American religious conservatives have a problem.
Riding high on their partnerships with the Trump administration and the perception of being political kingmakers, they need to be sure that they will be able to sustain their momentum for years to come. And with the newly-stacked U.S. Supreme Court making the overturn of Roe v Wade a seeming inevitability (as well as putting the overturn of marriage equality within sight), they are now looking for what to do in a “post-Roe” world to retain their energy, power, and dizzying levels of funding. And in the discussions they have about that dilemma, their solution, often, is to work toward a world in which they have made abortion “unthinkable.”
“I’m not suggesting that the proposed laws are unimportant—on the contrary, pass more of them! I only wish to remind us that our goal is to make abortion unthinkable as well as illegal. And that means our work has only just begun…” – John Stonestreet and Roberto Rivera, Breakpoint
When I speak about American conservatives, of course, I don’t mean to suggest that there is some central plan or hive mind. It doesn’t work that way. Even getting U.S. Evangelicals and Catholic fundamentalists onto the same page can be a challenge sometimes, and the religious nationalist industrial complex is made up of an infinite number of organizations all vying for dollars in the same fundraising pool. But there does seem to be a fairly cohesive and organic process in which talking points filter out and take shape – and “unthinkable” appears to be one such trend in linguistic spin.
The origin of this particular incarnation of the talking point (it has been mused about many times before, but not with this degree of viral spread and consistency) appears to have been January’s Evangelicals for Life conference, in which the senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) U.S. legal division Kristen Waggoner encouraged attendees, using the phrase. Waggoner’s encouragement came about a week after Robin Marty’s Handbook for a Post-Roe America was published, and progressive news outlets were discussing how to respond to the possibility of a patchwork or even nationwide ban on abortion. The possibility that the left might evolve to cope with a changing legal landscape – as far as EFL attendees were concerned – needed to be thought out and prepared for.
So when Ontario Member of Provincial Parliament Sam Oosterhoff tells an anti-abortion rally in Toronto that he pledges to make abortion “unthinkable in our lifetime,” it’s helpful to look at religious conservative media for clues as to what he might mean by that, and where his influences are coming from.
“New Hampshire Right to Life’s position is clear, she said. ‘We would want to put restrictions on abortions and make it unthinkable and illegal…’” – Concord Monitor
I could go at some length about how promoters of the sensationalistic and Planned Parenthood -defaming movie Unplanned seized on the phrase during their publicity tour, or how it’s turning up on Fox News, or how it came up during anti-abortion rhetoric pertaining to legislation in New York and Georgia as well as a legal ruling in Louisiana, or how it spread widely enough that even a perceived-left website like Vox gave it oxygen – but that only establishes that there is definitely a narrative. I’d much rather look at what religious conservatives are getting at, when they use the phrase.
“Every answer to why abortion is viewed as still ‘needed’ stems from a deeper-seeded issue which we could be fighting against… we need to combat the issues which give abortion supporters reasons to think it is the better ‘option.’ Abortion needs to stop being an excuse for not addressing the larger issues at hand…” – Paul Collier
If anti-abortion groups wanted to turn their attention toward addressing poverty, it would probably be a welcome development. Sadly, you won’t find a whisper of that, and doing so would probably frighten the megadonors with whom they collaborate to form the Republican / Conservative political base. But getting religious conservatives to speak candidly about specific objectives isn’t always easy. Afraid that too much transparency might allow opponents to organize effectively against them, they often restrict their public musings to dog whistle terms (of which “unthinkable” is arguably one), and stay effectively mum about which political candidates they’ve managed to get nominated as candidates in an election. But in venues seen as relatively safe and exclusive, or from pundits who are seen as less prominent, sometimes you’ll find some elaboration.
One such pundit is The Federalist’s Georgi Boorman, who actually proposed a 6-point plan. Chief among these is to “Improve Reproductive Education” – but you won’t find her making any mention of contraception (elsewhere, Boorman reveals herself to be not a fan of The Pill), condoms or family planning. There’s no direct mention of sex education in schools, either, even though it would clearly be the necessary vehicle for what she has in mind. The “reproductive education” that she speaks of is predominantly “to educate women on the dangers of” abortion (by which she means the usual far right claims about health dangers of the practice), a fetishization of the stages of fetal development, and more fearmongering about the current medical process (i.e. she cites “the horrid conditions of abortionist Kermit Gosnell’s facility” as a typical example… it’s far from it).
The remainder of Georgi Boorman’s suggestions include more criminalization (elsewhere, she openly supports the death sentence for women who abort) and the vague “celebrate life” mantra, as well as increasing support for adoption (“especially cross-racial,” she adds, stealthily riffing on anti-abortion groups’ efforts to portray the procedure as a kind of racist genocide perpetrated by leftists) and – of course – ramping up funding for anti-abortion fake pregnancy centres.
On these points, her proposals are within the purview of those of Abby Johnson, whose own proposals are steeped in proselytizing and expanding anti-abortion pregnancy counseling centers into additional areas that beatify motherhood, but do not provide any hints of information about contraception or family planning (other than, perhaps, the “rhythm method”). But Boorman also adds a notable comment about “support[ing] fatherhood”:
“… what if fathers were asked to step up as parents and providers, instead of being written off as unqualified sperm donors? What if our culture demanded it? … Millions of fathers have been robbed of this opportunity since Roe, and our welfare system has enabled this by disincentivizing marriage and fatherhood obligations. … Instead of affirming mothers’ unilateral decisions by default, we should encourage fathers’ involvement (including marriage)…”
When religious conservatives frame opposition to gay and trans human rights as “protecting marriage,” LGBTQ+ organizations and spokespeople often quip about the hypocrisy in their seeming lack of worry about divorce and cohabitation. But the fact of the matter is that anti- groups have never stopped tilting at those particular windmills, either. An outright ban on divorce is only touted by the most extreme among them, but “disincentivizing” and creating an institutional system that heavily favours marriage come up often, and the idea of restricting divorce or making it difficult retains some level of popularity.
Other religious conservatives are more ambitious. Around the same time that Kristen Waggoner was proposing that abortion be made unthinkable, the Heritage Foundation hosted Sue Ellen Browder, who claims that “the sexual revolution hijacked the women’s movement” to make abortion and contraception priorities. This, too, is not a new argument, but it is gaining new popularity with organizations seeking to keep the money rolling in after an overturn of Roe. And with anti-trans, anti-sex work and anti-porn feminists partnering with religious conservatives like never before, there appears to be a sense that they have an opportunity to co-opt womens’ rights, which can then be used as a shield against accusations of homophobia, Islamophobia and puritanism, while at the same time purging it of reproductive rights advocacy and sex positivity, maintaining a subordinated role for women in administrative areas, and asserting the doctrine of complementarianism (a teaching used both to mandate motherhood as a woman’s integral life goal, and to invalidate LGBTQ+ peoples’ rights to live their lives as they need to).
“The battle against feminism is better fought by women because the public has been convinced that men are not qualified to speak about issues that affect the fairer sex…” – John Horvat II
On this point, James V. Schall suggests that religious conservatives need to target the entirety of the sexual revolution: “The path, when spelled out, is a direct line from divorce, contraception, and abortion to single-sex ‘marriage,’ in-vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and designer babies and now to a refusal to continue to increase and multiply with transgenderism, population decline, and, ultimately euthanasia… If we were to eliminate abortion, we must freely stop committing the sins that initiate disordered conceptions… Without this conversion, we will continue on the same path on which we now are traveling…”The Federalist’s Cullen Herout (which, admit it, must be a pseudonym) agrees at least on the point about contraception, saying “… if the goal really is to make abortion unthinkable, that cannot and will not happen without a large-scale shift in our cultural attitude toward human sexuality and contraception…”
So the next time your local political representative muses about making abortion “unthinkable,” it’s only reasonable to press them to elaborate. Because there clearly is more to that statement – and while religious conservatives obviously don’t think in total homogeneity, there’s enough like-mindedness to view this sort of dog whistle with alarm.