Let's be frank about teen sex and abortion.

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 22 2008 6:47 PM

Good Judgment

Let's be frank about teen sex and abortion.

Nancy Keenan. Click image to expand.
NARAL president Nancy Keenan

Today, Roe v. Wade is 35 years old. If you're tired of rehashing the same debate every Jan. 22, here are two ideas that would advance the debate to a better place by this time next year. To pro-choicers: Talk about abortion the way you've been talking about teen sex, embracing an ideal number of zero. To pro-lifers: Accept that the best way to advance toward zero is through voluntary prevention.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Last week's abortion numbers, showing a huge reduction since 1990, make a strong case for the second point. So today I'll focus on the first.

Pro-choice leaders, to their credit, have become increasingly explicit about the importance of lowering the abortion rate. A year and a half ago, in a plea for emergency contraception, Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards argued that it would "reduce the need for abortion. That's a commonsense goal supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans." Last year, she boasted, correctly, that Planned Parenthood did "more to prevent unintended pregnancies, and the need for abortion, than any organization in America."

Five days ago, in a speech honoring Roe's 35th anniversary, NARAL president Nancy Keenan reaffirmed the prevention message. "If we could prevent unintended pregnancy," said Keenan, "we could therefore reduce the need for abortion."

But when the conversation turns from numbers to the moral qualms that make reduction popular, movement leaders still flinch. Last year, in a New York Times op-ed, journalist Melinda Henneberger (now a Slate contributor) argued that public sentiment against abortion was hurting Democrats. "Most people differentiate between a fetus in the early weeks of development and at nearly full term," she wrote, citing the party's defense of partial-birth abortions. To this, Richards replied that most Americans "support women making their own decisions about pregnancy—even when those decisions are complicated or difficult. … [E]ven if they might make a different decision about abortion, they recognize that every woman's case is different."

You can see Richards edge right up to the line of discussing whether some abortions are worse than others, before smoothing it over with the nonjudgmental language of "complicated," "difficult," and "different."

In her speech, Keenan wrestled with the same dilemma. "We need to acknowledge this moral complexity: that you don't need to think abortion is the appropriate decision to believe that government shouldn't be the one making the decision," she observed. But for her part, Keenan rejected the language of appropriateness: "I will never stand idly by while women who take responsibility for their own lives, and those who depend on them, have to contend with guilt and shame, with judgment and scorn heaped upon them—rather than the support and respect they deserve."

Guilt, shame, scorn, judgment. You can see what holds back people like Keenan and Richards. Part of it is that they're personally open-minded. They really do believe every case is different—and they're right. Part of it is that they feel institutional obligations, as heads of their organizations, to protect legal abortion generally. And part of it is that they've seen morality invoked to humiliate good people and pass bad laws.

It doesn't have to be that way. It's absurd to have to say this, but judgment isn't a bad word. You can moralize without losing your soul. In fact, pro-choice leaders are already doing this—not against abortion, but against teen sex.

"The more young people have their questions answered openly about contraception, relationships, and sexual health, the more likely they are to delay sexual activity," Richards wrote last year. "And when they do become sexually active, whether in their teen years, or optimally, later on, the more likely they are to have safer sex and use contraceptives correctly." Optimally, later on. That's not a recommendation to delay pregnancy. It's a recommendation to delay sex.

Last week, Keenan went much further. "In a perfect world, no teenager would be having sex," she declared. "We all know there isn't a 15-year-old alive who is ready emotionally, physically, spiritually, or financially to live with the consequences. We absolutely need to teach our children that they should abstain from having sex too early."

That's the kind of language that makes people wake up and listen. It's not an endorsement of some oafish law. It's a call for social action toward a moral ideal of zero.

Leaders who have graduated from the movement recognize that this kind of candor has to apply to abortion as well. In today's Los Angeles Times, Kate Michelman and Frances Kissling, the former presidents of NARAL and Catholics for a Free Choice, write, "The specter of women forced into back alleys as a result of a one-time 'mistake' has been replaced with hard questions about why women get pregnant when they don't want to have babies." They conclude, "Our vigorous defense of the right to choose needs to be accompanied by greater openness regarding the real conflict between life and choice, between rights and responsibility."

Abortion and sex are different in many ways. But both are private, complex, and poorly suited to restrictive legislation. That doesn't stop pro-choice leaders from speaking the truth about teen sex. It shouldn't stop them from speaking the truth about abortion, either.

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