The problem with a Christian-left coalition
On February 20, WGBH posted a video of a panel featuring Christian-progressive columnist Elizabeth Bruenig titled “Religion, Politics, and the Left.” In it, around 41:56, an audience member asks Bruenig for her perspective on anti-choice Christians in the leftist movement. She proceeds to outline the differences between the “secular” left and the progressive-Christian left, and gives her opinion on the potential for coalition-building between the two groups. Now, I don’t usually give anti-abortion hacks the time of day, but considering Bruenig’s bizarre popularity among online leftists, I feel compelled to break down her asinine views.
Bruenig starts by completely misrepresenting what constitutes a common leftist pro-life position, and instead relies on long-debunked myths:
Most secular leftists would say they don’t have any interest in seeing the abortion rate go up, for no other reason than it’s a medical procedure you don’t need to have — you shouldn’t submit yourself to surgery if it’s possible to avoid it. Abortion represents people being put in a position where they have to do something that’s somewhat dangerous to them and their person. I think most people on the left would say they would rather have those rates go down or be stable, because people have access to birth control. I think that’s a pretty typical secular left position.
Hey look! It’s the tired, disproven myth that abortion is dangerous! Contrary to Bruenig’s unsubstantiated claim, most actual leftists know childbirth is far more likely to result in death than abortion. We also are likely to have learned that first trimester abortions, which constitute 89% of abortions, are among the safest medical procedures available with no long-term complications of statistical significance. Perhaps if Bruenig was familiar with abortion-related facts, she would not only refer to abortion as “a surgery,” since 31% of all non-hospital abortions are via medication. [Stats in this paragraph from the Guttmacher Institute]
It is also not a common leftist position to support access to birth control in relation to abortion. Free, unrestricted birth control is a right in and of itself, whether or not it results in lower or stable abortion rates. Abortion and birth control are both equally valued pillars of reproductive justice, and both are safe. Lowering abortion rates is only a leftist interest insofar as we understand people are economically and politically disenfranchised, and may feel coerced into certain reproductive choices by external factors. Once we decommodify healthcare and restructure the economy, we should have no political or cultural interest in abortion rates. Maybe they’ll be higher at some point in the future, even after achieving a more economically equitable society—there are valid personal reasons that could evolve over time. Leftists cannot and should not gauge the success of economic liberation by abortion rates.
Bruenig goes on to describe the progressive, pro-life Christian perspective. This is, obviously, a common anti-abortion stance in America: pathetic and full of contradiction.
And then the Christian pro-life progressive position is, we want to see those rates come down because abortion is an evil that we don’t want to see in society. And progressive Christians tend to say the best way to do that isn’t through illegalizing it, because of bans that have had mixed results in countries where they’ve taken place. And, because it means involving the penal carceral state in this tender place in people’s lives. For the better good, the better way to reduce those rates is through universal healthcare, universal paid leave, having access to education, and in some cases progressive Christians advocate for access to birth control.
A group that hinges their support for universal healthcare, paid leave, and other social reforms on its potential to reduce abortion rates are not to be trusted by the real left. We do not want coalition partners who would abandon support for free birth control if its impact on reduced abortion rates faltered. Again: free, unrestricted birth control and free, unrestricted abortion are separate, important rights.
…the secular left, especially in recent years — i’d say the last 5 or 10 years — have expressed concern over a stigmatization of abortion, that it shouldn’t even carry a stigma. That, even if it is the case that we would prefer rates be low or stable, the political emphasis on reducing rates results in a stigmatization of women who have abortions, which the secular left tends to say is very unfair and results in a real drop in quality of life, which is part of what makes these procedures dangerous and hard to find, and as long as we participate in that narrative we’re going to be hurting women.
She is very accurate here: stigmatization of abortion has a material effect on abortion availability and safety. The myth about abortion being inherently dangerous is one of the contributors to the political climate that reduces access, thereby making it more dangerous. Politicians rely heavily on the myth of unsafe abortion to close clinics, forcing people to wait longer for the procedure or causing them to turn to non-professional abortions. This is a self-fulfilling prophesy, sparked by lies spread by Christians like Bruenig.
And so that sort of puts the progressive Christian pro-lifers in a bind, because there’s no way for them to say what they believe without contributing to a narrative that can be described as stigmatizing abortion.
Christians who bemoan their inability to stigmatize abortion among leftists center themselves as victims, instead of working to correct the oppression of those without full reproductive rights. So she’s right, they are in a bind. They should feel like there’s no public space where it is appropriate to share their outdated, conservative views on abortion being evil. If you don’t want penal solutions to abortion, and you think lower abortion will be accomplished with social reforms, there is no need to say anything more on the matter. Work on the social reforms and shut the fuck up.
So that is a delicate conflict, it has to do with rhetorics of each side. I think it’s an irresolvable rhetorical difference. I think the best way to solve irresolvable rhetorical differences is to focus on praxis.
Bruenig pushes this narrative — that it is simply a rhetorical difference — because her position of influence on the left depends on the issue being sidelined. But it is not a rhetorical difference, it is a heavily material difference. Real leftists work to expand access to abortion, to make it free, easy, and something a person should never regret. We work to change the conditions of a capitalist system that coerce people to certain reproductive choices, but our ideal society still includes abortion as a reproductive choice. Free, universally-accessible abortion is a goal of the actual left, not something to be tolerated in the short-term, and abolished in the long-term. Leftists work to ensure abortion will always be available, because it is a valid and safe option for fully-liberated individuals. No one who disagrees with that should ever be considered an ally, let alone an official coalition partner, of a leftist movement. We will not sideline abortion for the sake of hypothetical coalition-building, throwing a much larger, pro-abortion base under the bus.
Bruenig concludes by acknowledging progressive-Christians should fight for social reforms without using explicitly anti-abortion justifications (even though she, publicly and often, condemns abortion as evil):
In this case, it would mean doing less talking and more coalition building around, say, universal healthcare. I think that one is in reach, it’s a movement that is building steam. Progressive Christians get on board with the secular left there, and I think that in terms of reasoning about why that is, inside progressive Christian circles you’re kind of free to discuss as you will. But that coalition in and of itself I don’t think needs to have a pronouncedly Christian-progressive pro-life statement. Its statement is sufficient morally on its own. And then the knock-on effects are something that progressive pro-life Christians are really excited about.
This seems, without much critical thought, like acceptable terms for a Christian-left coalition. However, as I mentioned earlier, our movement centers free and universal abortion as a pillar of reproductive justice. We need to change people’s minds, most specifically Christians’, on abortion in order to achieve true liberation. Quietly holding resentment towards a giant swath of the population is a recipe for tension and fracturing in the movement. Anti-choice Christians tend to overstate their potential contributions in order to make toxic narratives about abortion acceptable in the movement, but we have enough people who support abortion without apology to achieve our goals. If “progressive” anti-choice Christians push for universal healthcare — fine. But incorporating them into a movement strategy is both morally suspect and tactically questionable.
The real movement stands for free, universal, easy abortion without apology — forever.