Converting abortion into an issue of race

Are opponents of abortion racist?

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Preface - April 6, 2021

     In a September 15 article in The New York Times, “Abortion Has Never Been Just About Abortion,” Thomas B. Edsall writes of an association between racial attitudes and views on abortion.  “Whites who score high on measures of racial resentment and racial grievance are far more likely to support strict limits on abortion than whites who score low on these measures.”  He cites a number of authors who write of this association, although there are terminological differences in the racial attitude variable, which in addition to racial resentment and racial grievance, also is expressed as “ethnocracial exclusion,” “racial animosity,” opposition to the civil rights movement, and opposition to racial integration in schools.

      Because of this association, Edsall suggests, abortion opponents are actually closet racists.  He cites Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth, to this effect: “Opposition to abortion became a convenient diversion — a godsend, really — to distract from what actually motivated their political activism: the defense of racial segregation in evangelical institutions.”

     But the argument that opposition to abortion is closet racial animosity is racial overreach.  Abortion and race are morally and philosophically distinct issues.  The statistical association among respondents between abortion and race does not mean that attitudes with respect to one are a subtle expression of attitudes toward the other. 

     Abortion is a truly complex moral question.  It cannot reasonably be denied that a fetus is potentially a human being, and thus it could be philosophically argued that a fetus is in essence a human being, entitled to all the rights that human beings possess.  But on the other hand, it is morally objectionable, and impossible in practical terms, for the state to emit laws with respect to sexuality and reproduction. 

     This philosophical dilemma is fundamentally distinct from the principle of the equal rights of all, regardless of race, color, or ethnicity; and distinct from the complexities and political conflicts that emerge in the practical implementation of the fundamental moral principle with respect to race.  To conflate abortion and race, as Edsall does, only results in greater confusion.

     In my 1994 book on the African-American movement, I drew upon an insightful 1991 article by Edsall in Atlantic Monthly, co-authored with Mary D. Edsall, “When the official subject is presidential politics, taxes, welfare, crime, rights, or values . . . the real subject is race.”  The article focused on George Wallace, an independent presidential candidate in 1968, who had earned eternal infamy in 1963 by blocking the entrance of black students to the University of Georgia, declaring “segregation forever.”  In his 1968 presidential campaign, Wallace reached out to northern voters, who had less explicitly racist attitudes than southerners, by advocating tough measures with respect to welfare and crime.  Wallace, it turned out, was an amoral political genius.  His success in attaining almost ten million votes and winning five Southern states in the presidential elections inspired Richard Nixon and the Republican party to a “Southern strategy” of adopting conservative messages as a more civil, coded-language for race, thus provoking a regional political realignment of the major political parties.

      It is entirely reasonable to say that Wallace’s discourse was coded racist language.  Wallace had risen in Georgia politics on the basis of an explicit strategy of using more extremist racist language than his rivals.  In 1968 on the national scene, he appeared to be exploiting the perception of most whites that criminals and welfare recipients were black for the most part. 

     But it is quite another thing to claim today that people who are opposed to abortion are really talking about race.  There are a couple of difficulties with this claim.  First, it involves attributing hidden motives, not empirically evident, to people who are expressing views in opposition to abortion.  We must ask, how can a society arrive to consensus and mutual understanding if it is assumed that those with whom one is in conversation mean something other than what they actually are saying?  We need to converse with one another and listen to one another, which means taking seriously what the other person is saying. We should raise the possibility of closet racism only in the case of individuals with a previous history of racism, such as Wallace; and only if it is analytically related to the present conversation.

       Secondly, the phenomenon of race-coded language could be framed differently, as an indication of the decline of racism.  No longer politically acceptable in public discourse, racism was required to go underground.  This has been my view, living and working from 1984 to 2010 in South Carolina.  Racism was slowly but surely in decline, even if not yet gone.  This has been supported by national statistics on racial attitudes during the period.  In the context of a reality of gradually declining racism, accusing a sector of white society of being closet racists is divisive, and it is dysfunctional for attaining the necessary unity of the people in defense of common goals.

     Edsall’s racial overreach in his recent New York Times article obscures the increasing politicization and polarization of the issue of abortion. The article notes that during the last fifty years, there has been growing evangelical conservative opposition to compromising on the issue, compromises that would permit abortion under certain conditions, including damage to the emotional and mental health of the mother.  So the opposing sides have become more rigid in their positions.  And the issue has become increasingly partisan, with Democrats increasingly taking a “pro-choice” position, and Republicans increasingly adopting a “pro-life” position.

    What are the roots of this increasing rigidity, polarization, and politicization of the issue of abortion?  It may be that the phenomenon is best explained, in least in part, by the practices of representative democracy in the USA.  Political strategists are constantly looking for issues to use politically, such as welfare, gun control, and immigration.  When an issue becomes politicized, simplistic and one-sided framing becomes the norm.  Reasonable discussion seeking consensus is pushed from the public discourse, as the people are bombarded with manipulative, simplistic takes from both sides of the issue. 

      Edsall, looking at the issue of abortion with an eye toward identifying residual forms of racism, does not fully see the extent to which the issue of abortion, in its own terms, has been blocked from reasonable resolution by prevailing political strategies.  He therefore does not bring to consciousness a fundamental problem in representative democracy itself, namely, the simplification of complex issues in the quest for political advantage, a process that creates obstacles to political consensus and increases societal polarization.

Previous Commentaries

     A middle road between the extremes on abortion is possible. In Cuba, there is consensual support for the right of women to have an abortion, paid for by the state, as are all medical procedures; with parental permission in the case of minors, which also is true for all medical procedures.  On the other hand, abortions after ten weeks occur only in exceptional cases, because mid-term and late-term abortions are considered detrimental to the physical and emotional health of the woman.  In Cuba, the issue of abortion is framed as a question of personal liberty, exercised by the woman in the context of primarily medical considerations.  At the same time, the option for abortion in the first ten weeks is reduced somewhat in practice by workers’ rights to maternal/paternal leave; by strong extended family structures that provide support for the care of children; and by the existence of a plurality of family types.  Thus, the Cuban approach to abortion is in practice a moderate approach, in that there are medical and social constraints on the recognized right to choose.

      The polarization and simplification that occurs in the United States with respect to abortion and other issues does not occur with respect to social issues in Cuba.  Without the distorting practices of the electoral campaigns of representative democracies, debate is not contaminated by the dissemination of simplistic formulations, which, even in cases of competing opposed one-sided formulations, do not help in enabling reasonable resolution.  In Cuba, all issues are fully and reasonably discussed, with the participation of specialists and interested parties, in the context of the structures of people’s democracy.  Laws in Cuba therefore tend to be accepted by the people as legitimate and are not the sources of division among the people.

     But Edsall does not take us to such reflection concerning abortion as an illustration of the problematic structures of representative democracies.  He points us in another direction, that of the continuing problem of white racism.  We are not led to consideration of how to reform political structures and public discourse, so that reasonable and consensual resolution of complex issues can be attained. 

     Edsall’s conflating of abortion and race distracts us from the difficult questions related to abortion, and it distracts us from critical thought with respect to the political practices of representative democracies.  This serves the interests of the elite in preventing critical reflection on the political practices of representative democracies, for these practices enable it to control the discourse and the political process.

      Edsall is under the spell of recent theories that are anti-racist but not anti-imperialist.  Said theories occasionally mention colonial domination of peoples of color, but only as illustrations of the pervasiveness of white racism, and not for the purpose of understanding colonialism and imperialism.  Today’s anti-racist theories are fundamentally ethnocentric, based on the lived experiences of the black middle class in the United States, abstracting from the larger theoretical/historical/global context.  They have the political objective of promoting the particular interests of the black middle class in U.S. political conflicts.

     In the current civilizational crisis of humanity, the quest for understanding and emancipation must be based, not in the interests of a particular sector in the core of the world-system, but in the struggle of the neocolonized peoples of the world for liberation from domination and superexploitation by the imperialist powers.  In contrast to today’s prevailing anti-racist theories, the three most important leaders of the African-American movement during its awakening of 1955 to 1988 (Malcom X, Martin Luther King, and Jesse Jackson) called for engagement with the anti-imperialist struggles of the peoples of the world. 

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