Abortion: The Voice of the Ambivalent Majority

If you want to know why our politics are so awful, check out our public debates about abortion in the past 72 hours.

Everybody is sensing where the Supreme Court seems to be heading on Roe v. Wade. But as our politics have grown coarser and more combative, a lot of conservatives aren’t even acknowledging the problems that have always made this issue so hard. For example: How do we show proper respect and deference to women who become pregnant in terrible circumstances? How do we respect women who say: “This is not abstract. This is my body and my private concern?” What would it look like to ban abortion in places where vast majorities do not believe that life begins at conception? Many conservatives focus on the fetus to the exclusion of all else.

A lot of the progressive commentary, on the other hand, won’t recognize the fetus at all. Over the last day or two I’ve seen progressives refer to abortion as just health care for women, or an entirely private decision about what a woman does with her body. A lot of progressives talk about abortion as if it couldn’t possibly be a termination of a human life.

Especially now, in the post-Trump degradation of public life, politicos, propagandists and activists on this issue elide the hard and complex issues in order to powerfully advocate their side. And that’s what we see on issue after issue. The armies of certitude march forth and dominate debate and politics. The rest of us, hampered by ambivalence, hang back. We live in a democracy in which the majority often does not rule.

For a professional pundit, I’ve written remarkably little on abortion because I am so torn. For most of my life I’ve considered myself pro-choice because I didn’t have any confidence that I knew when life began and didn’t want to impose my views on others. But like many people, my life has intersected with the issue.

When I was about 19 a friend came home from college and realized she was pregnant, she asked me to accompany her through the abortion process, which I did. My progressive milieu did not prepare me for the moral and emotional anguish she endured before and especially after the abortion. I realized how grave an issue this was, and with what humility it must be addressed.

Then, there came the science. Like a lot of people, I’ve been influenced by the sonograms, and the way they show a human form at the early fetal stages.

I’ve read my share of books about human development, and my takeaway is that things are happening a lot earlier in the womb than we used to think. By 20 or 21 weeks, before what has been considered viability, the fetus is possibly moving, sucking its thumb, moving its eyes, hearing sounds. A female fetus has eggs of her own. These are sobering realities.

Then there are miscarriages. I have watched so many grieve over miscarriages. I’ve grieved myself. It doesn’t feel like the loss of some cells, but of life.

Experience and the moral sentiments that derive from it have moved me many notches over toward the anti-abortion position. Does that mean I know when life begins? That no longer seems like the right question. I’ve come to believe that all human beings have some piece of themselves that has no size, shape, color or weight but gives them infinite value and dignity, and it is their soul. To me the crucial question is when does a living organism become a human soul. My intuition is that it’s not a moment, but a process — a process shrouded in divine mystery.

This leaves me in a humdrum political position, I’m afraid — with the roughly half of Americans who want to restrict abortion in some circumstances, but — perhaps because they feel it would be unworkable or wrong — don’t want to ban it totally. Third- and some second-trimester abortions seem increasingly wrong to me, except in extraordinary circumstances. But the first trimester? I don’t know, and therefore I’d defer to each woman’s conscience.

Given where the Supreme Court seems to be heading, I’d sign onto the compromise position that Claremont McKenna professor Jon A. Shields sketched out in these pages in October, which could involve tightening restrictions on abortion after the first trimester.

I guess that means I’m rooting for John Roberts in the current deliberations over Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. He has signaled that he’s open to exploring whether the court could uphold Mississippi’s law banning abortion after 15 weeks, but not overturn Roe and allow states to enact total or near-total bans. But he may be in a minority of one.

I used to support overturning Roe because I thought it would be healthy to get the abortion issue out of the courts and back to state legislatures. I used to think that most states would wind up where the nation’s center of gravity is — with restrictions but not bans.

But we’re now trying to deal with a miserably complex issue in a brutalized political culture. Majorities don’t rule in this country; polarized minorities do. The evidence this week is that the post-Roe politics would make even our current politics seem tame. I’m not sure our democracy is strong enough for that.

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