Abortion is back at the center of politics. In Congress and especially in state legislatures, bills have been introduced to ban financing for abortion, to restrict insurance coverage for abortion and to compel women to get ultrasounds before considering abortions.
In roughly the last year, six states have passed laws to ban abortion at the 20th week after conception. The legislative approaches are different, but the goal is pretty much the same: to get around the 1973 Supreme Court decision that declared a woman’s right to abortion.
Despite efforts by many a pundit and politician to find one, there is no centrist or moderate position on abortion. If you believe that the fetus is a human being with human rights, abortion is immoral, plain and simple, and ought to be illegal. If you believe anything short of that, then a woman’s right to control her own body dictates that abortion should be one of her options, at least most of the time.
When does human life begin? Many abortion opponents focus on the fact that life is a continuum, from embryo through fetus to baby and beyond. Where do you draw the line, if not at the very start of this process? But the law frequently draws lines simply because a line needs to be drawn. There is nothing magical about a 55 mph speed limit, as opposed to 56 mph or 54 mph.
Many of us also have no problem accepting the theory of evolution, another process with tiny, primitive organisms at the beginning and complex human beings at the end. At what point in evolution did people become people? There is no certain answer to that question. But we generally feel comfortable with the idea that it happened gradually.
Abortion, in short, isn’t a situation like the burning building that may or may not have someone trapped in it -- the point being that in this situation, morality requires you to err on the side of caution and act as if there was someone caught in the flames. The same is true of a fetus that might or might not be a human being, right-to-life groups argue. But in the case of a fetus, the uncertainty is not factual and can never be resolved definitively.
Advocates of abortion choice present their own burning-building puzzle. Suppose that a baby is in one room and jars containing two embryos are in another. You only have time to save the occupants of one room. Would you really grab the embryos (microscopic entities with no self-awareness, ability to feel pain and so on) and leave the crying baby to die in the flames? By anti-abortion logic, you would.
We think abortion should be a choice available to all women, paid for by the government if necessary, and without a lot of hypocritical regulations and limitations intended to make it difficult to obtain. But we respect the right-to-life movement as one of the only major interest groups in American politics that is dedicated to promoting interests other than its own.
We don’t respect those who use coercion and intimidation masquerading as legitimate protest -- or worse, actual murder -- to stop the work of abortion clinics. They may well be sincere in their belief that murder is going on inside those clinics. But in a democracy, where there are lawful ways to achieve change by changing people’s minds, no one has the right to short circuit that process.
Actually, that’s not quite true. Nine Supreme Court justices do have the right and the power (in fact, the duty) to short circuit the democratic process. That’s what the court did in its Roe v. Wade decision, which declared a privacy right broad enough to cover abortion.
Much of what makes people unhappy with the state of American politics can be traced back to Roe. The case energized the far right and politicized religious fundamentalists. It led many liberals to feel that the best approach to achieving their goals was through unelected judges.
We have the sense that abortion would be widely, if not completely, legal today in the United States, with far less controversy, if state legislatures had been allowed to continue the process of legalization that was picking up steam when the Supreme Court shut it down.
Now the legislative branches have returned to the fight. Too bad they’re on the other side.
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