In 1981, the novelist Walker Percy published an op-ed in The New York Times bearing the title “A View of Abortion with Something to Offend Everybody.” And so it did.
“I feel like saying something about this abortion issue,” Percy began. “My credentials as an expert on the subject: none.” My own credentials are equally slight. Still, with abortion controversies once more boiling over, I’d like to make just one modest request.
Walker Percy was antiabortion. So am I. I believe in a right to life that includes the unborn. On that score, my views are fixed.
As to whether I align myself with the Republican-controlled state legislatures that have recently passed laws outlawing abortion, I am less certain. The antiabortion sensibility of the Republican Party tends to be selective, confined, as Percy himself put it, to “this one perfervid and politicized issue.” When it comes to supporting life, the GOP is prone to exclude people who having left the womb may not lean Republican come Election Day.
Perhaps for this reason, antiabortion testimonials on behalf of the unborn offered by Republican officeholders — President Trump among them — come across as less than genuine. It is difficult to refute the suspicion that something other than moral principle motivates antiabortion legislators in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri. To some observers, that something is self-evident: It’s a deep-seated antagonism toward women.
In a recent column, Robin Abcarian of the Los Angeles Times summarized this argument with righteous anger. “When it comes to reproductive freedom,” she wrote, “there is no middle ground. You either believe women have the right to control their own bodies, or you don’t.” That’s it, in a nutshell.
What’s actually at stake, therefore, is not the protection of the unborn, but the allocation of power. “It’s about control,” Abcarian asserted. “Control of women’s sexuality. Control of women’s lives.” Here, she charged, “is the irreconcilable hypocrisy at the heart of the anti-abortion movement.” Put simply, the right to abortion guarantees autonomy for women. Those who oppose abortion are intent on depriving women of that autonomy.
Yet Abcarian and others who believe in an unfettered right to abortion should find consolation in this crucially important point: The predominant culture is decisively on their side. We live in a moment when autonomy ranks alongside diversity as a preeminent value, assigned vastly greater weight than, say, duty or obligation or sacrifice. On this score, dissent emanating from a few Southern state houses will barely register on what the prevailing culture requires, allows, or forbids.
The culture wars that date from the 1960s may not have ended, but their outcome has already been determined. The side that favors traditional norms (my side) has lost. The side committed to overturning those norms in favor of a radically different moral order has won.
Granted, counterrevolutionary forces continue to resist. Yet they are of no greater significance than the doomed White Russians who opposed the Bolsheviks after 1917. Some day in the distant future, the cultural winds might shift, with autonomy no longer regarded as sacrosanct. But evidence suggesting that such a moment is approaching any time soon does not exist.
What about the courts? Will the Supreme Court take the bait and overturn Roe v. Wade? Should it do so, the ensuing campaign of civil disobedience will make opposition to Prohibition during the 1920s pale in comparison. I have to think that Chief Justice John Roberts, the court’s expected swing vote now that Anthony Kennedy has retired, knows this. Undermining the rule of law does not form part of his agenda.
So as someone on the losing side of this issue, I accept defeat. All I ask in return for my surrender is that the victors demonstrate a modicum of candor. Abortion is indeed about choice. It involves a choice to confer rights on one group while denying rights to others, who are thereby declared unworthy of legal or moral recognition.
Those who report on or debate this issue shy away from acknowledging this fact. Common decency should oblige them to embrace it.
Three decades ago, Walker Percy correctly discerned that proponents of abortion rights were winning their fight. “But you’re not going to have it both ways,” he warned. “You’re going to be told what you’re doing.” Today, abortion proponents do have it both ways. With coverage and commentary skewing in their favor, they are not told what they are doing. And this evasion too is a form of hypocrisy.
Andrew Bacevich’s new book “The Age of Illusions: How America Squandered Its Cold War Victory” is due out early next year.