Why America is becoming more polarized on abortion

The politics of abortion are reaching new extremes — but these extremes don't reflect public opinion

(Image credit: Illustrated | Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images, JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images, DickDuerrstein/iStock)

If you're looking to understand something about how and why American politics increasingly pits ever-more sharply polarized extremes against each other, with compromise and consensus not just elusive but seemingly inconceivable, you could do worse than study what is happening to abortion politics in the United States.

On the right, Supreme Court justices potentially committed to overturning Roe v. Wade and Casey v. Planned Parenthood, the landmark decisions that established a constitutional right to abortion, now hold a five-seat majority on the court. With liberal Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in failing health, there is a significant possibility President Trump will get to nominate a sixth justice who would favor the shredding of reproductive rights. If the court does take up the issue in the near future, it will likely do so in response to one of the many state laws passed in recent years, at the urging of pro-life activists, that seek either to ban the procedure outright or make it next-to-impossible for abortion clinics to operate (which is effectively the same thing).

Faced with this threat, Democrats have radicalized. Back in the 1990s they embraced Bill Clinton's moderate defense of abortion rights (which promised to keep the procedure "safe, legal, and rare"). But today they increasingly defend an absolute position. As we saw last week in New York state and on Tuesday in Virginia, the absolute position legalizes and reduces the restrictions on late-term abortion. Such procedures are almost always performed because the life of the mother is in danger, or the baby is unviable. However, these most recent laws provide some room for interpretation by a health professional as to what constitutes a good reason for a late-term abortion. Many pro-life activists insist the laws open the door for a pregnant woman to suddenly change her mind at the last minute "for any reason," and opt to terminate a viable pregnancy.

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There you have it, folks — American's abortion madness playing itself out right before our eyes.

It doesn't have to be this way. And if America's political institutions were capable of measuring and responding accurately to public opinion, it wouldn't be.

Polls have been remarkably consistent over the years: A solid majority of Americans believe abortion should be legal, but the extent of the support varies widely depending on how far along the pregnancy is and the motives of the mother. Overwhelming numbers (83 percent) favor its legality during the first trimester when the mother's life is on the line, while relatively few (20 percent) are willing to permit late-term abortions when the choice is a based simply on the mother's desire not to have the child. The absolute pro-life position (illegal in all circumstances) is affirmed by just 18 percent of the population.

Philosophers and ideologues hate this messy reality because it confounds the mind of the rationalist. Either a person is a rights-bearing human being from the moment of conception, in which case abortion is always tantamount to murder — or the entity growing inside the womb is a worthless clump of cells until it is born to a welcoming mother, which allows the morally unproblematic termination of a pregnancy any time a woman asks for one.

Yet most people are not rationalists. They treat a miscarriage at three weeks as a misfortune but categorically different in gravity than burying a two-year-old child. They also consider it morally obscene to end the life of a healthy 30-week-old fetus in utero if the baby would otherwise survive and thrive outside the womb.

These elemental and perfectly sound moral intuitions are reflected in abortion law across the European Union, where abortions are protected and easily available almost everywhere up to around 12 weeks but rapidly become restricted after that.

But not in the United States.

Here, the pro-life movement wants abortion banned outright, while pro-choice activists increasingly favor abortion with little restriction, even in the third trimester. Add to that America's distinctive brand of federalism and an emboldened conservative majority on the Supreme Court and we could end up with a truly bizarre, morally warped reality.

In a post-Roe America, women in roughly half the states in the country could face severe-to-total restrictions on abortion, while women in other states could be legally permitted to commit acts that many interpret as falling just short of infanticide. That's assuming, of course, that conservatives on the court don't begin pushing even further — to look for an occasion to ground the "personhood" of the fetus in the Equal Protection clause of 14th Amendment, granting fundamental constitutional protections to the unborn all the way back to the time of conception.

Moves and counter-moves. One wave of absolutism provoking the next, as the pendulum swings ever-farther away from anything resembling compromise or consensus — or anything approaching the morally muddled, but also morally reasonable, views of the American majority.

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