Why the Fight Over Abortion Is Unrelenting

In Healthcare, States On
- Updated

In her classic 1984 study, “Abortion and the Politics of Motherhood,” the sociologist Kristin Luker addressed the fundamental question posed by the medical termination of a pregnancy:

Why is the debate so bitter, so emotional? Part of the answer is very simple: the two sides share almost no common premises and very little common language.

Luker elaborated further:

Those who oppose abortion usually begin by stipulating that since the embryo is an unborn child, abortion is morally equivalent to murder. But for those who accept abortion, this initial stipulation is exactly what is problematic; from their point of view, the embryo has the capacity to become a child but it is not a child yet, and therefore belongs to a very different moral category.

Over the years, the abortion debate has become a linchpin in the political battle between Democrats and Republicans, mobilizing Christian evangelicals on the right and supporters of the women’s movement on the left.

Why has the abortion issue had such staying power, compared, for example, with the steady liberalization of views on homosexuality and interracial marriage?

Part of the reason for this is that the abortion issue taps into competing, deep-rooted views on the role of men and women in society. The sexual revolution and the radical transformation of the work and personal lives of women after the introduction of the contraceptive pill in the early 1960s — and the guarantee of women’s reproductive rights by the Supreme Court decisions Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 and Roe v. Wade in 1973 — brought these antithetical beliefs about abortion to the fore.

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