Opinion: The new Republican Party isn’t ready for the post-Roe world

Photo/Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times / Abortion rights volunteers gathered at the Van Aken Market Hall in Shaker Heights, Ohio, to encourage people to vote “yes” on Issue 1, on Oct. 21, 2023. Ballot questions have been a winning strategy for abortion rights.

Ohio is not a swing state, not any longer. Donald Trump won it by 8 points, twice. It has a Republican governor, and while its senators are split between the parties, its U.S. House delegation is made up of 10 Republicans and five Democrats. And yet Ohio just passed an abortion-rights referendum by a margin of more than 13 points.

There's no way to spin this result. There's no way to spin every other pro-choice result in every other red-state referendum. The pro-life movement is in a state of electoral collapse, and I think I know one reason.

In the eight years since the so-called New Right emerged on the scene and Trump began to dominate the Republican landscape, the Republican Party has become less libertarian but more libertine, and libertinism is ultimately incompatible with a holistic pro-life worldview.

I'm not arguing that the pro-choice position is inherently libertine. There are many millions of Americans — including pro-choice Republicans — who arrive at their position through genuine philosophical disagreement with the idea that an unborn child possesses the same inherent worth as anyone else. But I've seen Republican libertinism with my own eyes. I know that it distorts the culture of the Republican Party and red America.

The difference between libertarianism and libertinism can be summed up as the difference between rights and desires. A libertarian is concerned with her own liberty but also knows that this liberty ends where yours begins. The entire philosophy of libertarianism depends on a healthy recognition of human dignity. A healthy libertarianism can still be individualistic, but it's also deeply concerned with both personal virtue and the rights of others. Not all libertarians are pro-life, but a pro-life libertarian will recognize the humanity and dignity of both mother and child.

A libertine, by contrast, is dominated by his desires. The object of his life is to do what he wants, and the object of politics is to give him what he wants. A libertarian is concerned with all forms of state coercion. A libertine rejects any attempt to coerce him personally, but he's happy to coerce others if it gives him what he wants.

Donald Trump is the consummate libertine. He rejects restraints on his appetites and accountability for his actions. The guiding principle of his worldview is summed up with a simple declaration: I do what I want.

Trump's movement dismisses the value of personal character. It mocks personal restraint. And it's happy to inflict its will on others if it achieves what it wants. Libertarianism says that your rights are more important than my desires. Libertinism says my desires are more important than your rights, and this means that libertines are terrible ambassadors for any cause that requires self-sacrifice.

I don't think the pro-life movement has fully reckoned with the political and cultural fallout from the libertine right-wing response to the COVID pandemic. Here was a movement that was loudly telling women that they had to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, with all the physical transformations, risks and financial uncertainties that come with pregnancy and childbirth, at the same time that millions of its members were also loudly refusing the minor inconveniences of masking and the low risks of vaccination — even if the best science available at the time told us that both masking and vaccination could help protect others from getting the disease.

Even worse, many of the same people demanded that the state limit the liberty of others so that they could live how they wanted.

This do-what-you-want ethos cost a staggering number of American lives. A 2022 study found that there were an estimated 318,981 vaccine-preventable deaths from January 2021 to April 2022. Vaccine hesitancy was so concentrated in Republican America that political affiliation was more relevant than race and ethnicity as an indicator of willingness to take the vaccine.

It's not just that libertinism robs Republicans of moral authority; it's that libertinism robs Republicans of moral principle. The Ohio ballot measure could fail so decisively only if Republicans voted against it. The same analysis applies to ballot referendum losses in pro-Trump states such as Kansas, Montana and Kentucky.

In each state, all the pro-life movement needed was consistent Republican support, and it would have sailed to victory. All the Democrats in the state could have voted to protect abortion rights, and they would have lost if Republicans held firm. But they did not.

"Do as I say and not as I do" is among the worst moral arguments imaginable. A holistic pro-life society requires true self-sacrifice. It asks women to value the life growing inside of them even in the face of fear and poverty. It asks the community to rally beside these women to keep them and their children safe and to provide them with opportunities to flourish. It requires both individuals and communities to sublimate their own desires to protect the lives and opportunities of others.

As the Republican Party grows more libertine, the pro-life movement is going to keep losing. It's also going to lose in the Republican Party itself, a party that is increasingly dedicated to outright defiance.

The challenge for pro-life America isn't simply to raise more money or use better talking points. As Republican losses in Virginia demonstrate, advocating even a relatively mild abortion ban — a 15-week law, not a so-called heartbeat six-week bill — is fraught. The challenge is much more profound. Pro-life America has to reconnect with personal virtue. It has to model self-sacrifice. It has to show, not just tell, America what it would look like to value life from conception to natural death.

At present, however, the Republican Party is dominated by its id. It indulges its desires. And so long as its id is in control, the pro-life movement will fail. There is no selfish path to a culture of life.