Abortion down south

May 17 2019

This week’s passage in Alabama of the most severe anti-abortion law in recent American history triggered a flashback. I was back in my sophomore history class at Douglas MacArthur High School in San Antonio. There, at the front of the class, wearing cowboy boots, was Mr. Lightfoot, a stout middle-aged man who, in addition to being a history teacher, was a football coach and a farmer.

This was the year of Roe v. Wade. Mr. Lightfoot explained to the class that the people who think abortion should be legal are people who “want to have their fun and not pay for it.”

What struck me at the time was that this was a pretty grim view of parenthood—child rearing as a kind of decades-long penance for having had sex. What strikes me now is something different: even back then, before America was famously tribal, abortion was a tribal issue.

Mr. Lightfoot didn’t just think the people who disagreed with him about abortion were bad people because they were on the wrong side of that particular morally charged issue. He had a broader picture of their badness; they were people who engaged in or tolerated sexual promiscuity. And this perception, I would guess, only strengthened his conviction that they were wrong about abortion—even though, as a strictly logical matter, the question of whether promiscuity is bad and the question of whether a fetus is a human being aren’t the same question.


I’m not saying this was a crazy connection for Mr. Lightfoot to make. People who favor abortion rights are no doubt, on average, more tolerant of sexual promiscuity than people who oppose abortion rights, and there are discernible reasons for this correlation. So there’s a certain kind of logic behind Mr. Lightfoot’s linkage of the two issues.

Still, such is the power of tribal psychology that such logic isn’t required. If you feel deep antagonism toward one set of positions an ideological group holds, you’re then more likely to react antagonistically to other, wholly unrelated, positions that they espouse; the more you hate the tribe generally, the more you’ll reject its specifics. (Some climate scientists think it unfortunate that Al Gore became the iconic climate change evangelist, because that so prominently labeled climate change a liberal issue, making it that much harder to convert conservative skeptics.)

This means, among other things, that whatever the chances back when I was in high school that people on either side of the abortion issue would change their minds, there’s much less of a chance now. Because the overall intensity of tribal antagonism is, for various reasons, higher.

I guess you could argue that overturning Roe v. Wade—which of course is quite possible now that Brett Kavanaugh has joined the Supreme Court—would dampen tribal antagonism. With states free to set their own abortion policies, pro-lifers in Alabama, say, would no longer feel oppressed by the imposition of liberal values on them.

But it’s also possible that this state-level autonomy could deepen tribal fault lines by rearranging them geographically. After all, pro-choicers in Alabama will feel more oppressed if Roe is overturned. And some may flee. If you’re a liberal high school senior in a state that has conservative laws on abortion—and on other social issues—you’re more likely to choose an out-of-state college. If you’re a liberal looking for a job, you may be more likely to look out of state. Over time, the tribal lines—which now are largely drawn between urban and rural, within both red and blue states—will more and more be drawn between red and blue states.

On the other hand, this deepening of interstate fissures might be averted if Congress, in the wake of a future overturning of Roe, passed pro-choice legislation, standardizing abortion law nationally. And if Democrats are ever in control of both houses of Congress, that could happen.

At this point, I really don’t know where this will all end up. But I do feel fairly confident in making the broader point about the generalizability of ideological antagonism: intense opposition to the other tribe’s position on one issue can make agreement on other issues less likely.

Of course, sometimes intense opposition is in order. But gratuitously antagonistic opposition is all the more to be avoided once you realize that it could harden the opposition’s position on issues across the spectrum. So, I would argue, Democratic Pennsylvania state legislator Brian Sims, whose videotaped harassment of anti-abortion protestors last week sparked a backlash among pro-lifers (see Background item, below) may have, in however small a measure, hardened their position on other issues as well.

The good news, I guess, is that the dynamic can work in reverse: moving toward agreement, or at least civil accommodation, on one issue can make future convergence on another issue more likely by dampening overall hostility just a bit. These days I’m grateful for small things.


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