In our neverending abortion debate, there is a philosophical component, about the meaning of life and the role of government. But there is also a practical debate.
Many people agree with pro-lifers that abortion is not a morally neutral act, but balk because they fear the social consequences that would follow from banning abortion. This is why The New York Times' conservative columnist, Ross Douthat, has done the world many favors by answering some of those more common practical objections in not one, but two outstanding blog posts.
For example, what about back alley abortions? Wouldn't a pro-life regime cause the deaths of many women? Douthat points out that deaths from illegal abortions have more to do with the state of medicine than with abortion law. He notes that deaths from abortion declined vertiginously in the decades before abortion laws were liberalized in the U.S., simply as medicine improved. Today, he points out, the cases of grisly deaths related to illegal abortions happen in third-world countries where the problem is not the abortion regime, but the state of health care.
What about women's empowerment? Wouldn't a society where abortion was illegal be a society where women couldn't advance as well as men? Again, Douthat notes that Ireland, the first world country with the most restrictive abortion regime, scores as well as countries like Sweden and nearby Great Britain on any measure of women's equality you dare to name, such as pay and career advancement. Even in the U.S., in states where abortion has been somewhat restricted, there has been no noticeable impact on women's advancement.
And what about poor women? Wouldn't a draconian abortion regime, especially combined with the American conservative movement's supposed disdain for the poor, leave poor women in an impossible situation? This is one where Douthat has to walk a fine line, because even though in theory what you believe about human personhood and what you believe about the best means of caring for the poor aren't related, in practice in contemporary American politics, they are.
Douthat, like myself, is generally skeptical of government efforts to help the poor, and generally more supportive of private initiatives. (And, like myself, he has been part of a group effort known as "conservative reform" to push the Republican Party's politics in a more pro-family, pro-working class direction, an effort in part informed by his pro-life convictions.) We both search for that now-practically-extinct species, the pro-life Democrat, who marries a strong critique of the abortion regime with a strong endorsement of government activism on behalf of the poor. And in some never-gonna-happen ideal regime where we bang out a political compromise, we would gladly trade a much more pro-life legal regime for more government spending on the poor (even as we would dread its unintended consequences).
But this points to a broader element. The pro-life movement (in my view, rightly) sees itself as the heir of the Civil Rights Movement. But, famously, Martin Luther King did not just denounce the evils of Jim Crow; he also painted a picture for us of his dream.
Like the Civil Rights Movement, the pro-life movement demands, in order to achieve its aims, not just changes in specific legislation (voting rights, abortion restrictions), but changes in the broader society. The expression "culture of life," first advanced by John Paul II, points precisely to this idea: that a truly "pro-life" society is not one where there is simply abortion restrictions, but one where policy and culture make sure that every child is truly welcomed.
Like the Civil Rights Movement, there is a touch of utopia to this vision — but it is a realistic utopia. No, we are not living out Dr. King's dream, but as the identity of the White House's current occupant and Charleston's recently-removed Confederate flags show, we are still a lot closer to it than we were when he gave his speech, and we are all immeasurably better-off as a result.
Similarly, we may not ever fully reach the culture of life that I and fellow pro-lifers dream of. But there are very practical ways to get us much, much closer, and to reap immense rewards as a society as a result.