Does abortion have to be a them-and-us issue?

With the Supreme Court’s Roe vs Wade ruling, America looks more polarised than ever. Is there any way to bridge the divide?

By Alex Evans — 27th Jun · 9 min read

How do you know when there’s been a political earthquake? When every single tweet on your timeline is about the same thing. It feels like it happens a lot these days. The Capitol attack. Covid. Afghanistan. Ukraine. And now, the Supreme Court ruling on abortion.

I feel the same emotions I felt the morning after the Brexit referendum: shock, fear, and disbelief. Shock that this could happen when the Democrats control the White House, Senate, and House. Fear for the women who will suffer or die – and that this could be just the first domino, with equal marriage and contraception next. And disbelief in the parallels between The Handmaid’s Tale and real life.

This morning, as I tried to make sense of how US politics got here, I took down from the shelf a book I haven’t read for 20 years: Karen Armstrong’s The Battle For God. It’s a brilliant, gripping history of religious fundamentalism, that looks in particular at fundamentalist forms of Judaism in Israel, Islam in Egypt and Iran – and Protestant Christianity in the US. 

Of course, not everyone who opposes abortion is a fundamentalist. But equally, the hardline religious right has been instrumental in the push against abortion in the US. And for me, they’re an especially difficult set of opponents with whom to empathise. So in reopening Karen Armstrong’s book, I wanted to understand: what drives them to act as they do?

Armstrong writes,

“Fundamentalists feel that they are battling against forces that threaten their most sacred values … Those of us – myself included – who relish the freedoms and achievements of modernity find it hard to comprehend the distress these cause religious fundamentalists. Yet modernisation is often experienced not as a liberation but as an aggressive assault.”

So it was against this backdrop, she continues, that fundamentalists began to “fight back and attempt to resacralise an increasingly skeptical world.

One way they did so: by insisting that their religious texts were to be taken literally. Before the modern age, this would never have happened. Back then, religious texts were understood as mythos, not logos – as a different, complementary kind of truth, concerned with meaning and with what’s eternal where logos is rational, practical, and scientific. 

But from the eighteenth century onwards, “the people of Europe and America had achieved such astonishing success in science and technology that they began to think logos was the only means to truth”. The fundamentalists’ disastrous response: to insist that their religious texts were in fact logos. True not in a metaphorical but a scientific sense. Not myths, but facts. 

Another key plank of the fundamentalists’ fightback, from the mid-2oth century onwards: go political. In Israel, with militant settler movements. In Shia Islam, with the Iranian revolution. In Sunni Islam, with extremist groups like Al Qaeda, or theocracies like the Taliban. And in the US, with the emergence of the Christian right and its growing power in the Republican party.

Armstrong’s book came out in 2000, a year before 9/11. Since then, we’ve seen ISIS emerge from the ashes of Al Qaeda. Hardliners reassert control in Iran. Pro-settler parties achieve total dominance of Israeli politics. And fundamentalist Protestantism become more central than ever to US politics, whether in the MAGA movement, Q Anon, or supremacy on the Supreme Court.

Re-reading the book now, two decades after I first read it, I’m surprised by how much Armstrong’s argument chimes with the areas I now work on at Larger Us. 

How fundamentalism is a classic case of what Karen Stenner calls the “authoritarian dynamic” – when people who have a strong psychological preference for “oneness and sameness” perceive a “normative threat”, a sense of core values being at risk or under attack, and lurch as a result into a sudden, forceful desire for authoritarian order.

How the deep sense of loss felt by fundamentalists has become a cornerstone of their identity, just as psychiatrist Vamik Volkan warns about in his work, and how it’s made them vulnerable to manipulative leaders – whether political ones like Donald Trump, or religious ones like Jerry Falwell.

And how clashing worldviews can lead to ‘mutual radicalisation’ – when one group responds to a sense of threat by acting out in ways that make the other group feel threatened, who then act out in ways that make the first group feel even more attacked, and a self-amplifying feedback loop is created. 

It doesn’t take a genius to see how these dynamics could play out in America. Even before the Supreme Court’s incendiary ruling, the two sides were getting further and further apart. And while no-one can know how things will unfold from here, it’s chilling that serious commentators are talking about the potential for civil war.

So it feels more urgent than ever to ask: what’s the alternative? Is there a way we can pursue change in ways that create a larger us rather than a them-and-us, without diluting our principles or selling out the most vulnerable?

Well, perhaps Ireland is a good place to look for an answer to that question: a historically religious society where, until 2018, the Constitution gave the lives of unborn foetuses the same value as the lives of their mothers. 

In 2012, tragedy struck: a woman called Savita Halappanavar died from sepsis after her request for an abortion was denied on legal grounds. The resulting outcry led to a referendum.

It could so easily have ended up as divisive as Brexit; indeed, the campaign to keep abortion illegal was actually staffed by veterans of Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica, who tried to use the same polarising, fake news-driven playbook.

Except that it didn’t work. Here’s Fintan O’Toole (read the whole thing, it’s brilliant):

“The reactionary movements have been thriving on tribalism. They divide voters into us and them – and all the better if they call us “deplorables”. The yes campaigners in Ireland – many of them young people, who are so often caricatured as the inhabitants of virtual echo chambers – refused to be tribal. They stayed calm and dignified. And when they were jeered at, they did not jeer back. 

They got out and talked (and listened) without prejudice. They did not assume that an elderly lady going to mass in a rural village was a lost cause. They risked (and sometimes got) abuse by recognising no comfort zones and engaging everyone they could reach. 

It turned out that a lot of people were sick of being typecast as conservatives. It turned out that a lot of people like to be treated as complex, intelligent and compassionate individuals. A majority of farmers and more than 40% of the over-65s voted yes.”

The end result: a landslide in the referendum, with twice as many votes in favour of legalising abortion as against it.

It’s a case in point of the kind of change-making that produces a larger us rather than a them-and-us. It bridges divides. It listens. It shows respect. It refuses to take the culture war bait. And it works – even on an issue as divisive as abortion. 

Tomorrow, we’re publishing a guide to this kind of change-making called Building a larger us: five questions for change-makers. It’s all about how campaigns like this work, both in theory and in case studies from all over the world. We really hope you’ll find it useful and thought-provoking.

We’ve got a long fight ahead of us, on abortion and on so many other issues. But we also have the power to choose how to fight. Because as Ireland shows, we can choose to work towards the kind of victory that’s more about transforming relationships than defeating an enemy.

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