Abortion Rights Are a Revealed Preference
Years ago, in my late twenties, I briefly dated a woman who had once worked in a clinic that performed abortions. She told me that what had struck her the most during that period was the number of women who would emphatically stress that they were personally opposed to abortion while they were in the process of arranging to have one. She told me that they would assert that abortion was immoral, then explain why their case was different, why they were simply in an extraordinary circumstance. I imagine that it never occurred to most of them that for every other woman who gets an abortion, it’s in some sense an extraordinary circumstance. I imagine that it never occurred to them that once you accept the logic of their stated exceptions, you accept it for everyone.
I’ve been thinking of those stories as abortion rights have won repeated victories since the fall of Roe v. Wade, such as the victory in Ohio last night that established a constitutional right to abortion in the state. They’ve been coming one after another, galvanizing progressives and helping Democrats in statewide elections. You sometimes hear that some Republican leaders have quietly rued the Dobbs verdict, as the continued existence of Roe was a reliable fundraising and turnout issue, and now the end of Roe fulfills the same function for the Democrats. I don’t think we should ever fool ourselves that the death of Roe was anything other than a major setback. It’s true, though, that there are some major advantages to what’s been happening, particularly as it demonstrates that abortion rights have democratic support in large swaths of the country. As long as Roe protected those rights, there was always a conservative talking point that the federally-guaranteed right to choose (albeit subject to constant erosion) was a matter of the Supreme Court legislating from the bench and denying the will of the people. With every victory for abortion rights, particularly in purple states like Ohio and Virginia, that claim gets harder to make. And, as Matt Yglesias notes, this has left national conservative voices like Sean Hannity scrambling. If the Republicans really do try to enact a national ban, as party figures like Mike Pence have floated, they’ll be handing Democrats a remarkably powerful political weapon.
Why is it so powerful? I think about it in terms of what economists call a revealed preference. Revealed preference theory states that the best guide to a consumer’s desires in the market is to actually watch what they buy or don’t. That may sound very obvious, but it makes sense when you consider the alternative of consumers telling you what their consumption preferences are, telling you what they would buy with X dollars or in Y scenario. If you ask people what kind of groceries they intend to purchase, for example, they’ll often give you a list of foods that are a lot healthier than what they actually buy in practice, heavier on produce, shorter on sugary treats, etc. Doctors have to mentally adjust how many drinks a patient probably has in a week, as they’ll consistently understate the reality. And I suspect that for a lot of voters, particularly Republican women, abortion rights are a revealed preference in the exact same sense; they may be very passionate about the right to life, but when push comes to shove and they say they “just can’t be pregnant right now” - a term I was told by the former abortion clinic employee that they would often use - they vote with their feet. It’s important to say that there doesn’t have to be any conscious deception in either case, groceries or abortion. I’m sure pro-life women who get abortions are very sincere in their theoretical attachment to that moral position. But an actual pregnancy is about as far from theoretical as it gets.
I’ve had readers express surprise that I’m a conventional “abortion rights without restriction or apology” type, but it’s hard for me to understand why. I’ve always emphasized material politics, and as I just said abortion is as material an issue as you’ll find. I’m a critic of identity politics, but abortion rights is as far from an identity politics issue as you’ll find. It’s a social issue, maybe even a cultural issue. But identity politics is about specific demographic slices of people, and as we can see from the prevalence of women who get abortions who are conflicted about abortion or even actively pro-life (which must be in the thousands, given the sheer volume of abortions that are performed in this country) all kinds of women can find themselves in the position of needing an abortion. Women of any economic class, any race, any religion, and yes, any political party. Meanwhile, I think a lot of men have an “in case of emergency, break glass” approach to reproductive rights; whether they’re philosophically friendly to a woman’s right to choose or not, if they get a woman pregnant and find that the pregnancy is very contrary to their self-interest, they’ll want abortion to be an option, and again this pragmatic need will often trump even explicit pro-life politics.
Donald Trump’s political incoherence, which stands in marked contrast to longtime Republican ideas man Paul Ryan, proved to be a political benefit in 2016. His repeated promise to protect Medicare and Social Security, which Ryan had threatened again and again as a leader in Congress, helped attract older Republican voters who depend on those programs. (“I’m a fiscal conservative small-government type, now defend the two biggest line items in our budget” is also a kind of revealed preference.) And with an utter stranglehold on the GOP, he can easily survive the primaries while maintaining a moderate message on abortion that will help him in the general. So Democrats can’t rely on abortion rights too much in the presidential election, where current polling looks dire for Joe Biden. But American voters have for decades demonstrated broad support for at least some degree of abortion rights, albeit with a lot of disagreement about how late in pregnancy, and in the post-Roe world that preference has been revealed again and again. Abortion is the kind of issue where people love to say stuff like “there’s extremists on both sides,” but it’s simply the case that on this issue, it’s the Republicans who are the extremists. Even if, sometimes, they find that they’re the exception to their own passionately-held rules.