left pro-choice isn’t really deterring all that many people?
 And just saying: unless you are actually pro-“make abortion illegal in every instance” or pro-“open access no matter what,” my take is that the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” labels are generally unhelpful descriptors that predictably invite others to get outraged/entrench/pat themselves on the back rather than engage with a complex moral issue. If you just gotta have a label, “pro-both” is a thing, I just learned.