If you unpack that crucial 60 percent, however, even these "centrists" only firmly support abortion in cases in which there is rape, incest, or a threat to the mother's life or health. Just over half of them support abortion in the case of physical or mental defects in the prospective baby. And when asked whether a woman should abort if she or her family could not afford to raise the child, the support for abortion drops to 35 percent.
This polling data represents the price of progressives' refusal to make the moral argument. Women bear the overwhelming majority of child-rearing responsibility in this society. Yet barely more than half of the moderate centrists would allow them to decide whether to abort—even in face of a physical or mental defect in the prospective child. Women, whose economic prospects plummet with the birth of a child, now face 65 percent majorities who would support criminalizing their decision to abort because they are too poor for parenthood. Guttmacher Institute abortion numbers reveal that these same poor women are disproportionately black and Hispanic. It is fair to conclude that a lot of abortions, regardless of race, are about women seeking the flourishing life prospects that our current morality-free discourse completely conceals.
In the 30-some years since Roe v. Wade, somewhere between 18 million and 30 million American women—15 percent to 20 percent of the female American population—have terminated their pregnancies. More than 10 years ago, a movement I'll call the Post-Abortion Syndrome movement began to shift the argument against abortion to the harm done to women. Not surprisingly, in a population of many millions, the PAS movement found a few thousand women who signed affidavits about their regrets at having had abortions.
Last year, in Gonzalez v. Carhart, the Supreme Court, for the first time, upheld the constitutionality of a federal law criminalizing a type of abortion. In his opinion for the court, Justice Kennedy wrote that "Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child ... it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow." In Kennedy's view it was best to spare women such regrets. Indeed it was better still not to allow doctors to perform these procedures at all.
Others have dissected Justice Kennedy's bizarre logic in detail. But what most have missed is that his opinion in Carhart rested on the assumption, ceded so long ago by liberals, that abortions are a necessary evil. There is no serious scientific evidence for any of the justice's findings that a remotely cognizable percentage of the 18 million to 30 million living American abortion recipients have suffered regret, severe depression, and loss of esteem. The American Psychiatric Association has directly refuted any such claim time and again. Why, then, did Justice Kennedy feel so comfortable—indeed, "unexceptionable" —in asserting it? Why, more interestingly, did the Democratic candidate for president similarly invoke the image of the "middle-aged feminist who regrets her abortion" in The Audacity of Hope?
Because they suspect abortion is morally wrong. In the absence of a robust description of the value of women's lives—their ability to develop their capacities through education, to use them to achieve economic independence and political citizenship, to take on only the relationships they can manage—there is no moral argument for their "choice" to have an abortion. Set against the sound of nothing, the smallest moral claim of the potential human life looms large. Such an immoral act, moral thinkers conclude, must always be a mistake, the product of incomplete information or logic, and, in time, must produce regret, depression, and loss of self-esteem.
The wrong question will always lead to the wrong answer. Not coincidentally, the founding text of the Post-Abortion Syndrome movement is called "Making Abortion Rare." The Democratic platform of 2008 offers an opportunity to put an end to this self-destructive cycle of Safe, Legal, and Rare, otherwise known as regret, depression, and self-denigration. In its place, it can finally argue for the value of women's lives. Above rubies sounds about right to me.