Book Review by Tom Nelson — Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War (William Saletan)

William Saletan’s Bearing Right: How conservatives won the abortion war is an appropriate title for a book in the wake of the Dobbs decision that eviscerated 50 years of Supreme Court precedent and made half of the US population second-class citizens over night — except for one tiny detail. Saletan’s book was published 19 years ago.

For those who have followed the abortion wars for the last half century it was clear that in the wake of the last landmark abortion ruling Planned Parenthood vs. Casey (1992) women were on pace to lose the access war. In the 1990s and 2000s, about 15 anti-abortion laws were adopted in state legisaltures each year; in the 2010s that number more than doubled to 40 per annum with 2021 hitting an all time high of 110. Each law had the simple goal of denying access for women to abortion providers. On that score, the anti-choice movement won, hands down. Indeed, the number of abortions peaked at 1,600,000 in 1989 and fell 44 percent to 900,000 in 2021.

Bearing Right chronicles several key abortion debates of the 1980s and 1990s. The title has a dual meeting. The abortion war was won by the right wing and the strategy that pro-choice advocates implemented was a proven conservative strategum in political fights.

The highly respected Democratic pollster Harrison Hickman* developed a watershed strategy in an abortion referendum in Arkansas in 1986. Down two to one at the start of the campaign, Hickman and pro-choice forces narrowly lost by 485 votes. Considering the odds, it was a victory in and of itself.

The strategy was simple. Mirror the conservative argument of government involving itself in private, personal matters and flip enough independent and lean Republican votes to win the campaign.

The strategy proved a durable weapon and Democratic strategists found themselves using the issue as an offensive strategy to win tough elections such as inoculating black candidates from racist attacks (Douglas Wilder, Virginia Governor, 1989]). Unlike the fate of the Arkansas referendum, Wilder would win, becoming the nation’s first black governor since Reconstruction.

It was only a matter of time before conservatives found the issue where they could flip the question on liberals and win referenda and elections — parental consent.

Who decides? It wasn’t a simple paradigm of women versus the government and the slippery slope of government interference; rather it was about multiple stakeholders: lawmakers, taxpayers, parents, husbands, daughters. It was a tough fight and soon one of the leading abortion rights political organization, NARAL, gave passes to pro-choice candidates who sided with conservatives on this issue. Can’t win them all.

“In politics, only the little fights are about answers,” Saletan wrote, summarizing Hickman’s central argument in his strategy. “The big fights are about questions.”

The right to abortion is an age old question. Yes it’s a question of morals, political philosophy and individual rights.It’s also reflective of who we are as a free people. Could Hickman, Saletan or abortion rights leader Kate Michelman have predicted that the overturning of Roe — which they always feared would happen — would occur while our very democracy was on the precipice of falling into the abyss? The Dobbs decision was made by a stacked court and in the wake of a domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol that in many respects had its roots in the anti-abortion movement of the late 20th century.

In the final analysis, maybe it was more than just conservative versus liberal, Democratic versus Republican or religion versus secularism. Perhaps it is a flashpoint of the American experiment. If we can withstand the shocks and survive the scars of this battle, so too can our republic.

*I worked for Hickman (1998–2000)

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Tom Nelson for Wisconsin

Tom Nelson for Wisconsin

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Husband, father of 2, former candidate for U.S. Senate, Outagamie County Executive