[Leah Libresco Sargent is the author of Building the Benedict Option. She runs the Substack community Other Feminisms. This article ﬁrst appeared in National Review magazine (October 14); © 2023 by National Review. Reprinted by permission.]
Donald Trump’s imagined compromise deal on abortion isn’t just a bad bargain for the pro-life movement—it’s impossible for him or anyone else to deliver. On Meet the Press, Trump came out swinging against the six-week heartbeat bills passed by more than a dozen states and supported by his rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis. Those early bans are a “terrible thing and a terrible mistake,” according to Trump, who imagines he can find a weeks-based cutoff that will guarantee that “both sides are going to like me.”
Trump is more candid and transactional than other Republican politicians, but he’s not far out of step with many GOP leaders. They want pro-life activists to take the Dobbs decision as a sufficient payoff and wait another 50 years before being allowed to make trouble again. Republican strategists are meeting with senators to propose alternative language that would allow politicians to stop describing themselves as “pro-life.” Trump’s tactic is different in tone but not substance from that of former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley, who said at the first GOP debate, “Let’s find consensus,” and argued that the target was banning late-term abortions and encouraging adoption.
A survey of European abortion law and American opinion-polling might suggest that a détente can be achieved if politicians unite behind a 15-week ban. A slim majority (51 percent) of Americans support legal abortion at 15 weeks, with support falling to 27 percent at 24 weeks, according to June 2023 polling from AP-NORC. It’s no wonder politicians are attracted to this compromise position—it sounds survivable for the professionals. For children in the womb, it’s deadly.
Nearly all abortions (93 percent in the 40 states reporting their data) occur in the first trimester (13 weeks). A pro-life “compromise” that sets bans after the first trimester would leave nearly all children in the womb at risk. And contra Haley and Trump, it’s not likely to leave pro-choice activists feeling appeased either. Some activists have reacted with frustration to Democrats’ emphasis on sympathetic plaintiffs and life-threatening pregnancies. Activists don’t want storytelling about “good abortions” to imply a parallel set of “bad abortions.” The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) has refused to back laws that clarify “life of the mother” exemptions and create safe harbors for physicians. ACOG policy is to “strongly oppose any effort that impedes access to abortion care and interferes in the relationship between a person and their healthcare professional.”
An abortion compromise isn’t likely, as Trump imagined, to leave us “with peace on that issue for the first time in 52 years.” Pro-lifers can win only by making their case on the merits, directly to their neighbors, not just to judges. It doesn’t make sense to claim you’re fighting only for “federalism” or that you care a lot about the exact threshold for state referenda and direct democracy. The instinct to fight by feints and misdirection—for example, through TRAP laws (targeted regulation of abortion providers, like mandating wider hallways)—lost its relevance when Roe fell.
I know making the case on the merits can work, because other people did it for me. I grew up reading The Cider House Rules and donating to Planned Parenthood. My first protest march was a pro-choice one that my mother says I attended in utero. When I went to college, for the first time I met pro-lifers who talked about being pro-lifers, and I didn’t hesitate to pick a fight. When my college’s pro-life group began a “Baby Lucy” postering campaign, plastering fetal-development pictures all over the campus every week, I whipped up a counter-protest. I tried to find a fetal-cat ultrasound I could plausibly juxtapose with “Lucy” to suggest that you couldn’t tell human from animal. (It was tougher than I anticipated to find a picture that wasn’t obviously different.)
I knew the pro-lifers—I grappled with some of them every Tuesday and Thursday in our debate group. I didn’t make a secret that the new posters were mine. They didn’t respond by tearing them down or trying to find a referee to work. They took my confrontation as an invitation to a dialogue—a conversation that lasted for years until I finally changed my mind.
Long before I decided that my pro-life peers were right, I realized they argued in good faith. That’s not the message people get when pro-life advocates and putatively pro-life politicians, unless cornered, avoid speaking about the moral worth of unborn babies. It’s not the message sent when pro-life advocates prioritize changing the rules for referenda over winning referenda. Trying to dodge democracy is an expression of despair.
Notre Dame’s 2020 study “How Americans Understand Abortion” found that people hear politicians talk about abortion on the news but that most have never had a conversation face-to-face about abortion. For many of the 217 interviewees, answering the questions of the sociologists administering the study was the most in-depth conversation on abortion they’d had in their lives. When one interviewer, following the script, wrapped up by asking, “Is there anything else you’d like to add or clarify that you think would really help us to understand your views?” a man participating in the study replied, “No, I don’t necessarily understand my views. So I will ask you to understand them.”
When I’ve gone to college campuses to lead debates on difficult topics, including abortion, the students have been generous with their willingness to field challenging, good-faith questions from their peers. Persuading our neighbors to see the child in the womb as a person requires us to see our neighbors as people. Like me, they want to act rightly, are open to persuasion (even if it may take years), and are capable of—even rejoice in—doing hard things for the sake of the vulnerable and the marginalized.
America will never be able to sustain a compromise that restricts abortion in theory but leaves almost all children in utero at risk. And heartbeat bills will never pass without a sustained campaign of compassion, neighbor to neighbor. Ultrasounds can change minds by showing the face of the child in the womb. Our opponents must also see our faces as we make the case personally and do so with love and sorrow.