Bait and Switch

William Saletan, the author of Bearing Right: How the Conservatives Won the Abortion War, has given us a classic example of the old “bait and switch” tactic in an op-ed column in the New York Times on Sunday, January 22nd. I fell for it; I was half-way through his article before I knew I was being conned. Maybe you will be more savvy. Let’s see how you do.

Saletan’s thesis is that the time has come for advocates of legal abortion to come to grips with the implications of the irony that even though “most Americans support Roe and think women, not the government, should make abortion decisions,” they continue to put the “Congress and the White House” in the hands of “politicians who oppose legal abortion.” He calls upon “pro-choice” Americans to face up to the implications of these voting patterns and their failure to stop “the nominations to the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts and, soon, Samuel A. Alito.”

This is where the con job begins. Saletan’s answer to the above state of affairs is to call upon “the abortion rights movement to declare war on abortion.” That’s not a misprint. He wants a pro-choice “war on abortion.” “Sixteen years ago,” he maintains, “as the behavior of voters and politicians showed, abortion was clearly a winning issue.” No more. Why? Because the supporters of legal abortion “never faced the question of abortion’s morality.” They argued their case without taking into account the “simplest thing: It’s bad to kill a fetus.” They surrendered this moral point to the pro-life side, and when “the question is ‘what’ instead of ‘who’ — morality instead of autonomy — pro-lifers win.”

“It’s bad to kill a fetus”: he calls upon proponents of legal abortion to start saying this openly and unabashedly. Why? Because it’s true and everyone knows it is true. You can’t make the reality go away by pretending otherwise. We have all seen the sonograms that make clear what it means when a woman is “with child.” It is making a difference. “I know,” he writes, “many women who decided in the face of unintended pregnancy, that abortion was less bad than the alternatives. But I’ve never met a woman who wouldn’t rather have avoided the pregnancy in the first place.”

This is the reason why “the issue hasn’t gone away. Abortion, like race-conscious hiring, generates moral friction. Most people will tolerate it as a lesser evil or as a temporary measure, but they’ll never fully accept it. They want a world in which it’s less necessary. If you grow complacent or try to institutionalize it, they’ll run out of patience. That’s what happened to affirmative action. And it’ll happen to abortion, if you stay hunkered down behind Roe.” Proponents of legal abortion will continue to lose the voters, he warns, if they go on “refusing to concede that there’s anything wrong with abortion.”

Well, did he lure you into the showroom? Or were you better able than I to anticipate what Saletan offers next? What he proposes is a call for more money to be allocated to “Title X, the federal program that finances family planning” and to programs that will “expand health insurance and access to morning after pills” and to educate “teenagers about sex, birth control and abstinence.” His pro-choice “war on abortion” turns out to be an effort to find a way to secure “anti-abortion results (fewer abortions) without anti-abortion laws.” It is the old Bill Clinton line about “keeping abortion, safe, legal and rare.”

Or is it? Saletan’s rhetoric is different. He sounds sincere. He states flatly, “Abortion is bad, and the ideal number of abortions is zero.” That is not typical pro-choice rhetoric. We have to ask ourselves if this is a concession that makes a difference. What would be the moral calculus? Could Catholics support massive federal spending to promote artificial birth control if it resulted in a truly significant reduction in the numbers of abortions performed in the country, which might be the result if pro-choice Americans were truly on board? Saletan puts that challenge to us: “What we need is an explicit pro-choice war on the abortion rate, coupled with a political message that anyone who stands in the way, yammering about chastity or a ‘culture of life,’ is not just anti-choice, but pro-abortion.”

There’s the offer: Saletan is willing to call abortion “bad” and to seek a way to bring the number of abortions “close to zero,” if pro-life groups give some ground and join in the effort to discourage abortion by supporting federal programs to promote artificial contraception. The answer to that proposition is not self-evident. It is easier to accept the widespread use of contraceptives — we live with that reality now — than the killing of millions of unborn children. Why not buy into Saletan’s offer?

Because it won’t work. Saletan informs us that nearly “half of the unintended pregnancies in this country result in abortions, and at least half of our unintended pregnancies are attributable to women who didn’t use contraception.” He’s probably right about that. But what difference does it make? Except in rare instances, American women who get pregnant know about contraceptives. How couldn’t they? They are advertised all over the place. Comedians make jokes about them. Rock musicians sing about them. They are cheap. They give them away in our schools. Sex-ed programs promote their use.

It defies logic to think that women who end their pregnancies through abortion lacked information about birth control devices. Except for rape, women use abortion as a back up after they have opted not to practice birth control — for a variety of reasons, some more compelling than others. You can come up with the scenarios as well as I can. Title X programs will not make a difference in their decision-making process, certainly not the kind of Title X programs that Saletan and the proponents of legal abortion will devise. Which means the number of abortions will not go down. I suspect Saletan knows that.

Saletan’s war on abortion is actually a way of keeping abortion legal. It is a proposal for supporters of legal abortion to adopt anti-abortion rhetoric and repackage their push for more sex education and widespread contraception as an anti-abortion effort — in an effort to stem the tide against ending legalized abortion. It is a pretty clever strategy, when you think about it. If it works, abortion will remain on the books and as available as ever, and the advocates of the sexual revolution will get an increase in federal funding to promote their cause.

James Fitzpatrick's novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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