The Veep's February claim that abortion will end in his lifetime is terrifying. But how realistic is it?
Like many of the people dumped in that weird X-ennial abyss that is the cross-over between Gen X and Millennial, I’m a solid member of the post-Roe generation. Abortion has always been legal in my lifetime and, for most of my childhood it was even remarkably non-controversial. In fact, I was in middle school the first time I even realized there still was an abortion debate when the Rescue movement hit its heyday and put Wichita, Kansas, under siege for almost two months during the Summer of Mercy in an attempt to close all of the clinics in the city. Opposing abortion was something only zealots did: chaining themselves to entryways with bicycle locks around their necks or laying down in the road in front of doctors’ cars.
Now my own daughter is nearly ready for middle school, and according to Vice-President Mike Pence, legal abortion will end in her lifetime. To that I say nope, not a chance of that at all.
The vice-president made the comments about the end of abortion at the Susan B. Anthony List and Life Issues Institute Luncheon in February (SBA List supports anti-abortion candidates for office—especially women, and has recently partnered with Life Issues Institute, a group originally founded by the late Dr. Jack Willke, former president of the National Right to Life Campaign and the original proponent of the idea that rape victims can’t get pregnant). In his address, after praising the work done by “the most pro-life President in American history,” Pence went on to state that, “I truly do believe, if all of us do all that we can, that we will once again, in our time, restore the sanctity of life to the center of American law … I just know in my heart of hearts that this will be the generation that restores life in America.”
While this is the first time the media may have heard this pretty turn of phrase, it actually is a standard talking point Pence uses when addressing anti-abortion groups. He used nearly the exact same words just a month earlier when addressing a private reception for anti-abortion activist leaders before this year’s March for Life, and similar words when speaking at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in June 2017.
Now we know every politician has a good stump speech to trot out when they are among the faithful, and considering that Pence is likely running the entire White House single-handedly at this point, you can’t begrudge him recycling his lines every time he goes to speak to abortion opponents. But the question remains whether he views abortion ending in the next few decades to just be an encouraging way to rally the troops, or if he honestly believes his own words. If he does, it might be time to walk the Veep back from the ledge of his pro-natalist fantasy.
Abortion isn’t going away anytime soon. Abortion as a practice has been around for thousands of years and, as pro–reproductive rights artist Heather Ault depicts in 4,000 Years for Choice, it has always been embraced as another component of the reproductive cycle, just as much a part of her life as giving birth and raising children. In the U.S., abortion was illegal only for about a century. The first state laws making it completely illegal began in the 1860s. By the late 1960s, the laws loosened up again starting first with rape and incest exceptions and then in total legality in a handful of states until 1973 when the Roe v. Wade decision struck down all bans.
Even during the century where it was illegal, abortion was still commonplace, with between 200,000 and 1.2 million estimated illegal abortions occurring just in the 1950s alone according to some experts. Obviously, when Pence says abortion will end in this generation, he’s referring only to safe, legal abortions and not the closeted, illegal, and more dangerous practice of terminating a pregnancy in secret and in fear of prosecution that has always existed when legal options are off the table.
Whatever rhetorical devices he uses, Pence, like most anti-abortion activists, knows abortion is going absolutely nowhere, be it legal or not. Legality, most of them recognize, doesn’t have nearly the impact on whether a person will abort or not as they often like to pretend it does. “Even if abortion is made illegal tomorrow, they’re still going to be happening, so we really have to make abortion unthinkable,” New Wave Feminists’ Destiny Herndon-De La Rosa explained at a March for Life workshop in 2015. “Make abortion unthinkable” is a common refrain from the pro-life movement, who recognize that ending legal abortion would still only be a starting point, and that to actually create a nation with no abortion would mean either a complete cultural shift, a willingness to jail those who self-induce, or some combination of the two.
In truth, it’s a pipe dream even to pretend abortion has any chance of being made completely illegal in the next generation. While abortion access continues to erode faster than the Trump administration’s security clearances, the reality is that while the GOP pays lip service to the so-called “sanctity of life,” they need abortion to remain illegal in order to keep themselves in political power. There would be no Trump presidency today without the threat of a permanent shift in favor of abortion within the Supreme Court to drive the religious right out to cast ballots in 2016. It was a fear of “taxpayer-funded abortion” through a repeal of the Hyde Amendment that drew social conservatives to the polls to vote in favor of a man so woefully unpresidential that he has the country on the brink of two military skirmishes and a trade war all in under 14 months in office (and with a quarter of that time spent on the golf course).
As long as there is still a conflict over abortion the Republican Party knows it can run virtually any candidate, no matter how woefully ill-prepared or inexperienced, and still be reasonably assured that most of their religious voters will back them. Those voters will absolve almost any fault—infidelity, abuse, deception, pedophilia, cronyism, potentially working with foreign countries to undermine democracy—as long as they claim that they will agree to vote against the right to terminate a pregnancy once they are elected. The idea that a political party would willingly give up an advantage like that is ludicrous.
So, while I have no doubt that Pence will continue his flowery promises to his base, I for one will not lose a moment’s sleep over the idea of legal abortion ending at any point in the near future—be it my generation or the next. After all, the GOP knows it has just as much to lose from the end of abortion as reproductive rights supporters do.
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