Anti-Abortion Activism and the Sources of Polarization

EDITORIAL, 25 Jul 2022

#755 | Richard E. Rubenstein – TRANSCEND Media Service

An unmistakable symptom of severe political polarization is this: nobody wants to talk about its underlying sources.  In America’s polarized universe, members of the conservative Red and liberal Blue tribes like to ask two questions:

  1. What do our opponents say about abortion (or any of the other “social issues”)?
  2. Why are they dead wrong?

The issue they will rarely discuss is why – really, why – their opponents think, feel, and act the way they do.  Every now and then someone poses this question, but the query evokes a pre-programmed answer based on the opponents’ faults of character – their alleged prejudice, ignorance, fanaticism, and domination by demagogic leaders.

This sort of Q&A reminds one of the angry question often asked of an opponent or of someone misbehaving: “What’s wrong with you?”  The answer, inherent in how the question is framed, is “You!  Your faults of character are what’s wrong with you.” However, there is another way to inquire.  A parent may ask a child who seems upset, or a friend may ask a troubled friend, in a voice radiating concern, “What’s wrong with you?”  Such a question requests information rather than mounting a personal attack.  It presupposes a valued relationship and searches out the causes of the other’s thoughts and actions without assuming that they are already known, much less that they are discreditable.

Suppose, then, that we ask why anti-abortion activists (AAA’s for short) think and act as they do?  Many participants in this movement are not accustomed to marching around with signs, cheering on speakers, or confronting opponents in the street.  What brings them now to participate in demonstrations, lobby office holders, and devote time and energy to this Cause?  The pre-programmed answer here is religious ideology, or a type of secular conservatism that embraces the same “rights of the unborn” values as those promulgated by various religious groups.  But we can frame the question more concretely by asking what problems, issues, or unsatisfied needs promote the AAAs’ passionate identification with the unborn and their relative indifference toward the dilemmas faced by many pregnant women.

This identification, it seems to me, is a key to AAA thinking.  Whatever religious ideology may instruct the activist about the beginning of life, the personhood of the fetus, and so forth, there is a purely emotional component to his/her stance that involves a powerful, if not overwhelming, empathetic feeling for the tiny creature implanted in the womb. This identification even creeps into Justice Samuel Alito’s opinion in the Dobbs case, which quotes the Mississippi legislature’s assertion that most abortions after 15 weeks employ “dilation and evacuation procedures which involve the use of surgical instruments to crush and tear the unborn child,” and concludes that the ‘intentional commitment of such acts for non-therapeutic or elective reasons is a barbaric practice, dangerous for the maternal patient, and demeaning to the medical profession.”[i]

Leaving aside the legislature’s largely fictitious reference to the dangers of abortion to the mother, the statement accurately reflects the feelings of most AAA’s that deliberately damaging the fetus is an intolerable (“barbaric”) outrage.  Pro-abortion activists have long noted that calling the fetus an “unborn child,” and picturing it by a sort of anticipatory morphology as a bouncing baby that happens to have not yet exited the womb, intensifies one’s sense of connection with it as a “person.”[ii]  But this pictorial sleight of hand alone does not produce the sense of emotional identification just noted.  That sense is generated above all by the fundamental situation of the fetus, which is one of extreme vulnerability to superior power.  Whether a cluster of cells in early pregnancy or a nearly born human later on, the creature in the uterus is helpless, defenseless, and totally dependent for its existence and sustenance on its maternal host.

Not only that, to use one of the adjectives most favored by AAA’s, it is “innocent.”  The fetus’s innocence is related to its powerlessness and dependence; since it has no ability to make decisions or to act on its own, it cannot make bad decisions or undertake wrong actions.  As a result, the activist gets to have his/her ideological cake and eat it, too.  The fetus is not enough of a person to make decisions, but it is person enough to be declared innocent, as if the characteristic of sinfulness or innocence were not a corollary of independent (i.e., born, plus a year or two) personhood.  Again, however, the logic or illogic of ideology has little to do with one’s identification with the tiny creature in utero.  “Innocent,” in its simplest definition, means having done nothing to deserve destruction or suffering.  This gives a moral coloration to the fetus’s fundamental powerlessness and passivity, which remains the most profound basis for identification with it on the part of many adults.

The psychological sources of this identification remain relatively unexplored.  Still, it seems clear that, for many people, identifying passionately with a helpless, dependent being subject to vastly superior, indifferent power is not a random reaction or a simple application of some religious dogma.  Future research is likely to show that many who identify with the “unborn child” conceive of themselves as helpless, dependent beings, and as the actual or potential victims of powerful figures who have no love or concern for them.

A psychoanalyst might seek the source of this self-conception in the activist’s family history, but what is most germane for us is his or her social history.  The villain of the anti-abortion narrative is the biological parent who refuses to be a nurturing, protecting, responsible mother or father – one who chooses to satisfy his/her own needs rather than those of the future child.  In sociopolitical terms, we can understand the “parent” as a ruling authority, a familial stand-in for the government.[iii]  The AAA narrative points symbolically to a government that at best neglects its powerless subjects, and at worst manipulates and exploits them while securing the rulers’ own interests in property, status, and power.

Note that we are not talking here about some sort of conspiratorial delusion, but about the lived experience of many (if not most) subjects of modern state and federal governments.  Most governments are “bad parents,” and the effects of their neglect, incompetence, and self-interest are especially evident among people living in poorer communities and rural or deindustrialized regions of developed nations like the U.S.A.  For the same reason, many of those who populate the anti-abortion movement favor unrestricted gun ownership because they do not trust the state to protect them from criminals or, indeed, from its own armed agents.  Many AAA’s subject themselves to the authority of intolerant and backward-facing churches because in those communities, at least, they find a modicum of attention, caring, and mutual aid.

In short, many who identify with the unborn do so because they know what it feels like to be held of no account and to be subject to abusive and capricious authority. They are not deluded in the sense that they fantasize an unreal oppression; their neglect and mistreatment by private corporations and public bureaucracies is real enough.  But they are seriously mistaken about the sources and nature of this oppression, and these mistakes can lead to delusions, such as the belief that evil people “stole” the presidential election of 2020 from Donald Trump, or that genocidal “femiNazis” (the late Rush Limbaugh’s nasty neologism) seek to murder as many potential babies as possible.

Where the issue of abortion is concerned, the great mistake is to identify other victims of a profit-driven, dehumanizing, structurally violent social system as one’s oppressor.  In the AAA narrative, the enemy is a college-educated, urbanized, irreligious “elite” linked to private sources of wealth (i.e., the high-tech and non-energy corporations), and favored by bureaucratic power. The cartoonish personification of this foe is the promiscuous woman (abetted by a complicit man) who uses abortion as a form of birth control.  For many AAA’s the image is also racialized, since rates of abortion are higher among women of color than white women, but the error goes beyond misogynist or racist biases.  It rests above all on a refusal to hold the U.S. capitalist system responsible for a growing host of social, political, and spiritual ills  ranging from endemic urban poverty to decaying rural communities, and from schools that don’t teach and jobs that don’t pay a living wage to families that can’t stay together and racial and ethnic groups that can’t live peacefully together.

Traditionally, Americans don’t like to admit that there could be anything seriously wrong with the so-called “free market” system and the political institutions that support it.[iv]  They would rather blame social problems on people of bad character than on a socioeconomic system that, year after year and decade after decade, enriches a few people, impoverishes millions, generates unprecedented social inequality, and considers it more important to fund the world’s strongest military machine than to satisfy people’s basic needs.  If a mother aborts a potential baby because she doesn’t have a decent job or the education needed to land one, or because she doesn’t have the emotional and financial support provided by a viable family and community, many conservatives consider this evidence of her perverse moral values or bad character.  They don’t ask why one of the world’s richest nations doesn’t make it possible for everyone to have the jobs, education, and community support needed to guarantee genuine freedom of choice.

But why should AAA’s ask this question when their pro-abortion opponents can’t seem to ask it either?  In fact, many pro-abortion activists (PAA’s) tend to personify and exculpate the system exactly as the AAA’s do.  That is, they see the anti-abortion forces as their oppressors, not as fellow victims of a predatory system that thrives by exporting industrial production, “burning over” rural and de-industrialized regions, refusing to guarantee wage levels or annual incomes, and driving deep wedges between older and newer sectors of the working class.

Most PAA’s have so little consciousness of themselves as working people in the world’s most inegalitarian industrial state that they define their enemy in purely ideological and cultural terms as fundamentalist “rednecks” or knee-jerk Roman Catholics, never asking the question that begins this essay: Why do anti-abortion activists think and act as they do?

For the same reason, many of them tend to accept the AAAs’ definition of themselves as an educated elite, far more culturally developed and “with it” than the gun-toting, church-going primitives of the Red States.  Up to now (although this may be beginning to change), few PAA’s seem to have realized that their position as relatively privileged workers – workers without unions! – can be undermined in a very short time by the vagaries of an essentially unregulated market.  Similarly, few seem to have understood that women’s right to choose, while as precious as free speech and other fundamental human rights, will still be limited in practice by the all-powerful demands of this same market system.

One reason that so many pro-abortion activists have been willing to entrust this right to courts is the unspoken assumption that political democracy and the rule of law can function in a healthy manner no matter how plutocratic and anti-social the system that produces basic goods and services may be.  This illusion must end if we are to deal intelligently and humanely with issues as important to women’s lives and health as reproductive rights.  Women need to be sovereign over their own bodies, a principal which is already impelling PAA’s to fight necessary political battles in the states and at the national level as well as in the courts.  But pro-abortion forces must also recognize that their opponents are genuinely hurting, even if they misidentify the sources of their pain.  PAA’s and AAA’s have a common enemy, if they would but recognize it: a system that promotes inequality, thrives on scarcity, dissolves the bonds of family and community, and generates endless “culture wars.”

Abundance equally shared can make the tribal conflicts that plague us now seem obsolete.  It’s time to find a better way to organize our social and economic affairs.


[i] Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 597 U.S. _____ (2022) at p. 15

[ii] See Brian Callender, “The Power and Politics of Fetal Imagery.” The Lancet, 10/2/21.  https//:

[iii] The theme of state authority as the symbolic parent was well developed by the Critical Theorists Wilhelm Reich (in The Mass Psychology of Fascism, 1933, Farrar, Straus, 3rd Ed., 1980) and Herbert Marcuse (in Eros and Civilization, 1936, Beacon Press, 8th Ed., 1974).

[iv] But see Reid J. Epstein, “As Faith Flags in Government Many Americans Want to Upend the System.” New York Times, July 13, 2022.


Richard E. Rubenstein is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment and a professor of conflict resolution and public affairs at George Mason University’s Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter Center for Peace and Conflict Resolution. A graduate of Harvard College, Oxford University (Rhodes Scholar), and Harvard Law School, Rubenstein is the author of nine books on analyzing and resolving violent social conflicts. His most recent book is Resolving Structural Conflicts: How Violent Systems Can Be Transformed (Routledge, 2017).

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 25 Jul 2022.

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2 Responses to “Anti-Abortion Activism and the Sources of Polarization”

  1. Nicholas Marconi says:

    Dear Dr. Rubenstein,

    I want to thank you for your well articulated and thoughtful and thought provoking observations relating to the “culture wars” between the “Pros”: those for choice and increased agency for women and those for life and also for agency even if perhaps not clearly seen. The enormous gravely dysfunctional and dangerous blue whale in the room, even though apparently completely invisible to most of us, the capitalist system itself, needs to be made visible. And, what you wrote has helped to do this. Bringing people together to forge bonds of understanding, who are so unnecessarily antagonistic to one another, in order to see their common humanity based upon their common needs is what I’ve been working towards for many years and the work has often been quite lonely and misunderstood.

    I’m not a professional scholar, therapist, or politician. But I observe. And what I observe is a species always on the brink of realizing their full humanity, a species that will always need to reach for that humanity…always an unfinished task. What we can do if we can manage to achieve universal solidarity: the end of ALL military interventions, the setting up of local confederations of interconnected local social/ ecological economies that provision and sustain not for profit and power, people sharing knowledge to build, to heal, to create, to wonder… to address the human need to love and to be loved…staggers the imagination.

    Warm regards,

  2. Marilyn Langlois says:

    Thank you, Richard, for emphasizing the importance of asking those who think differently from us WHY they think that way, rather than dismissing them out of hand which merely exacerbates the polarization that divides us and distracts us from what Nick rightly describes as the blue whale in the room. Much appreciation to you both.