Is America ready for an honest conversation about abortion yet?
In this season’s eighth episode, Boston Legal – the relentlessly liberal ABC dramedy starring William Shatner and James Spader – lobbed an absolute bomb at those of us on the pro-choice side of the Roe v. Wade question. The bunker-buster was posed, predictably enough, by Crane Poole & Schmitt’s resident conservative, the gleefully Republican Denny Crane, portrayed by Shatner. BL fans know Crane to be positively Cheney-esque in his politics (although he did finally cross the aisle to vote for Obama because even he couldn’t stomach four more years like the last eight), and he routinely plays the straw man for the passionate liberalism of Spader’s litigator par excellence, Alan Shore.
This time, though, Crane (who’s battling through the early stages of Alzheimer’s) breaks through to a moment of pristine, Emmy-worthy clarity. In a brilliantly crafted scene, he explains to Shore that
You pro-choice people, you need Roe vs. Wade. You’re desperate for it. Not because you’re sure of your opinion, but because you’re not. You need to cling to that ruling as moral validation for a position you’re not entirely comfortable with, deep down.
Denny Crane, indeed.
There’s more than a grain of truth in Crane’s accusation. Pro-lifers have the luxury of absolute moral certainty, you see. Life begins at conception, they insist, and therefore abortion is murder. Period. And life is the most sacred thing on Earth. Is this formulation without its problems? Of course not – it’s about as inane as are all incredibly simple answers to incredibly complex questions. But it is simple, and if you’ve ever been to a pro-life rally you understand that this crowd is not inherently drawn to complexities.
Pro-choicers? Well, the pro-choice side of the argument is a tad more complicated because it’s not really about abortion at all. Let’s be clear on something: pro-choice does not equal pro-abortion. I have never in my life met a single human being who was pro-abortion. Not one. Such a person may exist – we’re a nation of over 300 million people, after all, so somewhere out there a freak-fringe analogue to Fred Phelps may be running loose. But so far I haven’t met this person. (My fellow Scrogue, Dr. Wendy Redal, advises me that Warren Hern of the Boulder Abortion Clinic may come close to fitting that bill, at least in the eyes of some.)
So while the two camps disagree violently on what the law should be, they have one very important thing in common: pro-lifers and all pro-choicers hate abortion. Just about all of them. The problem is that the pro-choice camp is forced to confront complexity. While abortion is bad, how do we legislate against individual freedoms? More to the point, whom do we trust to so legislate?
This is where the rubber hits the road. The truth that we don’t talk about very often is that a number of folks on the pro-choice side of the street are extremely conflicted. Many, I suspect, are uneasy with the proposition that abortion, in all contexts, should be treated as a simple matter of choice. However, they recognize the pro-life movement for what it is – an insidious theocractic wedge into governance – and they believe it to be worse, on the whole, than abortion.
It’s probably safe to say that a healthy majority of pro-choicers think this way about the anti-abortion crowd. Some of us perhaps know a thoughtful, conscientious pro-life advocate who has arrived at the position without the aid of reactionary theology and who craves a solution that doesn’t trash our individual liberties. But if we do, this person is the rarest minority. In point of fact, nearly 100% of the visible opposition to Roe v. Wade in America emanates from socially conservative evangelical Christianity. I’d probably be overreaching were I to suggest that most of these people would gladly subjugate the Constitution to their ministers’ various interpretations of the Bible (however ill-informed they may be), but by the same token you’d be naive to pretend that there isn’t enough of that very dynamic to concern those of us who think Jefferson meant what he damned well said about the wall between church and state.
Bottom line: there are a lot of pro-choicers in America whose positions have very little, if anything at all, to do with abortion per se. Instead, they “cling to that ruling” because they do not, cannot, will not trust those on the other side of the police line with their liberties. Nor should they. Those who would legislate based on facile, tragically misunderstood, millennia-old mythologies must not, under any circumstances, be emboldened in their quest to legally codify America’s status as a Christian nation – not as they define “Christian.”
What I believe. Sort of.
To this point I have been speaking, perhaps too generally, on behalf of others. So let me talk more directly about what and how I think.
First, do I believe that abortion is wrong? Maybe, but “wrong” is a loaded term. Wrong by whose standards? I believe abortion is usually a very bad thing, because at the bare minimum it exacts a lasting toll on the woman having it. There aren’t any occasions I can think of where an abortion is a cause for celebration. The only times I’d count abortion as “not so bad, on the whole,” are in cases of rape or incest, or where the woman’s life is threatened or where the fetus proves to have some form of birth defect.
Yes, I’m generally okay with abortion in the case of certain kinds of physical and mental defects. Each day children are born under circumstances guaranteeing that their lives will be miserable. I find that abhorrent. Life is a remarkable thing, but a life of torture is worse than death. Mercy, and an enlightened sense of responsibility toward those doomed to suffering, this is a higher value, I believe.
I certainly do not believe that abortion is a sin, though, primarily because I reject the foundations from which the current use of the word “sin” arises. By now I hope I’m clear on this subject: your religion and your conscience are yours, but you have no right whatsoever to export your religious beliefs onto others. If you have reasoned yourself to a pro-life moral position, I respect that and we can talk about it in good faith. If you believe it because somebody told you that’s what Jesus thinks, we have nothing to talk about, and you absolutely should not be allowed anywhere near a policy-making apparatus.
Do I believe that life begins at conception? No. At least, not in any way that’s relevant or actionable from a policy perspective. Depending on how you define things, life may begin before conception – I mean, eggs and sperm are alive, right? Is this really a road we want our various legislatures wandering down?
What I’m a lot more concerned about is viability – at what point is the fetus capable of living outside the womb? Do I have a problem forbidding the aborting of a viable fetus? Well, unless we’re talking about one of the instances I note above, maybe not. But these kinds of procedures are far more rare than most pro-lifers would have you believe.
In any case, I’m not a scientist, nor am I a physician. I’m willing to take guidance on this question from those who are experts in the study of physiology and medicine. And yes, I do think it’s possible to have this conversation productively and in good faith.
So, I do believe we should get rid of abortion, then? Well, I think we’d all be better off if there were so few abortions that the subject pretty much never came up, and that when there was an abortion the circumstances surrounding it were wholly uncontroversial. But overturning Roe v. Wade would no more accomplish this than the volumes of statutes currently on the books are preventing murders, robberies, rapes, child abuse and jaywalking.
So How Do We Get Rid of Abortions, Then?
We Americans have a bad habit of addressing the symptoms instead of curing the disease. Unfortunately, you’re never going to treat a sucking chest wound with a band-aid.
The first steps to eliminating abortion in America – assuming that’s really what you’re after – require us to address the actual causes: poverty and sub-standard education. Levitt and Dubner do a nice job of examining the socio-economic conditions surrounding abortion in Freakonomics, and let’s simply note here that if abortion is a scourge in the United States, it’s not the educated and well-off neighborhoods that are bearing the brunt of the damage. To be sure, privileged girls from the best schools in the lily-whitest gated communities in America’s most respected and white-flightest suburban enclaves do get themselves into the family way on occasion, but there are few more effective prophylactics, if you will, against unwanted pregnancy than the family and communal stability engendered by top-notch education and a clear sense of opportunity in life.
Unfortunately, we’re coming off what may prove to be the eight dumbest years of governance in our history. The decade of the 2000s will not be remembered for advancing learning in our society, and it’s hard to find a better example of educational malfeasance than “abstinence-only” sex ed. Bush and his social conservative henchmen have pushed the hell out of this particular anti-educational affront to coherent policy-making, and at this stage the only controversy remaining is whether abstinence-only makes no difference or whether it makes things worse.
I expect that, upon his inauguration, we’ll see Barack Obama confronting these issues in his social and economic agendas, although whether his administration will genuinely work toward a level playing field and universal opportunity or if it will simply settle for a few cosmetic nips and tucks around the fugly spots remains to be seen. However, if we get serious about making the most of every mind and turning some of our rhetoric about how all children can grow up to do whatever they set those minds to into actual reality, then we will see dramatic drops in the abortion rate (along with corresponding decreases in all kinds of anti-social and criminal behavior).
And for our pro-life readers: that’s what you really want, right? Right?
The Real Argument
This whole thesis is one I’ve been carrying around for quite some time. It has long been obvious that our nation’s most violently divisive argument wasn’t really about abortion at all, and the basic dishonesty of this, of our collective willing suspension of disbelief, has griped me to no end. To be clear: there is no disagreement in America today, nor has there ever been, about abortion. There is almost nothing that we agree on more unanimously, in fact.
Instead, abortion is the field on which a battle is being waged. It’s as though we’ve confused the turf at the Meadowlands with the game of football. Put another way, the abortion “debate” is about abortion in roughly the same way that the Civil War was about real estate in Manassas, Gettysburg and Chattanooga.
What we call the abortion debate is better understood as a conflict over human rights. More deeply, it is about Modernity vs. Fundamentalism. Are we a nation governed by reason and law, or are we a nation governed by the priesthood? Do we believe that individuals are endowed with certain inalienable rights, or do we trust TV preachers to tell us what rights God wants us to have? Will we insist on a system that adapts and evolves as our society grows and learns, or will we cling desperately to a system that refuses to acknowledge that change even exists?
Put bluntly, will we live in the 21st Century or the 16th?
I’m willing to have debates, so long as they’re conducted intelligently and in good faith. But for too long we’ve been conflating things, tangling ourselves up in rhetorical sucker plays and refusing to acknowledge what’s really on the agenda. That has to change if we’re ever to make any progress toward resolving our fundamental differences in a way that allows us to move forward together.
I’m game, but I wonder how many are with me.
Change We Can Live With
Obama will take office on the promise of “change we can believe in.” He promises that things will be different, that we’ll step past the partisan divisions that have set us at each other’s throats for so long.
So maybe this is the moment. Maybe this is our opportunity to find a way of addressing abortion in a way that is legitimately about abortion – that is, to discuss it in terms of science and the deeper social conditions that underlie it instead of in terms of reactionary, fear-driven theology.
Before this can happen, though, President Obama will need to restore government’s respect for the Constitution, a document that has suffered tremendous abuse in recent years. Governmental research functions will need to be returned to the control of actual researchers and we’ll have to stop pretending that anti-science is actually science. No more fundamentalist litmus tests, no more faux “debates” about facts that are settled, no more obeisance to those who think that Leviticus is a peer-reviewed journal.
Maybe now is the time for this. Or … maybe not – I mean, how hopeful should I be as long as Obama is still taking Rick Warren seriously? (For a wonderfully detailed look at the … ummm, quagmire … facing Obama, see Sarah Posner’s new American Prospect analysis on “The Truth About Abortion Reduction.”)
I believe that when these things are accomplished, we’ll all be surprised at how many people are willing to sit down at the table and honestly discuss their opinions about issues that have heretofore not been open to discussion.
Denny Crane was right: many of us are uneasy about being forced into an absolutist position over something we know to be nuanced and complex. I, for one, hope the time is approaching when intelligent people can begin untangling those complexities in an environment that’s free of suspicion and fear.