Finding the moral, sensible middle ground on abortion
Our liberal system of government demands that we find a compromise between two competing visions of the moral good
Did you know that in the contemporary United States a woman who has a miscarriage after falling down a flight of stairs can be arrested for "attempted fetal homicide"?
Or that a judge can order a critically ill pregnant woman to undergo a cesarean section even though he knows it might kill her? (In at least one case, the woman and baby both ended up dead.)
Or that a pregnant woman who loses the pregnancy in the process of trying (and failing) to kill herself can be charged with the crime of "homicide by child abuse"?
I didn't know all this either — at least before reading "Pregnant, and No Civil Rights," an explosive Nov. 8 New York Times op-ed by Lynn M. Paltrow and Jeanne Flavin. Liberals and feminists might be consoling themselves about the defeat of proposed "personhood" amendments in North Dakota and Colorado last Tuesday. But as Paltrow and Flavin so powerfully show, moves to embed fetal rights in the law have made enormous strides over the past several years — and nothing about the results of the 2014 election is going to change that.
I find the trend deeply disturbing — and not because I'm an abortion-rights absolutist. On the contrary, I think that abortion raises extremely difficult moral questions on all sides. For that reason, it's an issue tailor-made to serve as a test case for liberal politics. And it's a test that too many of us, on all sides, are failing.
Liberal democratic government requires a citizenry capable of understanding and acting on two fundamental truths about the human condition: people often disagree about the highest good (or moral truth); and not all things deemed morally wrong ought to be outlawed and prosecuted by the government. Liberalism stands or falls by these distinctions — and the capacity of the citizenry to make them.
And that's where we're failing.
Consider the manifold complexities surrounding abortion. To begin with, it pits two absolute moral claims — the fetus's right to life and the woman's right to individual liberty (including control of her own body) — against each other in such a way that there is sometimes no outcome in which the rights of both parties can be upheld.
Then there's the fact that not everyone accepts that there is any such trade-off — because they reject the rights-claims of one or the other of the parties. Some advocates of abortion rights deny the humanity and thus dignity of the fetus, for example, while some anti-abortion advocates seem to think the woman's right to bodily freedom ends as soon as she becomes pregnant, because another life is at stake.
Many others, meanwhile, building on their muddled (but quite possibly accurate) moral intuitions, believe that while the fetus is a matter of relative moral indifference at the start of a pregnancy (in the first trimester), by some time in the second trimester, and certainly by the age of viability (which is constantly being pushed back by advances in medical expertise and technology), it develops into a being possessing full dignity and rights.
This wide range of moral opinions would seem to point liberal politics in the direction of a messy political compromise. Rhetorically, such a compromise was nicely captured by Bill Clinton's line about the importance of making abortion "safe, legal, and rare." Policy-wise, it gestures toward easy availability of abortion in the early stages of pregnancy, severe restrictions close to viability, and a range of regulations in the middle, differing somewhat from state to state (because of the American federalist system).
This (minus the federalism) is precisely what prevails throughout most of Europe today. Despite the absence of an organized religious right, abortions across much of the continent are extremely difficult to procure after 20 weeks of pregnancy. But during the first trimester? They're easily and safely available nearly everywhere, often at taxpayer expense.
That makes no sense to the extremists on both sides of the American abortion debate — even though it's precisely what liberalism demands when an issue is shot through with tragic moral conflicts and deep fundamental disagreements.
Don't tell that to Katha Pollitt, whose new book is just the latest in a series of attempts on the part of a certain style of feminist to de-moralize the act of aborting a fetus — to assert that women who terminate a pregnancy should feel no regrets or moral qualms, and that they should perhaps even embrace it as a positive good that involves no significant moral compromises at all.
An equal and opposite form of moral simplification — and one with far more political clout behind it at the present moment — can be seen in the personhood movement that, as Paltrow and Flavin so chillingly show, is changing the way the law treats pregnant women. If the movement gets its way, a pregnant woman will become, in the eyes of the law, a vessel that exists entirely for the sake of carrying fetal life to term. She will be transformed, in other words, from a woman possessing her own dignity, freedom, and rights into a mother expected and even required by law to sacrifice her own good for the good of her child.
Those committed to a genuinely liberal politics — as Americans of every party or ideology ought to be — should actively seek to avoid either extreme. Whatever our personal moral convictions, we need to resist the temptation to adopt a politics of purity — to treat either fetal life or women's liberty as politically worthless.
Both have value.
No matter how many of our inveterate moral simplifiers and political mischief makers seek to deny it.