My center-right friends frequently try to avoid taking a position on abortion. “It should be decided by the states,” they say – and then refuse to elaborate. I understand why they want this to pass for a fully fleshed position. They agree with social conservatives that Roe v. Wade is an atrocious decision and don’t want to alienate party allies by explicitly rejecting their substantive claims (that abortion is like the holocaust, that life begins at conception). They don’t care much about abortion either way – so they don’t want to debate it.
It is as if we have been transported to the 1850s, and Stephen Douglas is preaching the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” once more. But it should be clear that this is not a position on the substance of the issue. If and when Roe v. Wade is overturned, people will be forced to talk about the morality of the abortion. “States’ rights” do not end the debate – they just shift it to a new forum. So when the states are legislating again, which side will you be on? Here my friends try to refuse to answer, as if state politics were so insignificant that people with fully formed political ideologies could still afford to ignore them.
I sympathize with my friends. Like them, I’m fairly ambivalent about abortion but hate Roe v. Wade. Overturning it may even have some value to the pro-choice community. As long as the decision is controlling precedent, anti-abortionists can pass the most absurdly expansive laws (prohibiting abortion in the case of rape, prohibiting it in the first trimester, etc.) without confronting their reality. But once their laws are real, many in the pro-life movement will blanch at the consequences of what they advocate – who wants widespread murder prosecutions against poor, single, teen-aged girls? Meanwhile, the sizable center will be satisfied when they pass laws against mostly irrelevant procedures like partial-birth abortions.
But obfuscation should not be a conservative goal. When we convince the religious that states’ rights is an abortion position, they assume that we support their total-abolition agenda and ramp up their intransigence. Progressives make the same assumption and react by doubling down on Roe. We cannot move forward with states’ rights until we have convinced people that states’ rights is not a position on abortion.