We Need to Talk About Abortion

There was a political and legal earthquake in the United States this week, in the form of a leaked draft of a majority opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. The opinion, written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, would, if ultimately officially issued by the Court, overturn the constitutional right to abortion and send the issue back to legislatures. It would permit any state in the United States (and possibly even the federal government) to ban abortion entirely or to impose severe restrictions on its availability.

Obviously, this would be a major sea change in American law, where women have had a right to a safe and legal abortion since the Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. And while correlation is not causation, that 49-year period has been a time span that has seen the acceptance of women into every sort of workplace, a dramatic rise in the popularity of women’s sports, and the ongoing liberalization of sexual norms. America is a very different place in 2022 than it was when abortions were often illegal and sometimes hard to obtain.

Roe v. Wade backstopped women as they eschewed the narrow choices of marriage and motherhood that were foisted on previous generations. It provided an insurance policy for women who took advantage of the new opportunities afforded by the sexual revolution: they could now seek sexual partners outside of marriage, and openly have sex for pleasure without having to worry that they would be, in President Obama’s phrase, “punished with a baby.”

This is obviously the major story here. While it was well known that the Republican Party, whose presidents had appointed six of the nine justices on the Court, had deliberately inculcated and selected judges who were likely to seek to overturn Roe, and liberals had long warned that the Court would seek to do this if the opportunity arose, there was something far more real and jarring about actually reading the written words of a Supreme Court Justice, presumably speaking for himself and four of his colleagues, a majority, announcing that Roe would, in fact, be overturned.

And yet, weirdly, the public discussion of this leaked opinion, especially online and on social media, quickly veered off from the upcoming radical societal changes called for by Justice Alito, to other collateral matters. The discourse is just not comfortable discussing abortion.

For instance, you would think that the Right might be celebrating, at least in a low-key way, what looks to be their side’s achievement of one of its central political goals, a whale that their movement has been chasing and attempting to harpoon for decades. But, in point of fact, Fox News and other conservative outlets spent as much time, perhaps more, discussing how outrageous it was that the draft opinion was leaked as they did describing what the draft contained.

To be sure, guessing the leaker is a favorite parlor game of Washington journalists whenever a big leak like this happens and, perhaps because of Twitter, all of us now get to participate in the speculation. Nonetheless, why would conservative media be particularly concerned about this, especially given not only the impending right-wing victory on the merits of the case but also the fact that there is some informed speculation that, actually, a conservative may have improperly leaked the draft opinion?

But it’s not only conservatives who are changing the subject. Over on the Left, facing a generational threat to women’s rights, American liberals wanted to talk about birth control and gay and interracial marriage. This, they said, was just the beginning. Justice Alito and the conservatives on the Supreme Court will not stop at abortion. They are going to ban birth control next and overturn the Obergefell case that required states to recognize same-sex marriages, and even junk Loving v. Virginia, the 55-year-old case that recognized a constitutional right to marry a person of a different race. (This last claim was particularly ridiculous, given that one of the conservatives who signed on to Justice Alito’s draft, Justice Clarence Thomas, is a black man married to a white woman. Apparently, Justice Thomas stands ready to vote to potentially invalidate his own marriage.)

Why does nobody want to talk about abortion? My thoughts immediately landed upon Judd Apatow’s screwball comedy Knocked Up, in which he satirized the trepidation of creators of mass entertainment to even discuss abortion by having Jonah Hill say to a pregnant Katherine Heigl: “I won’t say the A-word, but it rhymes with smashmortion.”

In fact, while, in general, there have been great advances in women’s rights since Roe was decided, in terms of public discussion and depiction of the abortion issue, we went backward. In 1972, the hit sitcom Maude’s titular character had an abortion; the series’ creator, Norman Lear, specifically told the press that he refused to script a less controversial ending, such as having the character have a miscarriage, because he strongly believed a woman in Maude’s position would have an abortion. In 1982, nine years after Roe, Amy Heckerling made Fast Times at Ridgemont High, a comedy about teenage sex that was a huge hit and launched the careers of, among others, Sean Penn. In Fast Times, the main character, a high schooler named Stacy, facing both peer pressure and pressure from her date, has an extremely unsatisfying experience losing her virginity with a guy she barely knows, finds herself pregnant, and chooses to abort.

More recently, however, the dramatic options that were available to Lear and Heckerling have been taken away. There are still many unplanned pregnancy plotlines in mass entertainment, but these pregnancies seem to almost never end in abortion. In Knocked Up, of course, she not only has the baby but also gets the guy in the end. The titular character in Juno, a teenager who, just like Stacy in Fast Times, faces enormous obstacles in having her baby, nonetheless carries the pregnancy to term. In 1991, the title character in Murphy Brown (a 45-year-old star network news anchor who had shown no interest at all in children) got pregnant, and, lo and behold, she had the baby. (Tellingly, the only prominent criticism of this plot arc came from the Right: conservative Vice President Dan Quayle said that it “mocked the importance of fathers” because Murphy chose to have her baby as a single mother.)

We have become really squeamish about discussing abortion. Why might that be? Well, one obvious reason is because discussing abortion requires discussing sex and the reasons women have it. While America has progressed a lot on both sexual liberation and women’s rights, it is a country with Puritan roots. Slut-shaming is still a thing. Indeed, while abortion rights generally poll very well in the United States, the differing responses to specific questions show that judgments about the reason women are having sex are not far from the surface. In a 2018 Gallup Poll, large majorities (up to 83 percent) supported legal abortions when a woman’s life is endangered, the fetus will be born with a mental disability or life-threatening illness, or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. But for “when the woman does not want the child for any reason,” 53 percent of the public said they thought abortion should not be legal and only 45 percent said it should be legal. Americans divide the world of abortion patients into virtuous and less virtuous women and sympathize more with women who need abortion services for the “right” reasons. Those poll results show that some people might indeed want to, in President Obama’s phrase, punish women with a baby.

Now, to give the Right its due, obviously one reason abortion is such a controversial issue is because many people sincerely believe the procedure takes a human life. And while there are some absolutists on the Right (including some who would even prohibit abortion if the woman’s life were in danger or she had been raped), many who identify as “pro-life” are making an argument that, while an abortion in some extreme circumstance may be justified, one should not take human life casually or without an extremely compelling reason.

Nonetheless, I don’t think that fully explains the squeamishness of Americans to discuss abortion. When, in an earlier controversy, conservative groups attacked the mandate that insurance companies pay for contraception contained in the “Obamacare” health care law passed and signed in 2010, liberals in the reproductive rights movement responded by promoting all the other reasons, besides preventing pregnancy, why Americans use birth control: regulating periods, preventing cysts, etc. While, of course, I would never deny that some women do take the pill for these reasons, the fear of the Left, a movement of people who presumably believe in sexual freedom, to openly defend women who take birth control pills so they can have sex says something very profound about the country. If we can’t even talk about that, how can we talk about abortion?

There are also some other specific reasons for the conservative and liberal reactions to the leak of the Alito draft. On the conservative side, there is simply the fact that Roe is popular, and the abortion bans that will take effect in over 20 states if the Court overturns Roe are not. Engaging in a game of “Whodunit” thus allowed conservatives to avoid telling their audiences that American women might be on the cusp of losing important rights.

And on the Left, there is clearly a visceral fear, which liberals come by honestly, that the Right is capable of anything. After all, we didn’t think influential members of one of America’s two major parties would attempt to change the result of a presidential election through forceful means. And, more to the point, there is a belief that the Supreme Court is capable of anything. This has been brewing for some time: in 2000, five justices installed George W. Bush as president and stopped the recount of a contested election based on reasoning that those justices would have never accepted in other cases. In recent times, we’ve seen the Court invalidate the emergency measures intended by President Biden to save people’s lives during the pandemic.

But we must talk about abortion. The threat right now isn’t Supreme Court leaks or a supposed plan to ban birth control or gay marriage in the future. The lives of American women, and the progress that they have made over the last 49 years, are in jeopardy now. And a society that doesn’t like to confront the fact that women want to enjoy their sex lives, that sometimes accidents happen, and that fetuses are sometimes conceived that women neither desire to carry to term nor are in a position to rear, will need to discuss openly whether it really wants to punish women, for the sin of being women, with babies.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2022/05/10/we-need-to-talk-about-abortion/

I’m happy to talk about abortion. I’m 100% in favor of it. I’m not pro-choice - I am pro-abortion.

  1. There are 7,900,000,000 humans in the world. We are procreating our way to destroy the world
  2. Other species have a right to exist. Wolves, lions, giraffes, orangs - all of these are threatened by human over-population
  3. We are running out of space, water, food. The Ukraine war is going to put a crimp in food supplies. People will die.
  4. Family size has always been controlled by the parents. Sometimes this involves exposing the infant, if there are too many, to allow the infant to die. That may be coming back.
  5. Women and men should be able to decide if a pregnancy goes to term
  6. Ending legal abortion is not ending abortion

Abortion is part of the control of human fertility. And, no, contraception is not the answer. Some women can use it, others cannot. Sometimes it does not work. In addition, pro-forced birthers equate contraception with abortion.


We need to rage about abortion no more talking. For too long the pro choice lobby has been on the defensive. “What about rape/incest/life of the mother?” “What about poor women?”

Stop making whimpering excuses & start demanding equality.

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Oh, gosh.

I thought that The Left, the woke crowd, followers of Foucault who like him see pernicious power and dominators everywhere, maybe Simone de Beauvoir - I thought that those folks talked like that.

“Foisted on”? By whom? Yes, marriage choices were pretty darned limited; from what I can tell, each different society (Amazonian tribes, Imperial China) had some wildly different rules, but any individual woman didn’t have much of a choice, if any. So one could say that “society” (or “the system”, government, theocracy, monarchy) foisted marriage upon a woman.

But the part about motherhood? That’s biology, and that was part of woman’s lot for about 99.98% of our species’ history. Who “foisted” motherhood on women? God? Biology? The natural order?

Of course I agree with a point of the author’s - with artificial birth control, especially The Pill, suddenly woman’s lot was drastically, dramatically different than ever before. Mainly, women had a lot more freedom.

But something about motherhood being “foisted” on women, bothers me.

When wild deer or songbirds mate in the woods, is someone or something “foisting” motherhood on the females?

and then

I expect better from a Quillette article than this strawmanning, or this sort of great big blind spot.

Let me answer the first question - why might we be squeamish when discussing abortion - with what seems to me to be an obvious answer.

We’re squeamish about discussing abortion because it’s horrific. If it’s a surgical abortion, those photos of dismembered fetuses, well, they’re awful. And no other method is anything other than very ugly.

To me this author is trying to make a case that just doesn’t fly. That is, that anti-abortion folks are somehow foes of a woman’s freedom, especially her freedom to enjoy sex.

I’m sorry - there are plenty of other reasons people are against abortion. If you really don’t know them, just ask someone who’s against abortion. Or spend 20 minutes reading on the internet.


What an idiotic comment. EVERY SURGERY is horrific to squeamish dummies.

Abortion is a needed technique which is used to control over-population.


A far more obvious reason is because discussing abortion requires talking about when a pregnancy becomes a human life .

Don’t get me wrong, for me abortion as a political issue registers about a 2.0 on my Richter scale. I just don’t care. Early abortions? Whatever. Late-term abortions? I think that’s criminal, by the same reasoning that killing a pregnant woman is two homicides not one.

But, without defining a point or period within pregnancy at which them two gametes become a human being, there can be no discussion. Just yelling and recriminations.


Roe and its related decisions defined the point of life beginning, and the point of the fetus becoming a human being, as the point at which the fetus can become viable, which is about 6 months. This is arbitrary, but there is no “golden rule” in this.

The point of “human life beginning” varies from one society to another. In the Medieval period, infants were exposed after birth and allowed to die if there were too many in a family. During this time, an unwanted infant was a threat to all - there was no welfare or food assistance. Allowing the infant to die meant that the other children would live.

Not in the west, where the population growth is low and decreasing, and a big part of the population increase comes from immigration.
You can castrate the whole west and the world population will keep booming.

What is the connection to equality?

Anyway this dramatic schism was planned, the leak was intended to draw the population’s attention away from Biden’s war spending in Ukraine and the domestic consequences of his sanctions.
The outrage on both sides is cleverly fueled, don’t fall for it people.


An interesting modern notion. In the words of Justice Kennedy in Casey,

“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”

But, as you say, such liberty or freedom as we have only exists within the context of some society which establishes some norms, and serves to protect our kin and friends from our enemies. We simply do not have this unlimited ability to define ‘our own concept of existence.’ A person born male cannot declare itself female in order to become pregnant and experience the joy of abortion. Really it just don’t work that way.


This false point fools many who, like you, do not understand what it actually means. The growth of population is not slowing. Our population has increased, in the past 100 years, by a factor of 4. In Central America, population has increased by a factor of 4 since 1970. Population growth is not slowing.

The only thing that is slowing is the rate of growth. Instead of growing at 4%/year, our population might be growing at 2.5%/year.


This is a simple point. Of course, the swindle about the “slowing rate of growth” is simply a method to fool the rubes and forestall paying attention to population.

We are in the midst of a worldwide population crisis.

And another point: Growth of population by immigration is growth of population.

And a final point: Growth without limit is cancer. Growth is not a good ipso facto. Growth is bad. We have enough.

We need to control growth, not adopt the rationale of the cancerous tumor.


While I am personally pro-choice, I find this article makes a better logical case for revoking Roe Wade than maintaining it, for several reasons. First, revocation won’t change a single law so there’s no immediate jeopardy, and the sooner Americans realize that and calm down the better. All it will do is return to the norm of virtually every other democratic country, namely to decide these matters at the ballot box. The EU embraces far more variation in abortion law by member state than the US ever has, but I’m not aware of any mass protest insisting on uniformity… Second, it will moderate self-styled conservatives, who will pay a hefty electoral price should they try to ban abortion entirely. Third, it will moderate self-styled progressives, who whip themselves into such a frenzy over what might evil the right might do that they want to replace govt by the people with govt for the people.


With the strikedown of Roe, American Conservatives really are the proverbial dog that caught the car. The highly polarized politics of abortion of the last 50 years has led both sides into maximalist positions, where some people favor an abortion-rights regime so expansive that it allows for the killing even of human beings that are living outside the body of the mother, while others insist on denying abortion services even for women who have been raped.

As a practical matter, the Republican party is going to come under particular stress for all the practical ramifications of denying women the power to terminate their pregnancies, even before we get into the politically explosive matter of the maximalist demands of pro-lifers. And watch out if the pro-life movement makes a hard push for their new upcoming majorities in the fall to enact a national federal ban.

This is really likely to roil Red-state politics, in ways that doubtless will be advantageous for Democrats.

It needs to be said, though, that Roe v. Wade is junk jurisprudence and long ago deserved to be scrapped - on the merits. In the abstract, the strikedown of Roe is a triumph for the democratic process (in more senses than one).

Nonetheless the Supreme Court is likely to suffer quite badly as a result of this strikedown, given the particular historical context in which it is happening. Roe itself massively aggravated the politicization of the Supreme Court, and Conservatives mobilized for decades with the explicit aim of getting “votes against Roe” on the bench. They got what they thought were “reliable votes” many times (and it must be said that such a conception of Supreme Court Justices, viz. as partisans who will deliver results as a matter of politics rather than law, is corrupting of the Judicial branch (however much the politicization of the Court has in prior times still been the “norm” for the Court)). But many times Conservatives were disappointed that “their” appointees expressed more independence than Conservatives wanted to see.

The Conservative determination to get reliable votes against Roe on the Court culminated in 2016, in two ways: 1) the theft of President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court pick to replace Antonin Scalia 2) the support they threw behind Donald Trump, who though a Fascist demagogue and vulgarian in the extreme, held out the possibility of stacking the Court with the Justices needed to overturn Roe.

Each of Trump’s nominees to the Court is of questionable legitimacy, both on their own accord and by the very fact that they were appointed by the demagogue Trump, whose legitimacy as president was and is very much in doubt.

So on those considerations alone, the composition of such a Court rendering a narrow, 5-4 decision on an issue as contentious and controversial as access to abortion services, is a fraught matter - especially taken in the context of the marked decline in public support for the Court, in recent years.

But when we add on top of all this the possibility that this incipient ruling was effectively rigged by partisan Republican skullduggery (viz., the leaking of the draft opinion), the backlash against the overturn of Roe could be profound, even radical.


These are all excellent points, and reflect the thinking of liberal goddess Ruth Bader Ginsberg, who long held that Roe was a bad case because it short-circuited political decisionmaking.

Welcome to Q Forum where we discuss things with clarity and do not suffer fools without quibbling.

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This article irritated me if only for being a firm reminder that entertainment television controls the bounds of acceptable political discourse in America more effectively than print.


…I think that over at FOX news they would have no problem crowing about making abortion illegal, spiking the football and all that - if they didn’t fear it fueling the coming political backlash. And they certainly do fear that.

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Wow, easy with that snarkiness mate.
The growth is low in the west, and in some countries the rate of growth is decreasing, and low growth rates combined with increased longevity, lead to aging populations, which in turn pose problems to economies.

The rate of growth does not slow or accelerate, it increases or decreases. (i can be snarky too :stuck_out_tongue: )

Who and why needs to fool the rubes and forestall paying attention to population?
It’s a method to fool the rubes about the inherent shortcoming of capitalist economies who are in constant need of growth.

Perfectly true

Yeah but we started this conversation from the need for abortions to address the population growth.

Couldn’t agree more, but sadly capitalism needs growth, and what capitalism wants, capitalism gets.

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Some thoughts:

  1. If the death of a pregnant mother incurs two counts of homicide then it is clearly already mandated by law that the category “unborn child” exists.
  2. The way in which a woman falls pregnant is vital to the question of whether or not abortion is legitimate.
  3. A trade off in rights between mother and unborn child can be said to exist where abortions are considered. The notion that the unborn child does not exist or that life begins at birth is not consistent with the first proposition.
  4. Some here advocate for abortions on the logic that we are overpopulating the planet, we have scarce food and that global warming is a problem. While all of these concerns are valid and worrying enough, it is not sufficient reason to terminate a life (assuming we believe life begins at conception).
  5. On that point, we may as well assume that life begins at conception. This however does not disqualify us from performing legitimate abortions. I think this just changes the dynamic from “womens issue” (which it no doubt is) to “take a life to save a life” or similar. It is therefore in the same field of debate as something like euthenasia.

and so, those on the left should be downright celebrating… The left has declared the Republican Party to be dead many times already. They are probably right about that. The Republican Party may be nothing more than a cacodemon of its original self. It is dead. And all that is left is a wicked phantasm. But since it is dead, and the only game in Washington is power and not ideas (not even law), then even a zombie party can be “viable”


It seems that nature (and definitely not a Chinese lab in Wuhan) shared your opinion on this matter. We had our chance to welcome the mass death of countless millions of elderly and obese people in the guise of a pandemic that generally spared the otherwise healthy. We balked…