These are admittedly extreme exceptions to my general rule. But does the extremity of our political moment justify pro-life support for a pro-choice presidential candidate?
The passion of much pro-life opposition to Democratic nominee Joe Biden comes from the belief that his election would result in a greatly expanded number of abortions. This assumption, however, has been tested in similar circumstances and found inadequate. The Obama-Biden administration was strongly pro-choice. But the U.S. abortion rate — measured in abortions per 1,000 women ages 15 to 44 — fell in each year of President Barack Obama’s two terms, just as it has fallen along a similar slope each year of Donald Trump’s presidency. One of the most encouraging social facts of our time is that the rate of abortions today is lower than it was when Roe v. Wade was decided.
This does not mean that the policy stance of the president has no influence on the prevalence of abortion. But whatever that influence is, it is overwhelmed by other social factors — some combination of declining births and pregnancies, state restrictions, improved access to and use of contraception (including long-term contraception), and continued public concerns about abortion itself.
Similarly, Trump’s reelection is not likely to substantially reduce the number of abortions beyond current trends. Nominating Supreme Court justices is a formidable presidential power. But there is little indication that the Roberts Court intends to overturn Roe. And even a significant retreat from Roe would leave matters to the states. Most Americans would continue to live under the abortion laws they currently have.
The 2020 presidential election is not an up-or-down referendum on abortion. The actual level of abortions in the United States will be determined mainly by deeply rooted social attitudes and trends. The effect of presidential leadership is more marginal and indirect than advocates on either side recognize. Ultimately, persuasion will matter more than federal regulations. And here, the case for Trump begins to break down. Is it really in the long-term interest of the pro-life movement to associate itself with a form of right-wing populism that dehumanizes migrants, alienates minorities and slanders refugees? Or to tie itself to a political leader who oozes misogyny?
Our political culture tends toward theatrical choices: apocalypse or nirvana. But the next president’s view of abortion will not determine the status of abortion in the United States. And that allows and requires the consideration of other factors in choosing the president.
For some, treating the 2020 election as a referendum on abortion is a way to live with Trump’s moral ugliness. If there is only one issue on the ballot, then only one policy position counts, not Trump’s character as a man and a leader. This has the virtue of simplicity and the drawback of complicity in grave wrongs.
If other matters are allowed to matter, the floodgates open. It matters that Trump engages in bold, systematic and daily deception, to the point of inhabiting a separate, conspiratorial universe of self-serving lies. It matters that Trump has stoked White, suburban fears of dark-skinned invasion and augmented the legitimacy and morale of white supremacy on the political right. It matters that Trump has been a cheerleader for cruelty against migrants and their children and has refused to see a common humanity beneath national differences. It matters that Trump’s administration is shot through with corruption and self-dealing. It matters that Trump sees blue states as part of a foreign and hostile country and seems incapable of serving citizens who don’t show him undivided adoration. It matters that Trump seems inspired by authoritarians and sullies democratic norms like so much Kleenex.
And it should matter — greatly — to pro-life people that Trump has presided over a substantially preventable public health disaster, causing tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths, largely among the ill and elderly.
It dishonors the pro-life cause to make it an inexhaustible permission slip for prejudice, deception and malice. And so I find myself in an uncomfortable but inevitable position: I am pro-life, and I intend to vote for Joe Biden.