Pro-Life: A Fiercely Held Moderate Position

The Legal Status of Abortion, Revisited

I’ve talked to Terryl Givens a few times since his article on abortion for Public Square came out. Both of us are disappointed, but not at all surprised, by some of the reactions from fellow Latter-day Saints. I’ll dive into one such response–a post from Sam Brunson at By Common Consent–but only after taking a minute to underscore the difference between an extreme position and a fiercely-held moderate position. 

There’s a reason why the first section in Terryl’s piece is an explanation of the current legal status of abortion in the United States. Unlike many other developed nations, where abortion laws were gradually liberalized through democratic means, the democratic process in the United States was short-circuited by the Roe vs. Wade decision (along with Doe vs. Bolton). As Terryl explained, American abortion law since Roe is an extreme outlier: “America is one of very few countries in the world that permit abortion through the 9th month of pregnancy.”

If the spectrum of possible abortion laws runs from “never and under no circumstances” to “always and under any circumstances,” our present situation is very close to the “any circumstances” extreme. 

In his rejoinder, Sam rightly points out that Roe is not the last word on the legality of abortion in the United States. Decades of laws and court cases–including return trips to the Supreme Court–have created an extremely complex legal landscape full of technicalities, ambiguities, and contradictions.

But the bottom line to the question of the legal status of abortion in the United States doesn’t require sophisticated legal analysis if we can answer a much simpler set of questions instead. Is it true that there are a large number of late-term abortions in the United States that are elective (i.e. not medically necessary or the result of rape) and legal? That’s the fundamental question, and it’s one Terryl unambiguously asked and answered in his piece (with sources):

Current numbers are between 10,000 and 15,000 late-term abortions performed per year… “[M]ost late-term abortions are elective, done on healthy women with healthy fetuses, and for the same reasons given by women experiencing first-trimester abortions.” 

Thus, the key question of the current legal status of abortion in the United States is irrefutably answered. We live in a country where late-term, elective abortions are legal, and we’re one of the only countries in the world with such a radical and extreme position

This radical position is not at all  popular with Americans, as countless polling demonstrates. Here’s Gallup

It is possible to quibble about whether the current regime is logically identical to “legal under any circumstances.” No matter, the present state of abortion legality is so incredibly extreme that we can afford to be very generous in our analysis. Here are more detailed poll numbers:

American abortion law is more extreme than “legal under most circumstances” but even if we grant that we still find that combined support for the status quo is just 38% while the vast majority would prefer abortion laws stricter than what we have now. And stricter than what we can have, as long as the root of the tree (Roe) is left intact. 

How Does A Radical, Unpopular Position Endure?

These opinions have been roughly stable, and so you might reasonably wonder: how is it possible for such an unpopular state of affairs to last for so long? One reason is structural. Because Roe short-circuited the democratic, legislative process the issue is largely out of the hands of (more responsive) state and federal legislatures. Individual states can, and have, passed laws to restrict abortion around the margins, but the kind of simple, “No abortion in the third trimester except for these narrow exceptions” law that they would accurately reflect popular sentiment would inevitably run up against Supreme Court where either the restriction or Roe would have to be ovturned.

As long as Roe is in place, it’s impossible to limit abortion laws. And yet support for overturning Roe, perversely, is very low. Here’s a recent NBC poll:

Here we have a contradiction. Most Americans want abortion to be limited to only a few, exceptional cases. But this is impossible without overturning Roe. And most Americans don’t want to overturn Roe. 

This is the fundamental contradiction that has perpetuated an extremist, unpopular abortion status quo for so long.

The most straightforward explanation is that Americans support Roe while at the same time supporting the kinds of laws that Roe precludes because they don’t understand Roe. And this is where we get to the heart of the responses to Terryl’s piece (and many, many more like his). The only way to convince Americans to support Roe (even though it goes counter to their actual preferences) is to convince them that Roe is the moderate position and that it is the pro-life side that is radical and extreme.

This involves two crucial myths:

  1. Elective, late-term abortions do not take place, or only take place for exceptional reasons 
  2. The only alternative to Roe is a blanket ban on all abortions

If Americans understood that elective, late-term abortions are legal and do, in fact, take place in great numbers and if they understood that they only way to change this state of affairs would be to repeal Roe, then support for Roe would plummet. Thus, for those who wish to support the present situation, the agenda is clear: the status quo can only survive as long as the pro-life position is misrepresented as the extreme one. 

The Violence of Abortion Protects Abortion

With tragic irony, the indefensibleness of elective abortion makes this task much easier. Abortion is an act of horrific violence against a tiny human being. It is impossible to contemplate this reality and not be traumatized. This is why pro-life activists suffer from burn-out. 

It is not just pro-life activists who are traumatized by the violence of abortion, however. The most deeply traumatized are the ones most frequently and closely exposed to the violence of abortion: the abortionists themselves. This is what led Lisa Harris to write “Second Trimester Abortion Provision: Breaking the Silence and Changing the Discourse.” She reports how the advent of second-trimester D&E abortions, which entail the manual dismemberment of the unborn human, led to profound psychological consequences for practitioners when they became common in the late 1970s:

As D&E became increasingly accepted as a superior means of accomplishing second trimester abortion… a small amount of research on provider perspectives on D&E resulted. Kaltreider et al found that some doctors who provided D&E had ‘‘disquieting’’ dreams and strong emotional reactions.

Hern found that D&E was ‘‘qualitatively a different procedure – both medically and emotionally – than early abortion’’. Many of his staff members reported: ‘‘. . .serious emotional reactions that produced physiological symptoms, sleep disturbances (including disturbing dreams), effects on interpersonal relationships and moral anguish.’’

This is the perspective from an abortionist, not some pro-life activist. In fact, Lisa describes performing an abortion herself while she was pregnant: 

When I was a little over 18 weeks pregnant with my now pre-school child, I did a second trimester abortion for a patient who was also a little over 18 weeks pregnant. As I reviewed her chart I realised that I was more interested than usual in seeing the fetal parts when I was done, since they would so closely resemble those of my own fetus. I went about doing the procedure as usual, removed the laminaria I had placed earlier and confirmed I had adequate dilation. I used electrical suction to remove the amniotic fluid, picked up my forceps and began to remove the fetus in parts, as I always did. I felt lucky that this one was already in the breech position – it would make grasping small parts (legs and arms) a little easier. With my first pass of the forceps, I grasped an extremity and began to pull it down. I could see a small foot hanging from the teeth of my forceps. With a quick tug, I separated the leg. Precisely at that moment, I felt a kick – a fluttery ‘‘thump, thump’’ in my own uterus. It was one of the first times I felt fetal movement. There was a leg and foot in my forceps, and a ‘‘thump, thump’’ in my abdomen. Instantly, tears were streaming from my eyes – without me – meaning my conscious brain – even being aware of what was going on. I felt as if my response had come entirely from my body, bypassing my usual cognitive processing completely. A message seemed to travel from my hand and my uterus to my tear ducts. It was an overwhelming feeling – a brutally visceral response – heartfelt and unmediated by my training or my feminist pro-choice politics. It was one of the more raw moments in my life. Doing second trimester abortions did not get easier after my pregnancy; in fact, dealing with little infant parts of my born baby only made dealing with dismembered fetal parts sadder.

This is hard to read. Harder to witness. Harder still to perform. That’s Lisa’s point. “There is violence in abortion,” she plainly states, and the point of her paper is that abortionists, like her, need support to psychologically withstand the trauma of perpetrating that violence on tiny human beings again and again and agin.

Thus, pro-lifers find themselves in a Catch-22 position. If we do nothing, or soft-peddle the true state of affairs, then the pro-choice myths remain uncontested, and misuided public opinion keeps Roe–and elective abortion at any point–safe.

But if we do describe the true nature of abortion then our audienc recoils in shock. Ordinary Americans living their ordinary lives are unprepared for the horror going on all around them, and they are overwhelmed. They desperately want this not to be true. They don’t even want to think about it. 

If you tell someone that your neighbor screams at his kids, they will be sad. If you say your neighbor hits his kids, they will urge you to call the police or contact social services. If you say your neighbor is murdering his children one by one and burying them in the backyard, they will probably stop talking to you and maybe even call the cops on you. Sometimes, the worse a problem is the harder it is to get anyone to look at it. That is the case with abortion.

Terryl’s piece was a moderate position strongly argued. He is taking literally the most common position in America: that abortion should be illegal in all but a few circumstances (but that it should be legal in those circumstances). He never stated or even implied that other, ancillary efforts should not be tried (such as birth control). 

Abortion is a large, complex issue and there are a lot of ambiguous and aspects to it. But not every single aspect is ambiguous. Some really are clear cut. Such as the fact that it should not be legal to get a late-term abortion for elective reasons. Virtually all Americans assent to this. Why, then, was Terryl’s essay so utterly rejected by some fellow Latter-day Saints?

On Sam Brunson and Abortion

As I mentioned earlier, Sam’s response to Terryl is the first extended one I’ve seen and is pretty representative of the kinds of arguments that are typical in response to pro-life positions. It is a great way to see the factors I’ve described above–the myth-protecting and the violence-denial–put into practice. 

Bad Faith

Terryl’s piece includes this line in the first paragraph:

I taught in a private liberal arts college for three decades, where, as is typical in higher education, political views are as diverse as in the North Korean parliament.

This is what is colloquially referred to by most people as: “a joke,” but Sam’s response see it as an opening to impugn Terryl’s motives: 

Moreover, bringing up North Korea—an authoritarian dictatorship where dissent can lead to execution—strongly hints that he’s creating a straw opponent, not engaging in good-faith discourse.

Is a humorous line at the expense of North Korea really a violation of “good-faith discourse”? Did he really not recognize that this line was written humorously? I suppose it’s possible, since he seemed to think the BCC audience wouldn’t know North Korea was an authoritarian dictatorship without being told. Also, he is a tax attorney.

Still, it seems awfully convenient to fail to recognize a joke in such a way that lets you invent some kind of nefarious, implied straw-man argument. 

It almost seems like bad faith.

Facts and the Law

This is the section where the first of the two core objectives (defend the myths) is undertaken. Sam characterizes Terryl’s piece as “deeply misleading” and specifically refers to “big [legal] problems,” yet his rejoinder is curiously devoid of substance to validate these claims. For example:

And, in fact, just last week the Sixth Circuit upheld a Kentucky law requiring that abortion clinics have a hospital transfer agreement. So the idea that abortion regulation always fails in the courts is absolutely absurd.

So Terryl says elective abortions are generally legal at any time and the reply is, well those clinics that can provide the abortion at any time for any reason may be required to “have a hospital transfer agreement”. In what way is this in any sense a refutation of the point at hand? 

It’s like I said, “buying a light bulb is generally legal at any time for any reason” and you said, “well, yeah, but hardware stores can be required to follow safety regulations.”

… OK?

None of the legal analysis in this section gets to the core fact: are late-term abortions frequently conducted in the United States for elective reasons and are they legal? If that is the case, then no amount of legal analysis can obfuscate the bottom line: yes, abortions are legal for basically any reason at basically any time. There’s room to quibble or qualify, but–so long as that central fact stands–not to fundamentally rebut the assertion. 

Sam never even tries. 

That’s because, as we covered above, the facts are unimpeachable. Terryl’s source is the Guttmacher Institute, which is the research arm of the nation’s most prolific abortion provider. It’s an objective fact that elective, late-term abortions are legal in the United States as a result of the legal and policy ecosystem descending from the Roe and Doe decisions. Instead of a strong rebuttal of this claim, as we were promised, all we get are glancing, irrelevancies. 

Moral Repugnance

Having attempted to defend the myth that later-term abortions are illegal, in this section Sam turns to the next objective: leveraging the violence of abortion to deflect attention from the violence of abortion.

He begins by citing Terryl:

I am not personally opposed to abortion because of religious commitment or precept, because of some abstract principle of “the sanctity of life.” I am personally opposed because my heart and mind, my basic core humanity revolts at the thought of a living sensate human being undergoing vivisection in the womb, being vacuum evacuated, subjected to a salt bath, or, in the “late-term” procedure, having its skull pierced and brain vacuumed out.

Then he presents his own pararaphse: “[Terryl] finds abortion physically disgusting and, at least partly in consequence of that disgust, finds it morally repugnant.” 

This is an egregious mischaracterization. I understand that the clause “at least partly” offers a kind of fig leaf so that Sam can say–when pressed–that he’s not actually substituting Terryl’s moral revulsion for a mere gag reflex, but since the rest of the piece exclusively focuses on the straw-man version of Terryl’s argument, that is in fact what he is doing, tenuous preemptive plausible deniability excuses notwithstanding. 

To say that the horror of tiny arms and legs being ripped away from a little, living body is the same species of disgust as watching a gall bladder operation is an act of stunning moral deadness.

I understand that urge to look away from abortion. I wish I had never heard of it. And, as we covered above, even a staunch pro-choice feminist and abortionist like Lisa not only admits that abortion is intrinsically violent, but insists that this violence causes a psychological trauma that merits sympathy and support for abortionists who subject themselves to it. She is not the only one, by the way. Another paper, Dangertalk: Voices of abortion providers, includes many additional examples of the way that abortionists frankly discuss abortion in terms of violence, killing, and war when they are away from public view. “It’s like a slaughterhouse–it’s like–line ’em up and kill ’em and then go on to the next one — I feel like that sometimes,” said one. “[Abortion work] feels like being in a war,” said another, “I think about what soldiers feel like when they kill.”

Given this, Sam’s substitution from moral revulsion at an act of violence to physical revulsion at blood and guts is unmasked for what it truly is: a deflection. Abortion is very, very hard to look at. And that’s convenient for pro-choicers, because they don’t want you to see it.

The reset of this section is largely a continuation of the deflection. 

  • “Why no support for, for example, free access to high-quality contraception?” 
  • “[Y]ou know what I consider disgusting? Unnecessary maternal death.”
  • “You know what else I consider morally repugnant? Racial inequality.” 

I do not wish to sound remotely dismissive of these entirely valid statements. Each of them is legitimate and worthy of consideration. Nothing in Terryl’s piece or in my position contradicts any of them. Let us have high-quality contraception, high-quality maternal care, and a commitment to ending racial inequality. 

But we do not have to stint on our dedication to any of those policies or causes to note that–separate and independent from these considerations–elective, late-term abortions are horrifically violent. 

These are serious considerations, and they deserve to be treated as more than mere padding to create psychological distance from the trauma of abortion. Just as women, too, deserve a better solution for the hardship of an unplanned pregnancy than abortion.

To the Latter-day Saints?

Sam writes that, “Although he claims to be making a Latter-day Saint defense of the unborn, his argumentation is almost entirely devoid of Latter-day Saint content.” Here, at least, he is basically correct. Not that he’s made some insightful observation, of course. He’s just repeating Terryl’s words from the prior quote: “I am not personally opposed to abortion because of religious commitment or precept.”

In this section, which I find the least objectionable, Sam tries to carve out space for Latter-day Saints to be personally pro-life and publicly pro-choice, including a few half-hearted references to General Authorities and Latter-day Saint theology. I say “half-hearted” because I suspect Sam knows as well as I do that President Nelson and President Oaks, to name just two, have spoken forcefully and clearly in direct contradiction to Latter-day Saint attempts to find some kind of wiggle room around “free agency” or to view the lives of unborn human beings as anything less than equal with the lives of born human beings. 

No one should countenance the legality of elective abortion at all, but Latter-day Saints especially so.

The Moral Imagination

In the final section, Sam circles back to the myth-defending. The first myth to defend is that elective, late-term abortions do not take place in the United States, which is just a detailed way of saying that the pro-choice side seeks to conceal the radicalism of our current laws.

The second myth to defend, which occupies this section, is the myth that any alternative to our current laws must be the truly extreme option. 

So in this section we encounter new straw-men such as: “it’s not worth pursuing other routes to reduce the prevalence of abortion.” Terryl never says that, nothing in his article logically entails that, and I know he does not believe that. One can say, for example, “theft ought to be illegal” and also support anti-poverty measures, after-school programs, and free alarm systems to reduce theft. Much the same is true here: one can support banning elective abortion and support a whole range of additional policies to lower the demand for abortion.

Similarly, he writes that “I find abortion troubling as, I believe, most people do. But I also find a world without legal abortion troubling.” That sounds modest and reasonable enough, but it’s another straw-man. The Church, as he noted in the previous section, “has no issue with abortion” in exceptional cases. Neither does Terryl. So the issue is not “a world without legal abortion” because no one has argued for that position. The issue is “a world without legal elective abortion”. Omitting that word is another great example of a straw-man argument.

By making it appear as though Terryl wishes to ban all abortions and refuses to consider any alternative policies to reduce abortions, Sam creates the impression that Terryl is the one with the radical proposal. Except, as I’ve noted, neither of those assertions is grounded in anything other than an attempt to preserve vital myths.


I echo what Terryl originally said: “I do not see reproductive rights and female autonomy as simple black and white issues.” Abortion as a whole is very, very complicated issue legally, scientifically, and morally. There is ample room for nuanced discussion, policy compromise, and common ground. 

But for us to have that kind of a conversation, we have to start with honesty. That means dispensing with the myths that American abortion law is moderate or that abortion is anything other than deeply and intrinsically violent. And it means allowing pro-lifers to speak for themselves, rather than substituting extremist views for their actual positions. 

Because abortion is so horrific, pro-lifers face a tough, up-hill slog. But because it is so horrific, we can’t abandon the calling. We will continue to seek out the best ways to boldly stand for the innocent who have no voice, to balance the competing and essential welfare needs of women with the right to life of unborn children, and to advance our modest positions as effectively as possible.

Fisking Slate’s Non-Review of Gosnell

When Walker saw Slate’s non-review of Gosnell, his response was admirably succinct:

Oh, is Slate Slating again?

Me being me, I went on a smidge longer, and Monica asked me to turn my comments into a post. So, here they are.

Ruth Graham’s hit piece is so by-the-numbers that it serves as a great template for how to dodge an accusation that you really, really don’t want to address head-on. For that reason, even though fisking is usually not my thing, I couldn’t resist in this case. Let’s get started.

Step 1: Be vaguely dismissive

That’s even more impressive considering what the movie is: a gory legal thriller about abortion.

Most readers aren’t going to get past the first paragraph (if they even get past the headline), so you’ve got to lead with something that will effectively change the subject. Characterizing the film as a “gory…thriller” is a masterstroke. It fictionalizes the very real horror of Gosnell’s crimes, putting the film in the genre with the Saw franchise instead of real-crime, where it belongs.

Step 2: Seize the moral high ground

It’s true that many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long. And it’s also true that some of the obstacles Gosnell has faced are plausibly evidence of institutional discomfort with the film’s subject matter.

For the rare readers that make it this far, it’s time to switch to defense in depth. That requires occupying the high ground by giving the appearance of a reasonable concession. The appearance alone is enough to make you seem fair-minded and reasonable, but you don’t want to actually concede anything. This means you can either pick a few innocuous, specific aspects of the accusation or some benign generalities and then make a show of conceding them.

Then, having planted your flag on Mount Moral Superiority, you can then proceed with the rest of the piece as though nothing had happened. You can keep this up even if some of your subsequent points contradict–or at least directly relate to–the faux concession that you led with.

Step 3. FUD as far as the eye can see

In August, he said, executive producer John Sullivan inquired about purchasing a sponsorship spot on Fresh Air. An NPR representative told him he would have to edit the ad copy to call Gosnell simply a “doctor,” rather than an “abortionist” or an “abortion doctor.” But NPR’s own reporters had used the phrase abortion doctor in straight news stories, including stories about Gosnell. Gosnell’s producers ended up pulling the ad. (NPR told the Daily Beast, which reported the claim in September, that “Sponsor credits that run on NPR are required to be value neutral to comply with FCC requirements and to avoid suggesting bias in NPR’s journalism.”)

The more valid the accusation, the harder it is to rebut specifically. So don’t try. Just fall back on good, old-fashioned FUD: fear, uncertainty, and denial. FUD isn’t a rebuttal, which is a based on providing contradictory information, but rather a “disinformation strategy…to influence perception by disseminating negative and dubious or false information.”

In other words, don’t contradict the accusation directly. Just throw up a bunch of stuff that kind-of, sort-of seems to contradict the accusation but really just trail off into suggestive innuendo.

Did NPR request changes to the copy that would have contradicted their own journalistic standards? That’s the important question, and we’re left with the impression that it was addressed… but it wasn’t.

When they struggled to find a distributor, they called it a “media coverup.”

Well… was it? This is what I mean about the fake concession. Graham stated right at the outset that “many media outlets ignored the Gosnell story for too long” and that there is “evidence of institutional discomfort”. Yet here were are, at the very heart of the issue, and those earlier statements have disappeared down the memory hole. Now we’re putting “media coverup” in scare-quotes as though it were some wild-eyed conspiracy theory.

When some theaters dropped the film in its second weekend—not an unusual occurrence—they suggested it was ideologically driven “suppression.”

Is it an unusual occurrence for films that have cracked the top 10 box office to get dropped? Did “some” theaters drop Gosnell, or was it more widespread? All the quantitative information–information that movie reviewer should have at hand–is conspicuously absent here and what we’re left with is one of the most dishonest sections in the entire article.

Step 4. Attack the accuser

This is what we’ve been building up to. In an honest article–one where you actually tackle the accusations head-on–this is just an afterthought. Maybe you get around to supplying an alternative theory and maybe you don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because you’ve already dealth with the accusaion itself. Going after the accuser is optional.

But in a dishonest article like this one, you haven’t really dealt with the accusation at all. And so attacking the accuser isn’t optional, it’s mandatory. In fact, it’s the whole point. Everything else–the moral high ground, the FUD–just lays the groundwork for the real payoff: an ad hominem response.

In 2015, he staged a drama in Los Angeles based on grand jury testimony from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, that suggested the shooting was justified. When some actors in the show requested changes, and others quit, McAleer claimed censorship and requested more donations on his crowdfunding page. When your audience thrives on stories of its own oppression, it’s easy to turn stumbling blocks into stairs.

See? The Gosnell film and all the controversy around it are just a plot to milk an unwarranted martyr-complex for fun and profit. Also: racism. This is an article about conservatives in Slate, after all. We had to get that in there somehow. It’s in their journalistic policies handbook.

Let me wrap up by getting more specific about the “accusation” that pro-choice folks, like Ruth Graham, want to make go away.

You see, the entire Kermit Gosnell situation is basically a worst-case scenario for pro-choice Americans, because it exposes and then explodes basically all of the myths that the American abortion industry is built on top of.

For starters, there’s the humanity of unborn human beings. The pro-choice lobby likes to focus on the early stages of conception because the issues seems ambiguous and they can get away with “clump of cells”-style rhetoric. Gosnell’s penchant for performing “abortions” by delivering live, late-term fetuses and then severing their spinal cords with scissors makes it just how obvious how arbitrary and capricious the whole born/not-born distinction is while simultaneously underscoring the basic humanity of all human beings, even the unborn.

Then there’s the uncomfortable fact of late-term, elective abortions happening in the United States. Folks like Ruth Graham–liberal journalists who have never had to leave the comfort of their warm, cozy liberal womb echo-chamber–like to look to Europe as a breacon of sane, common-sensen social liberalism. And yet, America’s abortion laws are dramatically out of step with Europe’s. As an example, consider abortion in France:

Abortion in France is legal on demand up to 12 weeks after conception… Abortions at later stages of pregnancy are allowed if two physicians certify that the abortion will be done to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; a risk to the life of the pregnant woman; or that the child will suffer from a particularly severe illness recognized as incurable.

A law like this, one that is typical for “liberal” Europe could never be enacted in the United States. Not without overturning Roe v. Wade. The fact that Gosnell could routinely perform late-term, elective “abortions” without running afoul of American laws underscores how extreme the American abortion regime really is. Only a handful of countries in the world have laws that allow abortion as broadly as ours do. Protecting Roe v. Wade isn’t about protecting common-sense, basic feminism. It’s about protecting a radical policy that is wholly out-of-step with the rest of the developed world.

Then there’s the fact that Gosnell operated a filthy shop of horrors while pocketing millions of dollars from his (often poor, desperate) “patients” underscores another major pro-life argument: legal, elective abortions aren’t a way of empowering women; they are a means of victimizing and subjugating them. Pro-choice activists will tell you that legal abortions are safe abortions, but the fact is that Gosnell operated entirely without any competent medical oversight whatosever because any scrutiny could be seen as violating the pro-choice ethos of protecting abortion at all costs, including costs to women’s lives.

For all the talk about abortion empowering women, it is in fact a part of a systematic transfer of all the burden and costs of casual sex onto the shoulders of women without even the compensation of having those frightful costs acknowledged. In the US, we expect women to be sexually available for men no matter what it costs them, and the same people who prop up this misogynistic exploitation want to lecture us about “rape culture.” Rape culture didn’t aid and abett Kermit Gosnell, pro-choice culture did.

And look, if that seems a little too extreme for you, the final fact that Gosnell killed some of his patients (the adult ones) makes it really hard to perpetuate the myth that legal abortions are safe abortions.

These are the accusations that the Kermit Gosnell episode raise. And these are the reasons that pro-choice Americans desperately, fervently want the entire thing to go away. They emphatically don’t want to talk about a major, successful, independent film that draws heavily from transcripts of the court case to bring these issues front and center. So, this is what you do instead. You write a dissembling, dishonest non-review following this playbook and somewhere along the way you manage to change the topic from, “These guys accuse us of bias for sweeping this under the rug” to “These guys are racist profiteers.” Does that answer any of the questions raised by Gosnell or the secondary questions raised by the refusal of the media to cover Gosnell? No, it does not.

It was never supposed to.

On Contraceptives vs. Abortifacients

The political outrage of the moment is the assertion that SCOTUS nominee Brett Kavanaugh thinks that contraceptives and abortifacients are the same thing. HuffPost provides a sample article with the contention that “Kavanaugh] referred to contraception as ‘abortion-inducing drugs.'” and then a quote from the EVP of the Planned Parenthood Action Fund:

Kavanaugh referred to birth control ― something more than 95 percent of women use in their lifetime ― as an ‘abortion-inducing drug,’ which is not just flat-out wrong, but is anti-woman, anti-science propaganda.

This is a convenient narrative for pro-choice activists, who routinely smear the pro-life movement as being motivated by regressive prudery or just an outright “War on Women.” They would have you believe that pro-lifers are out to control women’s reproduction, and therefore pro-lifers oppose contraception and abortion as one and the same thing.

None of this is true.

First, it’s not true that the pro-life movement conflates contraceptives and abortifacients. These are two very different things. Abortifacients act after fertilization to cause the death of an innocent human being. Opposition to this–at least, in elective cases–is the core of the pro-life cause.

Contraceptives, on the other hand, act to prevent fertilization. If there’s no fertilization then no human life is at stake. So the pro-life movement has no relevance here.

It’s true that some pro-life people view contraception as immoral. It’s also true that some pro-life people would like to bring school prayer back. But just because they do, it doesn’t make school prayer a pro-life issue. It just shows that there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who like school prayer. Same concept here: there’s overlap between people who are pro-life and people who view contraceptives as immoral, but opposition to contraceptives (morally or legally) has nothing to do with the pro-life cause because there isn’t a human life directly at stake. 

Second, returning to Kavanuagh specifically: he knows this. Much as Planned Parenthood would like to scare up some more donor dollars by terrifying people with the specter of a crazed misogynist who can’t tell the difference between contraception and abortion, Kavanaugh’s dissent in Priests for Life vs. HHS (which is what Ted Cruz was asking Kavanugh about) makes clear that he is perfectly aware of the difference:

By regulation, that insurance must cover all FDA-approved contraceptives, including certain methods of birth control that, some believe, operate as abortifacients and result in the destruction of embryos.

Page 1 of Kavanaugh’s dissent.

The drug that Kavanugh is talking about is levonorgestrel. In low doses, levonorgestrel is a contraceptive that acts by preventing fertilization. This raises no pro-life concerns. But levonorgestrel is also available in a much higher dosage as the emergency contraceptive Plan B. In this higher dosage–and taken after sex (which is the whole point of an emergency contraceptive)–levonorgestrel may kick in after fertilization has already occurred and prevent an embryo from implanting. This is the scenario that concerns pro-lifers, because once fertilization takes place we have a new, living human being and the entire point of the pro-life movement is that it shouldn’t be legally permissible to electively kill human beings.

So, contrary to Planned Parenthood propaganda, Kavanaugh isn’t attacking all contraceptives. He’s not even attacking all uses of levonorgestrel. In fact, he’s not attacking anything at all.  He’s merely pointing out that “some believe” (i.e. Priests for Life believe) that in this particular case, levonorgestrel may act as an abortifacient and not as a contraceptive.

Is the concern reasonable? Probably.

The question of whether or not Plan B can act as an abortifacient is incredibly controversial because it has to do with abortion, but Wikipedia (with a citation) concludes that “While it is unlikely that emergency contraception affects implantation it is impossible to completely exclude the possibility of post-fertilization effect.”

One last important thing before we wrap up. There’s a lot of sophistry surrounding the issue of whether or not Plan B is an abortifacient. WebMD is a case-in-point:

Plan B One-Step is not the same as RU-486, which is an abortion pill. It does not cause a miscarriage or abortion. In other words, it does not stop development of a fetus once the fertilized egg implants in the uterus. So it will not work if you are already pregnant when you take it.

This is misleading because they’re relying on a technical definition of pregnancy that doesn’t have anything to do with the moral issue at hand. Their argument is that pregnancy starts at implantation rather than fertilization. If Plan B stops an embryo from implanting, then it hasn’t interrupted a pregnancy because technically the pregnancy hasn’t started yet. Therefore it can’t be an abortion, because there is no pregnancy to abort. This is all technically true and yet at the same time ethically irrelevant, since the germane issue is not whether a pregnancy has ended but whether or not a human life has ended. 

Other sources, like NPR, have covered the issue much more responsibly and still conclude that Plan B is not an abortifacient because it doesn’t block implantation, only fertilization. If that is demonstrably proven (my understanding is that the jury is still out) then Plan B will no longer be a pro-life concern.

Ultimately none of this will be persuasive to people who are pro-choice because it seems self-evident that an embryo only a day or so old is not really what we mean by “a human life” even if, speaking scientifically, it is in fact a distinct, living human organism. I understand that, and I’m not going to address that aspect of the debate today.

My point is simply this: Kavanaugh in particular did not conflate all contraceptives with abortifacients and the pro-life movement in general is similarly able to tell the difference between these two very distinct things.

Pro-choice states have just as many unintended pregnancies and far more abortions.

If you’re into a lot of graphs and number crunching, read on. If you’re not, here’s the bottom line: compared to pro-life states, pro-choice states have more insurance coverage of contraception yet have roughly the same rates of unintended pregnancies and much higher rates of abortion.

In early 2015 the Washington Post published the article “States that are more opposed to abortion rights have fewer abortions — but not fewer unintended pregnancies.” Author Aaron Blake notes:

In fact, some of the states that oppose abortion the most also have some of the highest rates of unintended pregnancies — particularly in the South. And on average, the states that favor abortion rights the most have slightly lower levels of unintended pregnancies.

Blake elaborates:

Mississippi, for instance, is the state that opposes abortion rights the most, according to Pew, with 64 percent generally opposing the procedure. It is also the state with the most unintended pregnancies, at 62 percent of all pregnancies, according to Guttmacher. After accounting for fetal loss, about two-thirds of those unintended pregnancies were brought to term.

By contrast, Massachusetts is one of the most pro-abortion-rights states, with just 28 percent of people opposing the procedure. But it’s also on the low end as far as the percentage of unintended pregnancies (44 percent). Far fewer — 43 percent — of those pregnancies were brought to term.

In both his article’s title and text Blake seems to imply a correlation between anti-abortion attitude and higher proportions of unintended pregnancies. This implication seems plausible because Blake focuses on only two data points among all 50 (51 if you count the District of Columbia). In fact if you plot the two states Blake highlights–Mississippi and Massachusetts–you get this graph:

So anti-abortion views mean more unintended pregnancies. The irony!

And yet the only time Blake addresses trends across the whole country, he admits:

On average in the 10 states that oppose abortion the most, 51 percent of pregnancies are unintended. In the top 10 states that most favor abortion rights, it’s 50 percent.

In other words, the two groups hardly differ at all. Out of curiosity I dug up the numbers used to measure unintended pregnancy (from Guttmacher) and abortion opposition (from Pew Research Center). Instead of comparing only the 10 most pro-life states to the 10 most pro-choice states, I looked at all 50 states (and DC). Here’s what it looks like when you don’t cherry pick:

I guess reality was too boring for this WaPo article.

So when you look at the whole data set (instead of only Mississippi compared to Massachussetts, or only the top 10 pro-life states compared to the top 10 pro-choice ones), there appears to be no relationship at all between views on abortion and unintended pregnancy.

I found this lack of correlation interesting. Pro-choicers often claim the best way to decrease abortion is not through outlawing abortion but through better access to contraception. If that theory is true, I would expect the states most open to abortion to also have lower unintended pregnancy rates, because (1) pro-choice states are more left-leaning, (2) left-leaning states are more likely to support better access to contraception, and (3) better access to contraception is supposed to decrease unintended pregnancies and thus abortion rates.

And yet the above graphic suggests that pro-choice states have no lower unintended pregnancy rates than pro-life states. Why is that? A few possibilities jump to mind:

  1. Pro-choice states don’t necessarily have better access to contraception than pro-life states.
  2. Pro-choice states do have better access to contraception, but that doesn’t actually decrease unintended pregnancy rates (and thus abortion rates).
  3. Pro-choice states have better access to contraception, and better access does decrease unintended pregancy rates, but some other factor in those states increases unintended pregnancy rates, thus cancelling the contraception effect.

I decided to dig a bit more. I used the same Guttmacher and Pew Research data linked above for unintended pregnancy info and state attitudes about abortion. To measure state access to contraception I used data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, which outlines which states require coverage of prescription contraception, related outpatient services, and no cost contraception coverage. I also looked at data collected by the National Women’s Law Center regarding which states have contraceptive equity laws (i.e. laws that require insurance plans to cover a full range of contraceptives for women). I assigned each state a contraception score by giving 1 point for each law or coverage requirement, with a maximum of 4 points.

Pro-choice states have more contraception access.

States with zero contraception coverage requirements had an average of 49% of their populations say abortion should be illegal in all or most cases. States with 2 or 3 contraception coverage requirements had 41% and 38% say abortion should generally be illegal. And states with all 4 contraception coverage requirements had only 32% of their populations say abortion should be illegal all or most of the time.

States with more contraception access don’t see lower unintended pregnancy rates.

I then averaged the unintended pregnancy rates for states based on their contraception score and it looked like this:

(There were no states with a score of 1. Every state that had contraception access requirements in place had two or more such requirements.)

The states with the most contraception coverage requirements had the lowest unintended pregnancy rate at 44 per 1,000 women age 15-44. The states with zero contraception coverage requirements had the next lowest rate at 45.95. The states in between–with 2 or 3 contraception coverage requirements–had higher unintended pregnancy rates at 50.25 and 49.08 respectively. In other words there’s no obvious relationship between states’ contraception coverage requirements and their unintended pregnancy rates.

States with less access to contraception have lower abortion rates.

Since I already had the data handy I also compared state contraception access to abortion rates:

The states with zero contraception coverage requirements had the lowest abortion rates at 9.68 abortions per 1,000 women age 15-44. States with 2, 3, and 4 contraception coverage requirements had rates of 14.58, 15.14, and 14.00, respectively.

This result could imply that contraception access actually increases abortion rates, and many pro-lifers try to make that claim. Their theory is that whenever you have a desirable but risky action (sex), the more you lower the risk the more often people will take that action. If people think the risk is lowered more than is actually the case (e.g. if the contraception they’re using or the way they’re using it isn’t as effective as they think), then they may be actually increasing their risk exposure by taking a risky action more often without proportionally decreasing the risk in each instance. This theory is plausible because states with more contraception access do not have lower unintended pregnancy rates. Perhaps these populations lower the risk of a given instance of sex by using contraception but increase their overall risk exposure by having sex more often without using contraception consistently or correctly.

Pro-choice states have higher abortion rates.

Alternatively, perhaps the high contraceptive states have higher abortion rates simply because they are more pro-choice states. Given roughly equal unintended pregnancy rates, we’d expect the populations that support abortion to have higher abortion rates, and the data bears that out.

This trend may be due to social influences. It’s possible that women experiencing unintended pregnancies in more pro-life states experience more pressure not to abort, more encouragement and support to carry their pregnancies, or both, and that women in more pro-choice states experience the opposite. It’s hard to measure how much social pressures influence these decisions.

Either way, though, there’s little doubt that legal restrictions also influence women’s choices. To measure state-by-state legal restrictions, I again turned to Guttmacher. I assigned each state points based on whether they had the following restrictions in place and, if so, to what degree. The potential restrictions include:

  1. Whether the abortion must be performed by a licensed physician
  2. Whether and when the abortion must be performed at a hospital
  3. Whether and when a second physician must be present
  4. Whether and when abortion is prohibited (except life or health of the mother)
  5. Whether partial birth abortion is banned
  6. Whether public funding can be used for most abortions or very few abortions
  7. Whether private insurance has to cover abortions
  8. Whether individuals can refuse to participate in abortions
  9. Whether and when institutions can refuse to participate in abortions
  10. Whether there is mandated counseling regarding either an abortion breast cancer link, fetal pain, negative psychological effects, or any combination of those factors
  11. Whether and how long mandatory waiting must be
  12. Whether parents have to be notified or have to consent to their kids’ abortions

States with more legal restrictions garnered more points with a maximum possible 12 points. Unsurprisingly, there was an inverse correlation between the number of abortion restrictions and the proportion of unintended pregnancies aborted.

Contraception is not a panacea for abortion.

Pro-choice people repeatedly claim that if we truly care about lowering abortion rates we should support pro-choice policies and politicians who promote contraception access. As I’ve written about previously, this theory isn’t backed by the evidence. There’s some research to suggest contraception access–especially access to long acting reversible contraception–can help, but so far the evidence I’ve found continues to show that the abortion rate decreases more when there are more abortion restrictions than it does when there is more access to contraception.

Which decreases abortion rates more? Contraception access or abortion restrictions?

Pro-choicers frequently claim that making abortion illegal won’t decrease the number of abortions; it will only decrease the number of safe, legal abortions. They suggest that there is no practical use to restricting abortion legally and that if pro-lifers really cared about decreasing abortion rates, they would focus on decreasing unplanned pregnancies (through better access to contraception, better sex education, etc.)

So pro-choicers claim.

But there’s a lot of research to show that abortion law affects abortion rates–and not just legal abortion rates, but total abortion rates. Studies often measure the changes in fertility in areas where abortion access recently changed. Secular Pro-Life has compiled a list of such studies if you’re interested.

I’ve now had a few conversations where I point out this reality, and the pro-choice person’s response is to claim that even if abortion restrictions have some nonzero effect on abortion rates, that effect is dwarfed by the decrease in abortions thanks to contraception access. It’s easy for me to believe that both more access to contraception and less access to abortion will decrease abortion rates, and personally I’m for taking both approaches. But the claim that the effect of contraception access trounces the effect of abortion access sounds like just a slightly watered down version of the false claim that abortion access doesn’t affect abortion rates at all. That is, it’s an ad hoc, ill-founded claim to justify our country’s incredibly liberal abortion laws, but the evidence (at least what I’ve seen so far) doesn’t bear it out.

For example, in late 2017 the Daily Mail published “Abortion rate plummets to an historic low, CDC figures reveal.” Specifically the article claims

While the drop mirrors the closure of abortion clinics nationwide, experts say the figure is likely down to more effective use of contraception and the falling pregnancy rate.

The article references this CDC report, which has found a net decrease in the abortion rate (number of abortions per 1,000 women age 15-44) of 22% (from 15.6 to 12.1). This is great news, but it’s not clear from the CDC report the extent to which different factors contributed to the decrease. The CDC authors explain

One factor that might have contributed to this decrease is the increase that occurred during the same period in the use of the most effective forms of reversible contraception, specifically intrauterine devices and hormonal implants, which are as effective as sterilization at preventing unintended pregnancy (102–105). Although use of intrauterine devices and implants has increased in recent years, use of these methods remains low in comparison with use of oral contraceptives and condoms, both of which are less effective at preventing pregnancy (102,104).

So contraception likely played a role, but the CDC can’t quantify it, and they still find that the most effective forms of contraception are not used much compared to the less effective forms. They certainly aren’t asserting that the entire 22% decrease is due solely to contraception access, and their report doesn’t attempt to compare the effects of contraception access to the effects of abortion access.

There are studies that looked at both factors. For example, this Guttmacher report found that between access to the Pill and access to abortion, abortion was associated with a birth rate decrease twice that for the pill.

Among white minors, having had access to the pill was associated with a 9% drop in the overall birthrate and an 8% drop in the rate of nonmarital first births. In this same group, access to an abortion was correlated with a 17% decline in the nonmarital birthrate and a 16% decline in the rate of nonmarital first births.

Another study found that, for women under age 19, “liberalized abortion policy predicts a 34 percent decline in motherhood” whereas “the results do not provide evidence that pill policies had a substantial effect.” The author explains

The birth control pill’s effects on family formation are theoretically ambiguous: The pill was a technological innovation in contraception, but with a failure rate of about 9 percent in the first year of typical use (Trussell, 2004), it still provides an imperfect means of preventing pregnancy. Trends in sexual behavior suggest that any reductions in unintended pregnancies among teens due to safer, pill-protected sex were offset by large increases in sexual activity. Difference-in-difference estimates also provide little evidence to support the view that pill policies had a substantial influence on age at first birth and marriage. Results in Goldin and Katz (2002) and Bailey (2006, 2009) that suggest otherwise are not robust to reasonable perturbations of the authors’ research designs including addressing discrepancies in the legal codings, choosing alternative data sets, and/or adjusting sample selection procedures. Rather, the results robustly point to policies governing abortion, a second, less lauded but more certain means of preventing unwanted births, as the driving force behind delayed family formation in the 1970s. [Emphasiss added]

This study is not a perfect comparison to claims about more modern contraception. The idea is that the most effective forms of contraception (e.g. IUDs instead of the Pill) do a better job of decreasing unintended pregnancy rates because even if users increase their sexual activity as a result, the increase in risk-taking behavior does not offset the decrease in risk these more effective contraceptive methods provide.

Note also that research suggests when abortion is legalized the abortion rate increases more than the birth rate decreases. See Footnote 8 of this report, p8 of the PDF, which explains in part:

Note, however, that the decline in births is far less than the number of abortions, suggesting that the number of conceptions increased substantially –and example of insurance leading to moral hazard. The insurance that abortion provides against unwanted pregnancy induces more sexual conduct or diminished protections against pregnancy in a way that substantially increases the number of pregnancies. [Emphasis added]

People are less cautious about avoiding pregnancy when they know they can get abortions as a back up option. This idea is further substantiated by a study published in the June 2015 edition Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health which concluded:

Women who lived in a state where abortion access was low were more likely than women living in a state with greater access to use highly effective contraceptives rather than no method (relative risk ratio, 1.4). Similarly, women in states characterized by high abortion hostility (i.e., states with four or more types of restrictive policies in place) were more likely to use highly effective methods than were women in states with less hostility (1.3).

This research also suggests that teasing out the effects of abortion access compared to contraception use may prove challenging, since the two appear to be inversely correlated.

So with that brief overview of just a few studies, so far these are the conclusions I’m drawing:

  1. Abortion restrictions decrease abortion rates (and likely also unintended pregnancy rates).
  2. Access to the most effective forms of contraception decrease abortion rates.
  3. Abortion restrictions probably decrease abortion rates more than access to less effective contraception (the pill) does, and
  4. It’s unclear whether abortion restrictions or access to the most effective forms of contraception decrease abortion rates more.

I’m open to other suggestions/studies if you have them.

Gorsuch Would “Walk Out the Door” If Asked to Overturn Roe

President Donald Trump introduces Gorsuch, accompanied by his wife, as his nominee for the Supreme Court at the White House on January 31, 2017. (Public Domain)

The following was an exchange between Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch and Republican Senator Lindsay Graham during yesterday’s marathon confirmation hearings:

Graham: I don’t think there’s any reason to suggest you’re his [Trump’s] favorite. Had you ever met Mr. Trump personally?

Gorsuch: Not until my interview.

Graham: In that interview, did he ever ask you to overrule Roe v. Wade?

Gorsuch: No, Senator.

Graham: What would you have done if he had asked?

Gorsuch: Senator, I would have walked out the door.

This exchange is getting all kinds of coverage, and most of the analysis concludes or strongly implies that Gorsuch’s statement is a commitment not to overturn Roe v. Wade. As one example, here is Sophie Tatum’s take for CNN, where she puts Gorsuch’s statement at the hearing in the context of Trump’s promise to nominate a pro-life judge and then segues into “Gorsuch also defended the value of precedent…” This kind of analysis is making some of my pro-life friends furious and some of my pro-choice friends breathe a sigh of relief, but it’s a misunderstanding of what Gorsuch actually meant.

First, Gorsuch was not rejecting the possibility of overruling Roe v. Wade in particular or of overturning court cases generally. This is pretty clear from ths rest of his statement. After saying, “I would have walked out the door,” Gorsuch paused for a long moment before continuing: “That’s not what judges do.” So what, exactly, did Gorsuch mean here? What is it that “judges [don’t] do” and that would have prompted him to walk out on an interview with the President?

The answer is that Gorsuch is committed to rule of law, and that means that as a judge he is bound to only rule on the merits of the cases actually brought before him in light of the law and the relevant facts. To commit to the President–or to anyone–how he would rule on a hypothetical case that hasn’t even been brought yet is a flagrant violation of the judicial process that would have substituted politics for law. Gorsuch reacted so strongly not because he was defending Roe v. Wade, but because he was defending judicial process. In other words, it doesn’t matter which Supreme Court case Trump had asked about, the answer in any case would have been to “[walk] out the door.” You do not nominate anyone to the Supreme Court as a way of setting policy. You do it as a way of sustaining the Constitution. Therefore, Gorsuch’s reply here tells us absolutely nothing about how he would actually rule in a case involving Roe v. Wade other than that it would depend on the specifics of the case as it was actually argued before the Court.

Second, we still have every indication that Gorsuch is most likely an extremely pro-life nominee. The evidence for this comes from his book The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia. I haven’t read the book, but here are two quotes that I think reveal quite a lot about Gorsuch’s thinking in ways that are directly relevant to abortion. The first comes from a Vox article, I read Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch’s book. It’s very revealing, and it sums up Gorsuch’s argument in the book:

Gorsuch’s core argument in the book is that the US should “retain existing law [banning assisted suicide and euthanasia] on the basis that human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable, and that the intentional taking of human life by private persons is always wrong.”

Right off the bat, this is characteristically pro-life rhetoric. For all that they are derided as merely “anti-abortion,” the pro-life movement is united in opposition to abortion and euthanasia by a commitment to the idea that “human life is fundamentally and inherently valuable.” You simply never hear the pro-choice side use this kind of language.

In terms of logic, the key here is that “human life” is a broad category, and if it is broadened to include unborn human beings, then Gorsuch’s argument against legalized assisted suicide and euthanasia also applies to abortion. This is made clear in the second quote, this one from a New York Times article:

What gives individuals such an inviolable right, he has reasoned, is a status that legal scholars call “constitutional personhood,” defined by the 14th Amendment. Under that amendment, a state is prohibited from denying any constitutional person “life, liberty or property, without due process of law,” and cannot “deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Roe decision expressly excluded human fetuses from that definition. As the court put it in 1973, “the word ‘person,’ as used in the 14th Amendment, does not include the unborn.” But if the Supreme Court were ever to recognize fetuses as constitutional persons, however unlikely that might seem now, then under Judge Gorsuch’s framework, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause would require that they be entitled to the same legal protection as constitutional persons. Laws that prohibit murder thus would have to be extended to them.

Judge Gorsuch has said as much himself. In his book, he wrote, “Abortion would be ruled out by the inviolability-of-life principle I intend to set forth if, but only if, a fetus is considered a human life.” He noted that had the court “found the fetus to be a ‘person’ for purposes of the 14th Amendment, it could not have created a right to abortion because no constitutional basis exists for preferring the mother’s liberty interests over the child’s life.”

The real give-away for me here, again, is Gorsuch’s very broad language. When he talks about “fetus” and “person” we can infer basically nothing, but when he says “if…a fetus is considered a human life“, then we’re talking about language that is interesting in two regards. First, it is deliberately secular/scientific as opposed to philosophical/theological. This is characteristic of Gorsuch’s thinking which, according to a quote from another article at The Atlantic, relies on “secular moral theory” rather than the stereotypically religious grounds common to much of the pro-life movement. What’s more: once we’ve entered that secular/scientific realm, the question of whether or not a fetus counts as “a human life” has an unambiguous, objective, and absolutely conclusive answer: of course it is.

So let’s recap:

  1. Gorsuch’s comment about walking out the door if Trump had asked him to overrule Roe v. Wade was not a defense of Roe v. Wade. It was a defense of judicial process, and it tells us nothing one way or the other about Gorsuch’s views on abortion in general or Roe v. Wade in particular.
  2. Gorsuch’s book opposes legalziation of assisted suicide and euthanasia under an argument that he explicitly states would apply in abortion as well if… the fetus is considered a human life,” in ways that suggest (as science dictates) that this is in fact the case.

Taken together, I’d say that Gorsuch comes across as about the most unambiguously pro-life candidate that you could possibly hope for in someone who has not ruled on abortion cases or made explicit statements about the subject. It’s certainly not open-and-shut. He’s a smart person, and smart person and capable of all kinds of weird, circuitous, unexpected twists and turns in their thinking and philosophy. He  may indeed be pro-choice, but that’s not where I’d lay my money.

Final thought: I listened to parts of the confirmation hearing yesterday, and there was one exchange I have not been able to find (it was either from around 5:20 or around 8:40) when Gorsuch talked about the motivation for his euthanasia book. It came down to concern for the most vulnerable in society: the poor, the disabled, and minorities. Left unspoken was “the unborn,” but it fit so perfectly in that list–and with Gorsuch’s philosophy as I understand it thus far–that it almost didn’t need to be spoken.


Some data on liberal media bias.

Recently I was talking with friends about whether “mainstream media” (the TV, radio, and print media most commonly consumed by people) has an overall bias for leftist viewpoints. One of my friends countered that everyone is more likely to notice bias against their own viewpoints than against the other side’s, and that he has often felt the media was too favorable to the right-wing point of view. Since we were simply swapping anecdotes and personal perceptions, I offered three pieces of information to suggest the media is in fact left-biased:

  1. Conservatives are much more likely than liberals to view the media as biased. – Pew Research Center
  2. Liberals are more trusting of mainstream news sources than moderates or conservatives. – Pew Research Center
  3. People who work in newspapers and print media are almost exclusively liberal. – Business Insider

Some of my friends countered that (1) conservative media strongly pushes the narrative that all others (“mainstream media”) are liberal biased, so that could influence conservatives to be more skeptical, and (2) just because reporters are liberal doesn’t mean they will report with bias. One friend linked me to a study by the progressive, left-leaning policy group FAIR which found that major newspapers, TV, and radio tend to cite centrist think tanks most often, followed by right-leaning think tanks, with left-leaning think tanks coming in last. The idea is that if the media were biased for liberal viewpoints, left-leaning think tanks ought to be cited more often than others, and apparently that’s not the case.

However, the FAIR study relies on FAIR’s evaluation of how left- or right-leaning a think tank is. Given FAIR is a progressive, left-leaning organization, this methodology gave me pause.

Here is a study of media citations of think tanks done slightly differently: the authors did not themselves evaluate whether a think tank was left- or right-leaning. As they describe it:

A feature of our method is that it does not require us to make a subjective assessment of how liberal or conservative a think tank is. That is, for instance, we do not need to read policy reports of the think tank or analyze its position on various issues to determine its ideology. Instead, we simply observe the ADA scores [based on voting records] of the members of Congress who cite it. This feature is important, since an active controversy exists whether, e.g., the Brookings Institution or the RAND corporation is moderate, left-wing, or right-wing.

Under this method, the researchers found a “strong liberal bias” in think tank citation for all outlets they examined except (surprise to no one) Fox News and Washington Times.

But even considering that, I’m not sure how much insight we get from looking at think tank citations. It’s better than no information, but what proportion of news stories even involve citing think tanks?

Instead, here’s a piece from Public Opinion Quarterly that looks at a lot of aspects of media beyond policy groups. The authors conclude that, with the exception of coverage of Republican and Democrat scandals, outlets don’t have a huge divide on how they cover descriptive news (as distinct from opinion pieces).

But notice in particular Figures 2 and 4. In Figure 2 you can see that all the news outlets except Fox produce more left-leaning articles than right-leaning articles (I’m not counting Daily Kos or Breitbart because I don’t think, and neither did these authors, that those are “mainstream” news sources).

Figure 2


In Figure 4 you can see that, over all the outlets, a lot more topics fall below zero (have a left-leaning slant) than fall above zero (have a right-leaning slant). (I tried to count the points myself and I got 75 below zero, 36 above zero, and then a few that looked right on the line.)

Figure 4

The authors rightly point out that there aren’t huge divides on either of these metrics, but on the aggregate it still means nearly all outlets produce net-left-biased content, and I think it has a pretty pervasive additive effect.

And this research was only looking at ideological slant in terms of whether articles were positive or negative toward members of the Democratic or Republican parties. That is valuable information, but I also think that tends to be more obvious bias. I think the aggregate industry-level bias includes obvious bias, sure, but I think it’s more common that bias is more subtle. I would particularly be interested in exploring (1) which stories an outlet chooses to focus on versus others and (2) how they choose to frame issues (as opposed to how they talk about Republicans vs Democrats).

The Public Opinion Quarterly research tried to address #1 by looking at how often different outlets covered different broad categories of topics (and they didn’t find large differences across outlets), but I don’t think that addresses the concern. For example, I have not seen people accuse one outlet or another of just not talking about abortion. It’s about which abortion-related stories they cover and how they talk about the issue. The great reluctance of most outlets to talk about the Kermit Gosnell scandal is a prime example of this. It’s my impression that a whole lot more people have heard of Dr. Tiller, the abortion provider who was murdered by a gun man, than have heard of Dr. Gosnell, the abortion provider who snipped the spinal cords of newborns and was found guilty of murder.

And that doesn’t even get into more subtle language differences, like “pro-choice” versus “anti-abortion” or, worse, “anti-choice,” or like describing a pro-life walk that draws hundreds of thousands of people as being comprised of “thousands,” a downplay of two orders of magnitude. Those are very small details, right? But they add up, and I don’t know of any research that measures this or even how it could–although I think Gallup kind of touched on it when they found that almost everyone, including pro-lifers, underestimated how many Americans are pro-life.

I don’t think the topic of abortion is the exception here. And I think the aggregate bias is pretty clear to, well, most people who aren’t Democrats/leftists. Perhaps you can dismiss the frequent conservative suspicion of the mainstream media as conservatives all being duped by conservative media, but that doesn’t explain why independents have shown similar levels of distrust, or why more than six-in-ten Democratic and independent voters believed most journalists were “pulling for Obama” in 2008.

Profoundly Worth It

This post is part of the General Conference Odyssey.

The talks from the Friday session of the April 1975 General Conference were not messing around. Some of these talks were the most direct, hardest-hitting that I have ever read.

In Faithful Laborers, Elder Dunn described the incredible costs borne by the early missionaries to Samoa, documenting fatality after fatality and concluding:

A price has been paid for the establishment of the gospel of Jesus Christ in the land of Samoa. It is interesting to note that much of that price was paid by little children. I suspect that there are many obscure cemeteries in many of the nations of the world similar to that little plot in Samoa. They are a mute witness to the trials and suffering that went into the beginnings of missionary work in this dispensation.

Up to this point, I was not sure where he was going with what seemed like a fairly typical talk about the sacrifices of those who went before, and how we ought to be encouraged by them, and so forth. But that was not his point at all. Elder Dunn had something much more direct in mind. He described a World War II general who, touring the front, kept asking, “Can you see them?” Finally the soldiers asked him what he was talking about, and the general explained that he was talking about the ghosts of the fallen. “They’re your buddies; they are the ones who gave their lives today, yesterday, and the day before. They’re out there alright, watching you, wondering what you are going to do; wondering if they have died in vain.”

And then Elder Dunn turned this quote—and his earlier stories of men, women, and children who died in Samoa—onto us, his audience:

I wonder, young man, how successful you would be in convincing a young father who had buried three of his babies in an obscure graveyard halfway around the world because of the gospel of Jesus Christ that a mission is too much of a sacrifice because you want to buy that car or that stereo, or you don’t want to interrupt your schooling, or for some other reason.

As members of the Church, I wonder how convincing we would be in telling someone that we are just too busy and maybe just a little embarrassed to share the gospel with our neighbor, especially if that someone were a young father who had buried his bride while on his mission and sent his little girl home to be taken care of by relatives while he finished his service to the Lord.

There is no possible reply to these questions other than to work harder, which is precisely Elder Dunn’s point.

And next we move to Elder Faust’s equally hard-hitting The Sanctity of Life. Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion throughout the nation, was decided in January 1973, and by 1975 the number of abortions was already well on its way to 1,000,000 per year, where it stayed until 2013. It’s always perplexing to me, given the Church’s clear statements on abortion, that you can still find so many Mormons who insist that legal elective abortions—that is, abortion as a method of birth control—are compatible with the Church’s teachings. This is awfully hard to reconcile with the strong language employed in this talk (and several others), where Elder Faust stated that “making it legal to destroy newly conceived life will never make it right. It is consummately wrong.” I was impressed to find that his argument referred to “insurmountable evidence” that unborn children are distinct from their mothers, concluding that

One of the most evil myths of our day is that a woman who has joined hands with God in creation can destroy that creation because she claims the right to control her own body. Since the life within her is not her own, how can she justify its termination and deflect that life from an earth which it may never inherit?

And for those pro-choice Mormons resting their hopes on the separation of private morality from public legality, he states flatly that “These and all others are entitled to a defense in their unborn, natural state of existence.”

Of course it’s possible to argue that the “defense” he speaks of is purely about voluntary persuasion, but that dog won’t hunt. For starters, find me the pro-choice Mormon who is out in front of abortion facilities trying to use persuasion to erect such a voluntary defense. The reality is, the leaders have done all but spell out in black and white: “elective abortions should not be legal,” and if they took that last step and did spell it out, so what? Pro-choice Mormons would ignore that, too.

And now we come the last talk of the session, Elder L. Tom Perry’s moving tribute to his wife, titled simply, A Tribute. I don’t like tributes, generally speaking. I don’t like it when folks bear their testimony of their spouses or friends over the pulpit instead of testifying of Christ. I confess I don’t even like the frequent statements of brotherly love between the apostles. Call me a grumpy old man if you must, but the best I can muster for these tributes is begrudging tolerance.

Elder Perry’s talk was in a different category. Not just because it was particularly moving, although it was, but because his tribute was an exemplar of gospel teaching. I have had to give a blessing telling someone that it was OK for them to go. It took me two tries, however, because I was too afraid to say the words the first time. I cannot imagine having to say them in a blessing for my own wife, as Elder Faust did.

And yet, this is how he concludes:

“And it shall come to pass that those that die in me shall not taste of death, for it shall be sweet unto them.” (D&C 42:45–46.)

I understand this scripture now as never before. Even though there is great loneliness without her, her passing was sweet because of the way she had lived.

In tribute to her today, I recommend to you her way of life. I watched service consume pain. I witnessed faith destroy discouragement. I have seen courage magnify her beyond her natural abilities. I have observed love change the course of lives.

This was the hardest week for me yet to keep up with the General Conference Odyssey I helped to launch. I’ve never finished the talk, written my own piece, and published the post all so late in the day. I have only an hour to spare.

But—hard as it was for me to accomplish the goal this week—it was profoundly worth it.

Check out the other posts from the General Conference Odyssey this week and join our Facebook group to follow along!

White women and Trump.

Photo from “9 Women on Why They’re (Still) Voting for Trump,” New York Magazine

53% of white women voted for Trump.

In the circles I run in, there was tons of coverage and discussion about the myriad comments Trump has made over the years that many of us consider blatantly sexist. When the Hollywood Access tape came out, I took (and still take) his comments as an admission of sexual predation, a topic that means a great deal to me. I was already a #NeverTrump conservative, but the Hollywood Access tapes made it much more difficult for me to understand how people of good conscience, especially women, could vote for this man.

My feed started to include articles such as The Atlantic’s “The Revolt of the Conservative Woman” and viral tweets from conservative women feeling betrayed by their party’s defense of Trump. Between his apparent gross disrespect of women and the opportunity to elect the first female president, I thought women would vote in droves for Clinton and against Trump. Article’s like FiveThirtyEight’s “Women are Defeating Donald Trump” seemed to think so too.

But clearly I was missing some major parts of the puzzle. (Apparently a lot of us were, including the pollsters.) As Walker pointed out recently, Trump’s support among (all, not just white) women was only slightly lower than the average for Republican presidential candidates since 2000 (42% compared to an average of 44.2%). Clinton’s support among women was exactly average for the Democratic presidential candidates since 2000 (54%). Women weren’t driven to the polls to vote against Trump or for Clinton—overall turnout among women was only 1% higher than in 2012.

So what happened? What pieces of the puzzle was I missing, that women were neither particularly repelled by Trump nor particularly inspired by Clinton?


Maybe it was bigotry.

Predictably, some of my leftist friends think the missing puzzle pieces are racism and (internalized) sexism. I’ve seen repostings of LV Anderson’s piece at Slate (“White Women Sold Out the Sisterhood and the World by Voting for Trump”), which is filled with explanations like this:

What leads a woman to vote for a man who has made it very clear that he believes she is subhuman? Self-loathing. Hypocrisy. And, of course, a racist view of the world that privileges white supremacy over every other issue.

Sarah Ruiz-Grossman at Huffington Post authored a letter to white women that started with “Fellow white women, I’m done with you.” In sync with a lot of the commentary I’ve read, it showed no curiosity as to the perspectives, hopes, fears, or values of millions of women that led them to vote for Trump (or at least not vote for Clinton). Instead, and again, it simply told them what they didn’t care about, what their moral failings were, and what they must do now.

While I appreciate the frustration, I think this approach is an awful strategy. Lambasting people, especially conservatives, for bigotry has not been terribly effective at changing their minds (or votes). Berating the other side seems to mostly get them to tune out entirely when the inevitable accusations of prejudice begin. And the rampant shaming of Trump supporters clearly did nothing to dissuade them throughout the primaries (when shaming was coming from conservatives and liberals alike) or the rest of the election. Why would it work now, when they’ve won? They have less reason than ever to be concerned about the opinions of people who show no understanding of their perspectives or interest in their wellbeing.

But it’s not just that I think accusing people of bigotry is poor strategy; I think it’s poor reasoning too. In this post I go through three theories of how voting for Trump was bigoted and explain whether I think those theories make sense.


Theory 1 – Internalized sexists: women voted for Trump instead of Clinton because they are sexist against female candidates.

How Trump measured against Clinton is a major factor. The pantsuit nation adored Clinton, of course, so for them this was no contest at all. But we aren’t looking into what HRC’s biggest fans thought; we’re exploring the millions of women who disagreed.

It’s not that everyone who voted for Trump thought he was wonderful: exit polls show that 20% of people who voted for Trump had an overall unfavorable opinion of him. Nearly a quarter of Trump voters said he wasn’t qualified for or did not have the temperament to be president, and a full 17% of people who voted for Trump to be President said they would be “concerned” if he were elected!

But 28% of Trump voters said they chose him mainly because they disliked Clinton. Trump received about 60M votes, which would mean about 17M cast their votes primarily as a vote against Clinton. Along the same lines, while voter turnout for Trump was slightly lower than it had been for Romney, voter turnout for Clinton was much lower than it had been for Obama.

Some will argue that these numbers show sexism: people so rejected the idea of a female leader they either stayed home or voted for someone they despised just to stop Clinton. Actually women get accused of sexism no matter which way they vote: Women who backed Clinton are accused of bias, just “voting with their vaginas,” and the rest of us are accused of not voting for her because we’re misogynists. It’s a lose-lose.

But these theories ignore the fact that women don’t generally vote based on gender, and gender stereotypes end up being less relevant than party affiliation in voting decisions. In other words, we vote based on political positions. The reality is that most of the women voting for or against Clinton did so based on a variety of competing concerns and priorities, just as most men choose their candidates.


CNN reported that millennial women in particular “rejected the notion that gender should be a factor in their vote.” As FiveThirtyEight put it:

Clinton’s stunning loss Tuesday night showed that issues of culture and class mattered more to many American women than their gender. The sisterhood, as real sisterhood tends to be, turned out to be riddled with complications.

On average, for the last 5 presidential elections, 89% of Democrats chose the Democratic nominee and 91.4% of Republicans chose the Republican. Last week 89% of Democrats chose Clinton and 90% of Republicans chose Trump. If internalized sexism were a major factor in terms of female nominees, we’d expect 2016 to show a drop in Democrats voting for the Democrat (as internally sexist Democratic women abandoned Clinton) and perhaps even a jump in Republicans voting for the Republican (as internally sexist Republican women were motivated to stop Clinton). But there was no such change.

Similarly, if internalized sexism was a major factor we’d expect Clinton to get a lower proportion of women’s votes compared to previous Democratic nominees. Yet, as mentioned above, she got exactly the average proportion of women Democratic nominees have had in the last five presidential races. Or, if we’re operating under the idea that only conservatives can be bigots, we’d at least expect a higher proportion of women to vote for Trump in order to stop Clinton. Yet Trump got just slightly less than the average proportion of women Republican nominees have had for the last five races.

If anything, these stats suggest women weren’t influenced by gender at all.


Theory 2 – Indifference to sexism: women cared more about party lines than taking a stand against Trump’s misogyny.

There are several assumptions embedded in this line of thinking: (A) The women who voted for Trump accessed the same information we did about him. (B) When they assessed that information, they came to the same conclusions we did about the degree of Trump’s misogyny. (C) There was nothing else in the balance for them in this election that could have meant more to them than Trump’s misogyny.

2a. Trump voters were likely accessing different information.
Hopefully it’s not a secret that conservatives and liberals consume different media. I wish I had time to do an entire blog post on how drastically this impacts our views of each other and of our political landscape. But the main point is we should be very careful when assuming that everyone else—especially people that run in different social circles and already hold different perspectives—“knows” the same “truths” we know. Which stories get reported and how they’re described varies a lot, and sadly, at least in my experience, most people don’t look for sources from worldviews they don’t hold. Or, if they do, it’s not in an attempt to observe and understand, but to feel outraged and argue.

So when John Oliver does a witty, biting piece on “making Donald Drumpf again” and you see it reposted over and over, that doesn’t mean everyone saw it. The people who already hated Trump were a lot more likely to see it than anyone else. Late night comedy is, after all, a bastion of liberal derision.

Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver
Pictured: Echo Chamber with John Oliver

2b. Trump voters were likely interpreting information in different ways.
That’s not to suggest Trump supporters were wholly unaware of criticisms against him. I think it’s unlikely, for example, that many Trump supporters didn’t at least hear about the Hollywood Access recording. But the context in which conservatives in general, and enthusiastic Trump supporters specifically, interpreted that was often quite different than how leftists saw it.

Many people (including me) were disgusted and horrified by Trump laughingly talking about getting away with kissing and groping women without their consent. But many others mostly heard politically-motivated faux outrage. The same people so focused on Trump’s comments and the sexual assault allegations against him remained dismissive or defensive about the long history of sexual misconduct and assault allegations against Bill Clinton—and Hillary Clinton’s role in silencing Bill’s accusers. Clinton fans retorted that Hillary isn’t responsible for Bill’s behavior, but that misses the point. She’s responsible for her behavior: she referred to these women as “floozy,” “bimbo,” and “stalker,” and put great effort into “destroying” their stories.

Yeah, okay.
Yeah, okay.

Good luck telling conservatives they must take a principled stand against sexual assault while refusing to acknowledge that the Clintons basically embodied rape culture.


Of course the Hollywood Access tapes are only one example of Trump’s sexism, but the pattern remains the same. Whatever example you point to, if outraged accusations of bigotry are coming from leftists or the media, conservatives are extremely skeptical. In fact, getting back to point 2a, conservative circles are more likely to have articles about people who made up stories of hate crimes – stories which, before being shown to be false, often caused viral online outrage (as well as extensive donations to the alleged victim).

I find this problem very frustrating. I do believe the left is too quick to claim bigotry, but I believe the right is therefore too quick to dismiss actual bigotry. Robby Soave of summarized this view well:

[It’s] the boy-who-cried-wolf situation. I was happy to see a few liberals, like Bill Maher, owning up to it. Maher admitted during a recent show that he was wrong to treat George Bush, Mitt Romney, and John McCain like they were apocalyptic threats to the nation: it robbed him of the ability to treat Trump more seriously. The left said McCain was a racist supported by racists, it said Romney was a racist supported by racists, but when an actually racist Republican came along—and racists cheered him—it had lost its ability to credibly make that accusation.

Kirsten Powers explained the same idea in terms of misogyny:

After all, these same voters have watched as every Republican candidate in recent memory has been accused of waging a “War on Women.” If Democrats are going to claim that Mitt Romney and John McCain hate women (and they did), then they shouldn’t be surprised when voters ignore them when they say Donald Trump hates women. If every Republican is a misogynist, then no Republican is.

I don’t believe the right’s resistance to recognizing bigotry is all the left’s fault. I think that’s a factor, but ultimately we’re all responsible for assessing each situation and trying to be fair-minded about it.

Even so, I think many conservatives viewed the outrage over Trump as nothing more than yet another chapter in a long history of selective and manufactured leftist outrage, and so they discounted it. So even if they had watched John Oliver, they probably would have just rolled their eyes at another leftist show mocking conservatives again.

2c. Trump voters were weighing a lot of additional concerns apart from bigotry.
But there were a lot of conservatives who heard about the problems with Trump and were seriously concerned. Many of them became the #NeverTrump crowd, but others still voted for Trump. Why? Because they weren’t balancing the problems of racism and sexism against nothing. They were taking those issues and factoring them in with a lot of other issues, weighing each one, and coming to a decision. Even women who voted against Trump had other concerns they considered more important than sexism.

Many reject as ridiculous this concept of weighing multiple factors, saying it’s a weak excuse to try to cover up bigotry. They assert nothing could outweigh the civil rights threats Trump represents, and therefore the people who came down on Trump’s side, by definition, just didn’t care enough about civil rights.

Keep lecturing people about what they don’t care about while showing no understanding of what they do care about. That’s been so effective so far.

Interestingly, I saw the same reductive thinking from conservatives trying to berate #NeverTrump people into voting for him. If you didn’t vote for Trump—if you voted for Clinton, or even if you voted third party—you must not care about massive government abuse and corruption, our country’s impending economic collapse under an overregulated welfare state, and, possibly above all, the killing of tens of thousands of babies.

Does that last part sound hyperbolic to you? Because, for a huge portion of the pro-life movement, that was the assertion. Many pro-lifers view abortion as morally equivalent to any other unlawful human death. If you want to imagine the abortion debate from a pro-life perspective, just replace the concept of “fetus” with “toddler,” and listen to how the arguments sound. So when Hillary Clinton campaigned on a platform of no restrictions through all three trimesters and requiring Medicaid to cover abortions, that was an absolute deal breaker for many people. Abortion happens in this country roughly 1 million times a year. Imagine for a moment you were choosing between (1) a candidate who stirs racial animosity and blatantly disrespects women and (2) a candidate who unapologetically embraces policies making it legal to murder a million toddlers a year. Who would you pick?

If your first response is to explain why that second description is false, you’re missing the point. Yes, I understand that for many, abortion is nothing at all like killing a toddler and even the comparison is offensive. I’m not trying to convince anyone here how to feel about abortion. I’m trying to convince people that you can’t sincerely talk about what motivates others if you refuse to acknowledge their actual perspectives. People who voted for Trump could (a) recognize Trump’s racism and sexism, (b) care greatly about those issues, and (c) still believe the threats Clinton represented were more dire. The only way you can genuinely believe that every single vote for Trump represented at minimum a callous disregard for civil rights is if you ignore or dismiss the circumstances and value systems of millions of people.


Passion about abortion likely affected many of women who voted for Trump. LV Anderson was aghast that more than half of white women would vote for a man who said he’d appoint Supreme Court justices to overturn Roe v. Wade. It is amazing to me that so many people are still taken off guard when women are antiabortion. Half of American women are against abortion, and that has been true since long before Trump entered the primaries. Yet each time thousands or millions of women don’t go for the pro-choice position, pro-choice people are just so surprised. This is another example of the same pattern: be totally unaware of what people have repeatedly said they care about, and then be surprised and angry when they vote for the things they said they cared about all along.

I’ve used abortion as an example of competing values, but it’s only one of many. A recent New York Times article profiled women who voted for Trump. While 22-year-old Nicole Been mentioned her deep opposition to abortion as part of her stance, other women discussed Trump’s approach to veterans, their own dire financial situations, and their disillusionment with Democratic efforts to improve their lives. Another New York Times article profiled college-educated women who voted for Trump; they, too, opposed abortion, but focused more on economic security and job and college prospects for their children.

Article after article about the parts of the nation that went wholeheartedly for Trump (including many counties that had previously voted for Obama twice) describe recurring themes of economic and cultural despair, resentment at being derided by the rest of us, and the way economic and racial anxiety intertwine. (Here’s one or two more.)

Note that racial anxiety is one of the recurring themes. The left seems to want to reduce this narrative to bigotry and nothing more, and I’ve spent a lot of time here explaining why I think that’s inaccurate. But the right seems to want to reflexively deny bigotry had any part to play, and I don’t think that’s true either. At minimum there was certainly a racial component to Trump’s candidacy. Looming large in the support of Trump were concerns about minority groups getting unfair preferential treatment and resources, immigrants taking resources and increasing criminal activity, and terrorists threatening our safety.


Theory 3 – Institutionalized sexism and racism – regardless of personal motivation, women who voted for Trump supported a platform that would disproportionately harm minority groups.

A major hurdle with discussions of racism and sexism is the use of the same words to mean very different things. In my right-leaning circles, “racism” generally means an individual’s disdain or animosity towards others based on race. Same thing with “sexism,” but based on sex. In my left-leaning circles, “racism” and “sexism” often mean individual disdain or animosity, but can also mean cultural norms and systemic and institutionalized systems that disproportionately negatively impact minority groups.

So when someone claims that a vote for Trump was racist, they could either mean (a) the person casting the vote has disdain or animosity toward people of other races or (b) the person casting the vote, regardless of his or her motivations, helped to uphold systems that have major negative impacts on women and nonwhite people.

The interesting thing about the “effects not intentions” version of racism is that it can be empirically verified. Motivations can be pretty complicated, multifaceted, and irrational. Effects can be objectively measured. So if “racism” (or sexism or Islamophobia or homophobia) is defined as “policies and practices that hurt these groups,” and if electing Trump ends up hurting these groups, then it follows that electing Trump was racism, by this definition.

3a. It’s reasonable to believe electing Trump will end up hurting these groups.
Trump campaigned on ending sanctuary cities, suspending visas, and deportation. If implemented, those policies would disproportionately affect undocumented immigrants (about half of which are Hispanic or Latino, followed by Asian) as well as American citizens from families with mixed citizenship statuses. Whether you agree with these policies or not, and whether you personally care how these policies affect others or not, it’s hard to deny that they will negatively impact immigrants and their family members who are American citizens.

Trump has talked about requiring immigrants from predominantly Muslim countries to register upon entering the U.S.  Alternatively he called for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the country; while he clarified this would not apply to American citizens, it’s hard to believe such policies and related rhetoric about Muslims won’t affect public perception of and reaction to Muslims already living here. The FBI has released data showing a 67% increase in hate crimes against Muslims in 2015. Some are worried this trend is related to Trump’s rise and campaign rhetoric; others say there are other factors–such as 2015 terrorist attacks–that likely played a part. But I think either of those reasons underscores the central point: when the public increasingly perceives a group as dangerous, violence against innocent people in that group becomes more likely.

It seems like Trump’s potential effects on African American communities have been less of a focus, but there are reasons for concern. (This link includes some reasons I think conservatives will dismiss as more faux outrage, but, for what it’s worth, I believe some of these points are pretty valid.)

While Trump didn’t propose specific policies against LGBT folk, the 2016 Republican Party platform did object to legalized gay marriage and take other positions seen as anti-gay. Because Trump was the Republican nominee and can now nominate SCOTUS judges, many believe he will work to adopt those Republican positions. I think it’s unlikely gay marriage will get overturned, but I don’t think it’s a certainty, and I see why many people are worried their marital status could be threatened.

Trump has a history that suggests a pretty disrespectful view of women, not to mention (again) his statements in the Access Hollywood recordings. To the extent women believe support for Trump signals societal dismissal of sexual assault, that belief could have another chilling effect on women reporting assaults and seeking help. I watched this play out on both the national level and with women I know personally after the Access Hollywood firestorm. Women (and men, for that matter) who have experienced sexual assault listened as friends and family who were Trump supporters minimized, dismissed, and, in my opinion, very generously interpreted Trump’s statements. That was difficult. Victims of sexual assault hear those reactions and believe the reactions would be the same if they came forward with their own stories. I can understand why people fear this kind of dismissal of sexual misconduct will only get worse now that Trump will be president.

A vote for Trump lent support to these policy proposals and attitudes, even if the person voting didn’t personally support one or any of the above. In this sense I think Theory 3 is truer than the other theories—I think a Trump administration will very likely make life harder for these groups.

3b. First problem: negative effects count as racism regardless of what they’re being weighed against.
Consider Trump’s campaign regarding Islamic terrorism. I do believe requiring (mostly) Muslim immigrants to register upon entering the country, or refusing to let them enter at all, will negatively affect the public’s views and behavior toward Muslim Americans and Muslim immigrants already here.

But I also recognize that the people who support these measures believe they will significantly increase our national security and safety. Based on my understanding of Theory 3, what Trump voters believe about these measures (and how those beliefs speak to their motivations) is irrelevant, because Theory 3 is all about effects on minority groups, not the intentions of the people pushing these policies. Whether they sincerely believe these measures will save American lives doesn’t change whether or not this approach is defined as racist.

And we’ve only talked about what they believe, not what is objectively true. Apparently NSEERS, the similar Bush-era program that required immigrant registration, was ineffective at preventing terrorism; it sounds like it was just more security theater, but in this case directed at specific groups. But suppose, hypothetically, immigrant registration made a huge difference in national security. Suppose—as I suspect is the belief of some who support this idea—that without immigrant registration we’d have more San Bernadino and Pulse nightclub shootings. Or another World Trade Center.

If these policies actually prevented terrorism deaths in our own country, does that change whether they are racist? If I understand Theory 3 correctly, it does not. In this way Theory 3 rings a bit hollow for me, because while it is at least technically accurate and objectively measurable (does X policy negatively impact Y community or not?), if it ignores all other factors I still consider it misleading.

3c. Second problem: conflating Theory 3 with Theories 1 & 2.
In my experience, the left frequently blurs the line between “negative impacts” and “personal animosity.” A great example is the Slate article “There’s No Such Thing as a Good Trump Supporter.” Chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie argues that Trump supporters do not merit empathy because they “voted for a racist who promised racist outcomes.” He cites other authors who have claimed Trump’s victory does not reveal an “inherent malice” in the populace (referring to the “personal animosity” definition of racism). Bouie counters with the “negative impacts” definition:

Whether Trump’s election reveals an “inherent malice” in his voters is irrelevant. What is relevant are the practical outcomes of a Trump presidency…If you voted for Trump, you voted for this, regardless of what you believe about the groups in question.

But, as the title of the piece suggests, Bouie is not condemning only the effects of voting for Trump; he’s condemning the Trump voters themselves. He asserts that it is myopic and even “morally grotesque” to suggest Trump supporters are good people. He compares Trump voters to the men in the early 20th century who organized lynchings (they “weren’t ghouls or monsters. They were ordinary.”) and the people who gawked and smiled at those lynchings (“the very model of decent, law-abiding Americana.”) He sums up: “Hate and racism have always been the province of ‘good people.’”

Note the switch here. Bouie is no longer talking about practical outcomes; he’s talking about hate. He has switched from the “negative impacts” definition of racism back to the “personal animosity” definition. So is he saying that most Trump supporters did not have inherent malice but should be condemned for the policies they supported? Or is he saying that anyone who can support Trump has to be, at least in part, motivated by hate?

And this is often how I see the conversation going. To (heavily) paraphrase:

Person A: If you voted for Trump, you’re racist.
Person B: I’m really not. I disagreed with a lot of what he said but I thought Clinton would do more damage in XYZ ways.
Person A: Yeah, you may not personally feel racist but you supported racist policies. It just shows you think the concerns of white people are more important than the actual human rights of everyone else.
Person B: That’s not what I think at all!
Person A: It’s not about what you personally think! It’s about what you supported!

And repeat.

In other words, in principle motivation is supposed to be irrelevant because racism is about effects, but in practice accusations of racism nearly always boil down to motivation—at best a selfish indifference and at worst outright malice. So, in principle, I think Theory 3 has some merit and is worth talking about. In practice, I find I just end up repeating the arguments I made for Theories 1 & 2.


What Are the Reasons Behind Late-Term Abortions?

Trump has been catching a lot of heat for his rather bungled remarks about abortion. Clinton in turn defended late-term abortions by claiming that these cases are often due to the mother’s health being jeopardized or complications with the pregnancy. There was even a heartbreaking story by a Mormon woman going viral that relayed the horrific experience of late-term abortion due to pregnancy complications. It turns out that the majority of Americans would likely approve of abortion in her situation. Gallup has found that 50% of Americans think abortion should be legal only under some circumstances, while 29% think it should be legal in all cases and a mere 19% think it should be illegal in all cases. When specifics are given, they found that 82% believe it should be legal when the mother’s physical health is endangered and 75% believe it should be in cases of rape or incest. Even the official stance of the LDS Church would fall under the “legal only under some circumstances” category (though members should realize just how seriously Church leadership takes this subject).

Nonetheless, the American population of women has basically been split in half on this matter for over a decade. The latest Gallup poll found the percentage of pro-choice women to be 54 percent, though it’s averaged at about 48.5% between 2001-2015. This squares with Pew’s finding that 50% of women view abortion as morally wrong. However, a 2016 Marist poll found that 82% of women would restrict abortion to the first three months of pregnancy (this is much closer to a large number of European countries).

Why would so many women object to late-term abortions if these are so often due to complications as Clinton said? There are probably many reasons, but one of them could have to do with the fact that Clinton’s reasoning is misleading. Granted, the majority of abortions take place early on in the pregnancy. As The Washington Post reported,

One-third take place at six weeks or pregnancy or earlier; 89 percent occur in the first 12 weeks, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights. Only 1.2 percent of abortions—about 12,000 a year– take place after 21 weeks. (The Supreme Court has held that states may not prohibit abortions “necessary to preserve the life or health” of the mother.)

On top of that, Guttmacher says that 43 states already prohibit some abortions after a certain point in pregnancy, such as fetal viability, in the third trimester or after a certain number of weeks. So this is already a rare procedure that is prohibited in much of the country.

So are late-term abortions mainly due to later complications? A 2013 study by the Guttmacher Institute may suggest otherwise. Writing at the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, Elizabeth Johnson expounds on Guttmacher’s data:

For many years, abortion-rights advocates have asserted that abortions after 20 weeks are performed because of maternal health complications or lethal fetal anomalies discovered late in pregnancy. However, wider data from both the medical literature and late-term abortion providers indicates that most late-term procedures are not performed for these reasons. Previous survey studies of late-term abortion patients have confirmed that most late-term abortions are performed because of a delay in pregnancy diagnosis and for reasons similar to those given by first-trimester abortion patients:  financial stressors, relationship problems, education concerns or parenting challenges.

A recent paper entitled, “Who seeks abortion at or after 20 weeks?” supports these conclusions. The study, published in Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, a journal of the Guttmacher Institute, marks a notable departure from previous statements by abortion rights advocates that late-term abortions were rarely elective.  Authors Foster and Kimport highlight the characteristics of women seeking abortion at or after 20 weeks gestation.  The authors acknowledge that, in fact, wider “data suggests that most women seeking later terminations are not doing so for reasons of fetal anomaly or life endangerment.” The study explores reasons for delay in seeking abortion services, comparing first-trimester and late-term abortion groups.  While there are numerous limitations to the study, the authors suggest that the characteristics of women who seek both first-trimester and late-term abortions are substantially similar.

She concludes,

The characteristic similarities and delay commonalities observed across first trimester and late-term abortion groups suggest that women who seek abortion share similar characteristics across gestational ages.  The stressful circumstances of unprepared pregnancy, single-motherhood, financial pressure and relationship discord are primary concerns that must be addressed for these women.  However, these circumstances are not fundamentally alleviated or ameliorated by late-term abortion.  Indeed, late-term abortion places these women at greater risk of surgical complications, subsequent preterm birth, and mental health problems, while simultaneously ending the life of an unborn child. As a medical profession and society, we rightly seek alternative, compassionate responses for the women seeking late-term abortion procedures for such challenging yet elective reasons.

It is reasons like this that some fact checkers have called Clinton out on her previous late-term abortion comments. It is interesting that in Reason‘s useful rundown of late-term abortions in America there are no figures provided to support the claim that these abortions “are generally a last resort” and “involve situations where the mother’s life or health is in jeopardy.” The blog Secular Pro-Life Perspectives drew on a couple studies to further demonstrate the rarity of health problems as a reason for abortion:

This 1988 study surveyed 399 women seeking abortion at 16+ weeks. The study found women were obtaining late-term abortions instead of earlier-term abortions (i.e. reasons for delaying) because:

  • 71% Woman didn’t recognize she was pregnant or misjudged gestatio
  • 48% Woman found it hard to make arrangements for abortion
  • 33% Woman was afraid to tell her partner or parents
  • 24% Woman took time to decide to have an abortion
  • 8% Woman waited for her relationship to change
  • 8% Someone pressured woman not to have abortion
  • 6% Something changed after woman became pregnant
  • 6% Woman didn’t know timing is important
  • 5% Woman didn’t know she could get an abortion
  • 2% A fetal problem was diagnosed late in pregnancy
  • 11% Other

It continues:

According a 2004 study by Guttmacher, 1,160 women seeking abortion (not just late-term) gave overall reasons for obtaining an abortion at all stages (may list more than one):

  • 74% Having a baby would dramatically change my life
  • 73% Can’t afford a baby now 
  • 48% Don’t want to be a single mother or having relationship problems
  • 38% Have completed my childbearing
  • 32% Not ready for a(nother) child
  • 25% Don’t want people to know I had sex or got pregnant
  • 22% Don’t feel mature enough to raise a(nother) child
  • 14% Husband or partner wants woman to have abortion
  • 13% Possible problems affecting the health of the fetus
  • 12% Physical problem with my health
  • 6% Parents want me to have an abortion
  • 1% Woman was victim of rape 
  • <0.5% Became pregnant as a result of incest

The same Guttmacher study has statistics for later term abortion (13+ weeks gestation). According to Guttmacher, 21% of women who had abortion at or past 13 weeks were doing so for fetal health concerns, and 10% for personal health concerns. 

Abortion is a complex issue, especially when it comes to the legal aspects. But accuracy is important. While better data may indeed show that health complications are the culprits behind late-term abortions, the current evidence suggests that they are not.

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UPDATE: Thanks to Margot in the comments for pointing out this 2014 study. She summarizes: “A more recent study (published in 2014) on all women referred to the Yale hospital for late-term abortions from 2002 to 2011 found that 69% were for a poor prenatal diagnosis–fetal anomaly (41.6%), aneuploidy (15.7%) or multiple anomalies (12.7%)–and another 9.6% were for pregnancy complications or maternal disease. Just over 20% were for unwanted pregnancies, perhaps where the mother either didn’t know she was pregnant earlier or had problems accessing abortion.” This is the kind of evidence mentioned above that could help identify health complications as the main culprit. Good data are hard to come by, so this was an excellent find. For the pro-life crowd, the near 21% of late-term abortions performed because the pregnancy was “unwanted” will still be alarming. But if this study is generalized, it could provide more weight for Clinton’s remarks. However, it is worth pointing out that these numbers are taken from Yale New Haven Hospital between 2002 and 2011. Multiple demographic factors (income, education, marital status, etc.) are at play when it comes to the numbers of a single hospital, which should make us cautious about drawing broad conclusions from them. Other numbers tell a different story. For example, since 2012, 91% of 14-20 week and 80% of 21+ week abortions in Arizona have been elective (i.e., not due to maternal or fetal medical conditions). In Florida, 87% of 13-24 week abortions have been elective since 2013 (it’s even higher when you consider the fact that things like “emotional/psychological health of the mother” and “social or economic reasons” are filed under “non-elective”). Diana Greene Foster–one of the authors of the 2013 Guttmacher study above–told “that “[t]here aren’t good data on how often later abortions are for medical reasons.” She said based on limited research and discussions with researchers in the field that abortions for fetal anomaly “make up a small minority of later abortions,” and that those for life endangerment are even harder to characterize. This is because many of the women who fall into that category would be treated under emergent circumstances at hospitals rather than at a dedicated abortion clinic, making numbers harder to obtain, Foster said.” In other words, better data and research are needed.