American Party Politics and the Manufacturing of Anti-Choice Conservatism

By Christine Millard

Applied to most contentious social issues, the ever-growing ideological distance between Democrats and Republicans exists, for the most part, on the philosophical binary of liberal and conservative. But increasingly throughout recent history, the debate over female bodily autonomy and reproductive choice has seamlessly subverted traditional party roles, bringing into light glaring political inconsistencies for those willing to notice them. The American conservative Right, the boisterous and uncompromising advocate of individual liberties, has evolved over the past several decades to better serve the smaller but prominent Christian Right, and led the party to an extreme stance incompatible with a woman’s right to bodily control. Virtually all active participants in the political system today are guilty of allowing him/her/themselves to fall back on established party lines on occasion, as it can often be much easier to spout your party’s platform at would-be opposition, rather than engage in the constructive but genuinely exhausting unpacking of difficult subject matter. When it comes to reproductive rights, the stakes are too high to not take a closer look at how the dont-tread-on-me conservative Right has come to view individual women’s uteruses as appropriate ground for political debate.

As the parties drift farther and farther apart on ideology and, consequently, diminish their ability to co-operate, there is general consistency in the political Right’s endeavors to downsize government involvement in American life, and the Left’s to increase it. As party politics gain increasingly greater influence, votes that cross party lines have become more and more rare, with fewer but more significant exceptions to the rule. Ideological conservatives fundamentally advocate for strictly limited government intervention into the life of the individual American, for smaller government, personal autonomy, and unregulated markets. The American Right integrates this view fairly consistently into platforms on gun control, environmental regulation, tax policy, campaign finance, and healthcare- with one glaring exception. On the subject of abortion, conservatives today opt for a tremendously intrusive government policy- reassigning the right of female bodily autonomy from the individual woman to her (largely white and male) government representative. Following the traditional conservative reasoning, and the philosophy “that the government should stay out of contested questions,” true political conservatives should theoretically be advocates for female bodily autonomy and personal decision-making regarding reproductive choices. Logically, the Republican Party would perceive and portray abortion as a private matter of individual choice and conscience. Instead, the same American Right takes it upon itself to determine the outcome of the individual woman’s pregnancy, proudly assuming the dictatorial nature of government they denounce with such would-be passion on virtually all other issues. Anti-choice conservatives typically cite the Constitution in the defense of this stance, in an attempt to bend it’s doctrines into line with their own. Defendants of this position argue that the right “to live one's life as one sees fit” ought to be applied to the fetus, upon whom they have singlehandedly bestowed legal personhood. In yet another failure of logic, however, they apparently do not feel obligated to offer that right to the woman who, in being forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy, is no longer living as she sees fit- whose life, liberty, AND pursuit of happiness are all being hugely infringed upon. The hoops the Republican party has had to jump through in order to fit this particular position to an incongruent belief system illustrates a methodical dismissal of logic that can be traced back to deliberate political maneuvering over the evolution of the Republican party.

The process that had to occur for the anti-choice movement to become a recognizably Republican cause is complex and gradual. Only since the later part of the twentieth century has the Christian right been the primary carrier of cultural-religious conservatism. Beginning in the late 1960s, the cultural-religious issues prioritized by the Christian right have distinguished it from the old right, which emphasized economic conservatism. This new brand of Republicanism bears many similarities to its predecessor, but dissents in its fanaticism for the enforcement of its values and religious ideals upon the public. The Christian Right, while advocating “minimal government” on the most issues, entrusts the government with some radically invasive and assertive responsibilities, such as instituting prayer into the state schools, drastically curtailing gay rights, opposing sex education in state schools and opposing school textbooks that question traditional beliefs about gender roles, sexual behavior, the nuclear family, and the biblical account of creation. These moves attract more religious voters to the Republican Party, who increasingly influence policy and ideology, steadily creating a larger, more religious base.

Another point of major conflict is the lack of alignment between Republican social policies and their claim to be “pro-life.” Time and time again, instances arise of inconsistency of values in conservative legislation having to do with care for the individual life that is apparently so precious in the womb, but decidedly less so after birth. Conservatives employ extreme rhetoric in their platforms on the need to save the lives of unborn fetuses. After birth, and after their ideological point has been made, that passion for life seems to dissipate; the United States has a high infant-mortality rate, largely due to the lack of adequate prenatal care for low-income mothers, and more often than not, conservatives are not in favor of government programs providing such prenatal care and have voted to eliminate existing programs that have succeeded in lowering the infant mortality rate. Here exists a massive contradiction within the republican claim to “pro-life”- the paradox in which conservatives do want to prevent the death of those fetuses whose mothers do not want them (through stopping abortion), but do not want to prevent the deaths of fetuses whose mothers do want them (through providing adequate prenatal care programs). Republicans also tend to support capital punishment, while heralding every human being’s right to life. With the logical conclusion of conservative ideology being that those in favor of private decision-making and personal freedom should vote pro-choice every time, the reality that conservative politicians and pundits often argue and vote otherwise demonstrates the great hypocrisy of the abortion debate and strongly suggests that anti-choice Republicans only believe in small government and personal liberty when it is their personal, subjective, and contestable views of freedom that get to carry the day.

The state of the abortion debate represents, in many ways, the condition of modern politics: both parties have progressively shifted toward their peripheries, ridding the floor of moderates who provide much-needed balance. Through this process the parties have become more ideologically homogenous with the disappearance of their anomalous wings: liberal and moderate republicans and conservative southern democrats. And such increases in elite concentration on the subject have prompted the same response from the masses, voluntarily or not. The more divisive the issue, the greater the voter turnout, giving politicians incentive to intensify their stance and draw crowds. The contest to prove which opposing candidate is more uncompromising in their stance is, however, a dangerous game in which the stakes only get higher and higher. In a case of strategic extremism, such as abortion, the rhetoric employed is far more oppositional and radical than the actual difference in mass opinion, with both parties pitting themselves staunchly against the other, politically and morally. But despite the animosity of public dissonance, abortion rates are independent of the party in power, and have never been successfully tied to the party in the Oval Office in any way that can imply causality.

Pre-Roe v. Wade, very few would have guessed that abortion would become such a defining national issue. Simply stated, this is because it wasn’t one until the Christian right hijacked it for their political purposes, and created a political binary that divides the American people and strips female-bodied people of personal autonomy. The manufactured moral aspects of the abortion debate constructed by the Republican Party wrongly leads the nation into ideological battle that serves the interests of the political elite at the expense of female bodily self-determination and genuine productive discourse in America’s body politic.