Pro-Life Voting Strategy: A Problem without an Answer
A reminder: The Consistent Life Network doesn’t necessarily endorse everything said in its blog, since we encourage individual writers to express a variety of views. This is especially so when analyzing elections.
by John Whitehead
With a new electoral season looming before Americans, we’ll no doubt soon hear the latest round of a long-running debate: how should pro-lifers vote?
- Should they vote for candidates (usually Republicans) who express explicit opposition to abortion and may support efforts to restrict legal access to abortion?
- Or should they vote for candidates (usually Democrats) who might not oppose abortion as such but support policies more likely to alleviate the conditions that push women toward abortion?
Granted, in some rare but happy cases, we get candidates who both explicitly oppose abortion and also support policies to counter the pressures for abortion. See, for example, the work of member groups the American Solidarity Party and Democrats for Life and the presidential candidacy of Mark Charles.
These cases are sadly exceptional, however. I’ll therefore consider the more typical political options. Also, for consistent life ethic advocates, of course, many other issues apart from abortion influence voting decisions, but in this post I’ll focus just on abortion. I suspect some of these points are also relevant to other life issues, and of course are also relevant to elections in other countries.
Having heard the argument about pro-life voting strategy many times, I must conclude that while both sides make reasonable points, neither has a very compelling case overall. Voting for either type of candidate has serious limitations, and pro-lifers should recognize this.
Limitations of the Explicitly Anti-Abortion Strategy
The case for explicitly anti-abortion candidates is straightforward. These candidates say they’re opposed to abortion and intend to use legal prohibitions to stop it. Therefore, pro-lifers should vote for them. Such a voting strategy is broadly favored by more politically conservative pro-lifers.
More politically liberal pro-lifers have several criticisms of this approach: First, many politicians who claim to be opposed to abortion are insincere or opportunistically taking advantage of pro-lifers’ concerns to get elected. Once elected, they won’t do anything about abortion. Second, some argue that legally prohibiting abortion is so politically challenging as to be impractical; overturning Roe v. Wade by changing the composition of the Supreme Court is a long, tortuous process for which there’s little prospect of success. Third, some argue that even if it were possible, making abortion illegal is not the most effective way of stopping abortions. A law against abortion would likely be unenforceable and ineffective.
In contrast, these pro-lifers argue for public policies they believe will reduce abortion. These might include targeted efforts to support pregnant women and mothers (for example, countering pregnancy and parenting discrimination in the workforce or providing more and better childcare options) as well as efforts to lower poverty generally (by increasing the minimum wage, say, or expanding affordable healthcare access). They argue that voting for politicians who support these types of policies, regardless of those politicians’ attitudes about abortion as such, is the effective way to stop abortion.
These criticisms of the explicitly anti-abortion voting strategy have merit. The convictions of supposedly pro-life politicians are often questionable and their records often disappointing. Moreover, the persistence of Roe v. Wade after more than 45 years and numerous changes in the Supreme Court, as well as the strong resistance to anti-abortion legislation in many states, points toward the enormous practical challenge of restricting abortion access.
Update, October 20, 2022: A few years after I wrote this piece, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade in its June 2022 Dobbs v Jackson case. I admit this decision came as a great surprise to me and certainly upended my 2019 doubts about Roe being overturned.
Granted, much of what I argued here I would still stand by. The commitment of allegedly “pro-life” politicians should often be viewed with skepticism. Legal efforts to restrict access to abortion may still prove very difficult even in a post-Roe country. Legal restrictions may also prove less effective in reducing abortion than public education and programs to support parents and children.
Nevertheless, recent events show that we never know for sure which direction history will go. Our seemingly confident predictions about the pro-life cause or other aspects of the consistent life ethic might well be proved wrong. Let’s keep an open mind about the future and be ready to adapt to changing circumstances.
Certain policies that address poverty and other pressures toward abortion probably do contribute to reducing abortions—and most liberal pro-lifers, especially those who are consistent life ethic advocates, would favor such policies regardless. These are all points in favor of this alternative voting strategy, which might be called an “abortion reduction” strategy.
Limitations of the Abortion Reduction Strategy
Nevertheless, the abortion reduction strategy has a very significant problem. Whatever else being pro-life does or does not mean, it ought to mean you support efforts to persuade people to recognize the right to life of preborn children and the injustice of killing these children through abortion.
Arguing for the humanity of children in the womb and advocating for their right to life so that a critical mass of people come to accept these views is essential to the pro-life position. Granted, not everyone who’s pro-life must necessarily become a full-time apologist for the preborn’s right to life—but they should support the people who are and not undermine their work.
This essential activity of persuading others to recognize the preborn’s right to life is not well served by supporting policymakers or other elites who refuse to recognize this right and condemn those who do. If politicians, officials, corporate heads, and prominent members of the media generally reject the notion that a preborn human has a right to life and endorse abortion as morally acceptable, then that’s a serious obstacle to ending abortion.
Elite support for abortion presents such an obstacle for two reasons:
First, elites can, through the messages they send and rhetoric they use, shape larger cultural attitudes. An elite that recognizes preborn humans’ right to life could promote such recognition in the larger society, perhaps educating the public on matters such as embryology and pre-natal development, what happens in an abortion, nonviolent alternatives to abortion, or the philosophy of pro-life feminism—and the consistent life ethic.
Second, while efforts to make abortion outright illegal may or may not be the best strategy for ending abortion, I can’t imagine how abortion could be ended without at least some public policies specifically targeted at reducing abortion. As mentioned above, these might include public educational campaigns, similar to those against smoking or other health hazards, to make people aware of abortion’s violence. They might also include an extension of measures already effect in some states, such as informed consent or counseling requirements before an abortion and the withholding of public funding of abortion, as through the Hyde Amendment.
Neither targeted policy measures meant to reduce abortion nor a more general effort to shape public opinion toward recognition of the preborn’s right to life seem likely in a society governed by ardently pro-abortion elites. Politicians who have no clear objections to abortion, who affirm “reproductive rights” without qualification, and who enjoy the endorsement of abortion advocates such as Planned Parenthood or NARAL Pro-Choice America seem unlikely to promote greater respect for preborn life.
Such politicians might support policies that reduce poverty or otherwise lessen pressures for abortion. Nevertheless, I find it hard to believe that, without a genuine commitment to supporting the preborn’s right to life, these politicians would do all that’s necessary to reduce abortion to the lowest level possible. Even if some policies they support have a positive effect on the abortion rate, their overall approach is inadequate.
To claim that we can end or even radically reduce abortion without an elite commitment to doing so—to claim, in effect, that abortion will end as a purely unintended by-product of other policies undertaken for unrelated reasons—puts an intolerable strain on credulity. Has any other major social injustice been ended without elites and others in a society coming to recognize that an injustice is being committed?
A Few Practical Conclusions
I would judge both the supposedly pro-life politicians who claim to be pursuing a legal prohibition on abortion and the politicians who are supposedly pursuing policies that will reduce pressures for abortion to fall short of what committed pro-lifers need. Neither the explicitly anti-abortion nor abortion reduction voting strategy seems adequate to me.
For pro-lifers, a clear electoral strategy is lacking. This disappointing situation suggests a few modest but important practical conclusions:
- Pro-lifers should recognize the limitations of both voting strategies and not necessarily always adhere to either one, instead keeping an open mind to trying alternative approaches in different situations.
- For the same reason, we should be humble in arguing for a particular voting strategy and respectful toward our fellow pro-lifers who adopt a different strategy.
- Most important of all, we should direct our criticisms not toward other pro-lifers but toward politicians who fall short of an adequate pro-life stance in either of the ways I’ve identified. People in power are the ones who most need to be challenged when their defense of life is inadequate. And we can reach out to people with whom we agree on other issues and try to bring them to full support of a consistent ethic of life.
For more of our blog posts on voting:
Abortion on the Ballot (2022)
and see our website: