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A Roadmap to Defining and Winning the Real Abortion Debate: Prevention vs. Punishment

Lisa Littman suggests that the real abortion debate is about differing approaches to unintended pregnancy on the part of progressives and conservatives.

In this interesting and innovative essay, Lisa Littman suggests that the real abortion debate is about differing approaches to unintended pregnancy on the part of progressives and conservatives. Littman draws on George Lakoff’s formulation of the two worldviews that inform people’s perspectives of politics—the “Nurturant Parent” model and the “Strict Father” model—and argues that progressives, holding the former model, approach unintended pregnancy as something to be prevented, while conservatives, in line with the latter model, see the phenomenon as something to be punished. The two different value systems underlying the “Nurturant Parent” model and the “Strict Father” model, according to Littman, lead progressives, while supporting legal abortion, to support policies that would reduce abortion, while leading conservatives, while opposing legal abortion, to support policies that increase abortion.

-- Carole Joffe

The debate about abortion has been emotionally charged and divisive. Because we, as Progressives, have failed to define our values in this debate, we have allowed the Conservatives to oversimplify the debate into distracting sound bites and to put us on the defensive.

This debate is not about "choice" or "life". It is not even about being "anti-abortion" or "pro-abortion". This debate is how we approach the issue of unintended pregnancy: Prevention or Punishment. The Prevention Approach is about supporting policies that prevent unwanted pregnancies and decrease abortions while the Punishment Approach is about supporting policies that increase unintended pregnancies and increase abortions in order to punish people for having sex. The difference in approach reflects the difference in our values.

By defining the abortion debate terms of our values, we can show the difference between Prevention and Punishment values, policies, and goals. This will allow us to steer the discussion back to the relevant abortion question and allow us to have an honest debate. An honest debate is the kind that we can win. What follows is a discussion of the key issues in the abortion debate along with references to the supporting literature.


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