Is Abortion Bad?

Pro-Life Swingers for Birth Control
E-mail debates of newsworthy topics.
Feb. 2 2006 11:04 AM

Is Abortion Bad?

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Dear Katha,

You make me laugh. And I mean that in a good way, really! I'm not sure who's going to join a movement of pro-Roe, anti-abortion contraceptive enthusiasts. I just think we need to start one.

William Saletan William Saletan

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

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And I bet I wouldn't be the only one at the meeting. Take another look at that California poll I mentioned. Seventy-one percent of respondents don't want Roe overturned. Seventy-six percent favor "the government providing funding to programs that provide teens with birth control methods or contraceptives." Eighty-nine percent say it's appropriate to tell high-school kids "how to use and where to get contraceptives"; 54 percent say it's appropriate to tell middle-school kids the same thing. Yet 56 percent agree that "it would be a good thing to reduce the number of abortions." And here's the kicker: "Which of the following do you believe would be most effective in reducing the number of abortions?" Option 1: "Enacting more restrictive abortion laws." Option 2: "Providing more access to contraception." Five percent of respondents choose both. Twenty percent choose restrictive abortion laws. Sixty-six percent choose contraception.

Admittedly, it's California. In the case of Roe, national polls average about 10 points to the right of this survey. Let's suppose the same is true of the other questions: Nationwide numbers are about 10 points more conservative than in California. In that case, the majorities for Roe, contraceptive access, and contraceptive education are all somewhere in the 60 percent to 70 percent range—and so is the majority for reducing the number of abortions. There's your pro-Roe, anti-abortion, pro-contraception majority.

But what I really want to sell you on is that last poll question. Even if you shift 10 points from our side to theirs and give them the folks who answered "both," the pro-choice way of reducing abortions beats the anti-choice way by more than 20 points.

Don't these numbers refute your conflation of opposition to abortion with opposition to sex? You say it's impossible to make contraceptive diligence a moral issue because contraception comes from the "anti-Puritan side" of our culture, and people who oppose abortion, being Puritans, also oppose birth control. How, then, do you explain the 30 percent to 35 percent of respondents in this poll who joined the majority for reducing abortions but also joined the majorities for government-funded contraception and contraceptive education? Given that they control the majority on all three questions, wouldn't you like to have them on your side?

About Planned Parenthood: Yes, they do great work, particularly on contraception. So do many clinics. And yes, I've heard Kate Michelman say that contraception reduces the need for abortion. A decade ago, NARAL actually ran print ads saying that abortion should be "less necessary—not more difficult, not more dangerous." That was the right idea, and it took a lot of guts on Michelman's part. But you can see how they trimmed the language just enough that nobody would hear anything new in it. Pro-choice groups are afraid of saying anything that might 1) make women feel bad about having abortions, 2) get quoted by pro-lifers as a rationale for restrictions, or 3) piss off other folks in the pro-choice movement. The result is that they water down any comment that might sound anti-abortion. It's like pulling teeth to get them to admit that abortion can be "tragic" or "sad." "Bad" is completely out of the question. They work so hard not to make waves on the left that they get the same nonresult in the middle.

This is why I use the word "bad." It upsets some people on the left, but for the same reason, it wakes up people in the middle. It's new, and in my opinion, it's true. (I don't use the word "wrong," because to me that implies a prohibitive conclusion. "Bad" is a consideration. Abortion can be a less-bad option than continuing a pregnancy. In that case, it's bad but not wrong.)

Anyway, I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggest, tongue-in-cheek, that the only way to move some people to support contraception is "by reminding them that it prevents something even worse." That's exactly what I'm proposing: to pit contraception squarely against abortion, not as an offstage concession but as our central message. A lot of people who yawn at contraception when it's part of a campaign to reduce teen pregnancy will wake up in a hurry when it's part of a campaign to reduce abortions.

Before I go, I forgot to answer your original question. You ask why I think abortion is bad. I think it's bad because the fetus is of us and is becoming us. It's not a person, but it's on the way to becoming a person, and the longer it develops, the more I recoil at the idea of killing it. Most people, according to polls, think the same way.

What about you? You say pro-choicers don't see abortion as "morally trivial." You say they defend it as a reluctant decision, a "sad necessity," a "morally serious, very unfortunate event." Is that how you see it?

Will