Is Abortion Bad?

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Feb. 1 2006 7:07 AM

Is Abortion Bad?

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Blurring the lines ... Click image to expand.
Blurring the lines ...

Dear Katha,

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Let's start by explaining to readers why we're having this conversation. Last week in the New York Times, I urged pro-choicers to wage war on the abortion rate through birth control and sex education. This week in The Nation, you replied that "anti-abortion moralism" would hurt women and abortion rights. You argued that pursuing an explicit goal of zero abortions would "do the antichoicers' work for them." I think you've got it exactly backward.

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First, let me tackle some of your objections around the periphery of our disagreement. You say the limits of our education and health-care systems make "zero abortions" unreachable. True. Peace is unreachable, too, but we try. That's the nature of goals.

Second, you note that the "95-10" plan being pushed by Democrats for Life, which seeks a 95 percent reduction in abortions over 10 years, doesn't mention birth control. You're right. Trying to steer women away from abortion after they're unhappily pregnant is the least effective way to reduce the abortion rate. The danger is that impotent gestures like this one will become the new middle ground. Pro-choicers need to step forward with an anti-abortion plan that's explicit and effective.

Third, you object to targeting women rather than men. "Nobody's proposing the walk of shame for men who don't or won't use condoms, or stern lectures for them in the clinic waiting room either," you write. Well, I am. Any guy who knocks up his date should go with her, whether it's for an abortion or prenatal care. I'm open to ideas on how to pursue this.

"Ironically, improvements in contraception have made unwanted pregnancy look more like a personal failing," you write. Look like? Improvements in contraception have made unwanted pregnancy more of a personal failing. It's society's job to make contraception accessible. It's the individual's job, male or female, to use it.

"If half of all pregnancies are unplanned, it doesn't make sense to treat them as individual sins," you argue. I'm no fan of the language of sin. But I don't see why we have to shrink from words like good and bad. It's bad to cause a pregnancy in a situation where you're going to end up having an abortion. It's bad to cause a pregnancy in a situation where you can't be a good mom or dad. Our high rates of unintended pregnancy and abortion are a collective moral problem. If we don't want the government to tell us what to do, we'd better address the problem individually.

Now, to the main point. You doubt that the pro-life movement will support a campaign to reduce abortions through birth control, since so many pro-life activists oppose birth control. I agree. I'm not trying to form a coalition with the pro-life movement. I'm trying to form a coalition with the public. Any pro-lifer who wants to join us is welcome. Anyone who doesn't will learn that preaching against birth control is a lot lonelier than preaching against abortion.

Both of us are pro-choice. Morally, it's clear from your writing that abortion troubles me more than it troubles you. I don't think I can change your mind about that. But politically, I'd like to persuade you and other pro-choicers that the path I'm recommending will serve women and their health better than the path you're defending.

To build public support for their agenda, abortion banners rely on two kinds of blurring. First, they blur the idea that abortion is often immoral with the idea that it should be banned. They do this because the public is pro-life on the first question but pro-choice on the second. Washington Post/ABC News polls and USA Today/CNN/Gallup polls consistently show  that most Americans support Roe v. Wade and think abortion should be legal in most circumstances. But three years ago, 58 percent of Post/ABC respondents said abortion was "morally unacceptable" unless the woman's life was in danger. And two years ago, a 50 percent to 40 percent plurality of USA Today/CNN respondents said abortion was morally wrong, not morally acceptable. Another 8 percent said it depends on the situation. That's why President Bush goes around talking about a culture of life. He piggybacks the minority's abortion bans on the majority's pro-life sentiments.

Second, abortion banners blur abortion rights with rejection of personal responsibility. When people are reminded that contraception is a way of taking responsibility and preventing abortions, they realize that you don't need criminal laws to enforce morality. Last month, a poll of Californians found  that only 10 percent had religious or moral objections to contraceptives, and only 19 percent objected to emergency contraception (which prevents implantation but not necessarily fertilization), but 40 percent objected to abortion. A year ago, a poll of Utahns found  that 41 percent would definitely forbid first-trimester abortion except in extreme circumstances, but only 21 percent would definitely oppose morning-after pills that abort a fertilized egg. Polls routinely show majority support for letting doctors refuse to perform abortions, but in a New York Times/CBS News poll a year ago, 78 percent of adults said pharmacists should not "be able to refuse to sell birth control pills." If pro-lifers have to fight nationally against contraception or even morning-after pills, particularly when those measures are framed as abortion prevention, they'll get killed. They need to make the public think that pro-choicers reject the whole idea of responsibility.

You're helping them accomplish both objectives. By blurring these questions from the left, you help your opponents blur them from the right. "Inevitably, attacking abortion as a great evil means attacking providers and patients," you write. "If abortion is so bad, why not stigmatize the doctors who perform them? Deny the clinic a permit in your town?" That's the way abortion banners think: Moral attack justifies legal attack; if something's troubling, let's ban it. Like them, you glide right past the idea that abortion can be morally opposed but legally protected, which is what most Americans believe. Knowing that pro-choice people aren't complacent—that we're striving to reduce the abortion rate through voluntary means—will make it easier, not harder, to sustain public support for keeping abortion legal.

At the end of your piece, you cite polls in which majorities said abortion should be illegal in most scenarios. "Maybe those respondents don't really want abortion to be illegal so much as they want to express their disapproval," you write. "Either way, these answers don't suggest to me that injecting more antiabortion moralism into the debate will help keep abortion legal and accessible." Either way? If people are using some poll questions about banning abortion to express their disapproval of abortion—and if disapproval is more widespread than support for banning—aren't we better off helping them express and act on their disapproval through voluntary means instead of a ban?

One paragraph in your column crystallizes where I think you've gone astray:

The trouble with thinking in terms of zero abortions is that you make abortion so hateful you do the antichoicers' work for them. You accept that the zygote/embryo/fetus has some kind of claim to be born. You start making madonna-whore distinctions. In the New York Times Magazine Eyal Press, a contributing writer to this magazine, writes of his father, a heroically brave and dedicated abortion doctor: "Had the women...been free-love advocates for whom the procedure seemed a mere matter of convenience, he would not have been so angry" at the antichoice protesters who hounded him and his patients. Why not? Because a sexy single woman should suffer for not suffering?

Look at where this kind of thinking leads you. You blur zygotes with fetuses, alienating people who see the difference and might support us if they realized we care about it. You equate objections to abortion with "madonna-whore distinctions," making legal abortion look like a declaration of freedom from sexual morality. You end up arguing with an abortion provider and his patients. Are the women who get abortions, and the doctors who provide them, too moralistic for you? Are you speaking for them morally? Are you helping them politically?

Sincerely,

Will

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