The right is succeeding in moving the goalposts on abortion

So much about the “Todd Akin affair” has focused on the Missouri congressman’s unfathomable and demeaning attitude towards women as well as his faulty logic and “knowledge.”At times, the situation is referred to as the Akin-Ryan syndrome. The two of them have completely refocused America’s views on choice and life by moving the goal posts far to the right.

When Roe v Wade was decided in 1973, America was in many ways divided in two. There were those who supported a woman’s right to choose whether or not she wanted an abortion. While there was concern about aborting a child in the third trimester, even this was accepted by many, if the mother’s life was in danger.

Pro-life, or anti-choice, advocates simply opposed abortion. Some of them were willing to make exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother, but these were footnotes to their basic point that women simply should not be allowed to have control of their reproductive organs.

The line was drawn clearly, using the metaphor of a football field; it was located right on the 50-yard-line. There were obviously shades of gray as one got closer to or further from the 50-yard-line, but essentially one described him or herself as pro-choice or pro-life.

In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, the common ground movement began, in which the two sides looked for areas where they might agree. This actually turned into substance as both sides agreed that if a woman was pregnant, and if she did not want to assume the responsibilities of motherhood, then adoption would be a desirable path to follow. In St. Louis, MO, Reproductive Health Services, the area’s largest choice provider, started its own adoption agency. Not only did it counsel women in the three choices that they have in the case of a planned or unplanned pregnancy, but they offered actual services. In a city with a high minority population, it did not do what many other adoption agencies did. RHS welcomed minority children and did all that they could do to find placements for them.

My fear about the Akin – Ryan fiasco is that it has moved the goalposts. This has been happening gradually over the past few decades, as the right has worked to limit women’s rights and to dictate its own social policy that insisted that a woman carry a fetus to term, whether she wanted to or not.

When Todd Akin made his comment about “legitimate” rape, it reignited the debate about whether anti-choice advocates should at least support an exception for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or the mother’s life. Paul Ryan went so far as to say that life is so precious that it doesn’t matter how a fetus in conceived.

In many arenas, the debate is not taking place at the ten-yard-line of the anti-choice team. The implication is that “ten yards” are suitable to be under discussion. The remaining 90 yards (i.e. everything extending for choice including the third trimester all the way to the rape or incest exception is no longer in play for debate. The assumption is that abortion should be absolutely illegal for all women unless they became pregnant under circumstances of rape or incest. From the point of view of the right, there is no uncertainty about this. Women simply must accept the all-knowing dictum of the right that abortion should be illegal in all cases, except possibly those involving rape or incest.

What’s particularly frustrating about this development is that many pro-choice progressives do not see what’s happening. The goalpost has been moved and the debate refashioned. It’s no longer 1973, when the issue was divided in a way that was fair to both those who were pro-choice and those who were anti-choice. The division now gives the anti-choice movement 90 yards to its own and leaves the pro-choice advocates with just ten yards to defend.

As with so many other issues, the right tends to move under the radar and with subterfuge. Often times the left doesn’t know how it’s being conned. This is certainly the case with the Akin-Ryan redefinition and distortion of what is the essence of the choice issue.

Once again, progressives need to be wary of what’s going on and not passively cede that which is rightfully theirs. Let’s move the goalpost back where it should be, on the 50 yard line.

About Arthur Lieber:
Since 1969, Arthur Lieber has been teaching and working in non-profit educational organizations. His focus has been on promoting critical, creative, and enjoyable learning for students in informal settings. In the 2010 mid-term elections, he was the Democratic nominee for US Congress from Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District.