A blog by Barry Edelson

The Tangled Ethics of Abortion

The Differences Between Proponents and Opponents of Abortion Rights Are Probably Irreconcilable

The political divide over abortion has always been confusing. It would make perfect sense if conservatives were the ones who favored abortion rights because they tend to come down on the side of social stability over the desires of individuals; consequently, they would naturally prefer that millions of unwanted poor and/or non-white babies never be born. And it would make perfect sense if liberals were the ones who opposed abortion on the grounds that any killing sanctioned by the state is a threat to civil liberties across the board; consequently, they would naturally view the fate of all those fetuses as a classic example of government callousness. But the murder of Dr. George Tiller last weekend in Wichita is a violent reminder that nothing about this perpetually distressing issue is ever simple or clear, let alone rational.

Those who trade in moral absolutes, and are therefore immune to argument, can only see Dr. Tiller's death in absolute terms: he was either a murderer who got what was coming to him, or he was a martyr for the cause of women's health. The only point that the proponents of these two irreconcilable views would probably agree upon is that both of them cannot be right. What both sides miss entirely is that this is the very definition not of a moral conflict, but an ethical one: not a clear case of right vs. wrong, but a confounding case of right vs. right.

When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down by the Supreme Court in 1973, there was a window of opportunity for the issue to be properly framed in ethically conflicted terms. The question was not whether there would be abortions in America, but whether abortions would be safe and legal or unsafe and illegal. No one argued that an unborn child was an inanimate object, or that the termination of a pregnancy was a trivial matter. Reasonable people could see that, far from arguing that abortion was a medically benign procedure without emotional or spiritual consequence, the Court merely shifted the decision-making power from the government to the individual.

To the nation's subsequent misfortune, the entire issue was from that moment on framed entirely in terms of women's rights. Instead of seeing abortion as a necessary evil that would save many women and families, and perhaps the nation as a whole, from potentially greater harm, proponents of abortion took the stance that any attempt to limit access to abortion was tantamount to an attack on women's freedom. Opponents took the equally inflexible view that abortion was simply murder, and that feminism was therefore an incarnation of evil. Either you believed that a woman had an absolute right to do anything with her body that she wished, including terminating her pregnancy, or you believed that the women's movement had run amok to the degree that even baby killing was acceptable.

In the ensuing years, the national "debate" about abortion has been politicized to the point of paralysis. It is one of those issues about which a politician doesn't have to do anything but proclaim his fealty to one side or the other in order to gain political favor from his supporters. Therefore, it is the interest of both proponents and opponents of legal abortion for the issue to remain precisely in the legal and ethical limbo where it has been trapped for the last 36 years. For the most part, Republicans have been able to count on the votes of self-proclaimed Christian conservatives, and Democrats on those of so-called secular liberals, largely on the issue of abortion rights.

Abortion is not sanctioned by any organized religion. So why do we not see bearded rabbis and imams leading vigils outside of clinics where abortions are performed? Surely religious people of many faiths oppose abortion, so why are only Christians so moved to outrage that they make it the cause of their lives? The choice of a church for the killing of Dr. Tiller was certainly not accidental, as it symbolizes not only the denial of his life and humanity, but of his protection by God. But as much as the anti-abortion movement is motivated by religion, its Christian identity is aided and abetted by politics. Many would no doubt argue that they are acting purely out of their conviction that abortion is murder, and many are no doubt sincere in that view. But that begs the question of how they came to that view in the first place, and how a handful became so radicalized as to equate doctors who perform abortions, many of whom are obstetricians who also deliver babies, with Nazis who performed medical experiments in the concentration camps. A few would continue to believe that even if the vast majority of the country was totally opposed to them, but sheer political calculation has enabled those with the most rigid views to find sanctuary in the mainstream.

By the same token, how is it that abortion proponents are so convinced that a women's right to end her pregnancy trumps every other consideration? Surely, they too are motivated by a conviction — in their case, that women have been treated like so much property through much of human history, and now that the male power structure has finally been breached, it would be a shocking act of cruelty and ignorance to turn the clock back on the progress that women have made in society. For them, abortion rights exist on a continuum of women's empowerment that includes sex education, access to birth control, and opportunities in employment and public life. But it is in some ways even more disheartening to hear those who profess to hold a socially enlightened view of the matter to utterly dismiss any mention of the fact that a fetus is indeed a living thing.

Whether you believe that abortion is justifiable, a view held by countless numbers of decent people throughout the civilized world, or you believe that it cannot be justified under any circumstances, a view also widely held, there is no reason why you cannot also see that when a mother's health and an unborn baby's survival are at odds with one another, there are no easy ethical, moral or religious arguments either for or against any course of action. The introduction of politics and government into this tragic dilemma is guaranteed to drown the nuance and humanity of the situation in a flood of shrill hyperbole. And so it has, over and over again.

We would probably have been much better off if, in Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court had not established abortion as a legal right, but merely said it was a matter for the states to decide. Most states would probably have legalized the practice long ago. The issue might have remained divisive and troubling, but it would have been hard for anyone to argue that either the will of the people had been usurped by the courts, or that women were not free to make this difficult decision without the interference of government. Opponents would have been free to continue trying to persuade women not to have abortions and to convince the nation why it is wrong. Most important, national politics would not have been poisoned by this single issue for decades.

Abortion will never be approached rationally as long as it has to bear the gargantuan weight of these social forces. Praise to our new President for trying to bridge the awful divide, but he isn't the first and, unfortunately, will not be the last to make the attempt. There will always be extremists on any issue, but on most issues the middle ground ultimately holds sway. On this issue, though, the middle ground has long been occupied by absolutists from both sides, all of whom enjoy a deeply unhealthy but highly effective relationship with their respective political masters. As long as abortion equals votes, and as long as both evangelical Christians and women's rights advocates both feel that they are under attack, the battle will go on. And abortions, legal or otherwise, will continue to be performed in large numbers in America.

June 6, 2009

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