Safe, Legal, and Early

Safe, Legal, and Early

Safe, Legal, and Early

Science, technology, and life.
May 7 2009 11:44 AM

Safe, Legal, and Early

My buddy Steve Waldman has a new idea for building consensus on abortion. He calls it " safe, legal, and early ."

William Saletan William Saletan

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

I get to call him my buddy for two reasons. One is that he's a good guy. The other is that there aren't a lot of people willing to seriously talk compromise on abortion. So we'd better stick together.


I like his idea. I don't think it stands on its own. But it fits a larger common approach: abortion reduction .

Waldman thinks a timing approach is different and better because later abortions destroy a more developed and therefore more fully human fetus. "Success would be measured on the basis of moving abortions earlier in the gestational cycle—even if that conceivably means more overall abortions," he explains. For example, "abortion reducers would likely oppose making RU-486 readily available on the grounds that it could lead to a dramatic growth in what is technically an abortion. But if the goal is have fewer late abortions, then promoting RU-486 makes great moral sense."

Actually, pro-choice advocates of reduction support RU-486 precisely for Waldman's reasons. Any woman who uses RU-486 has chosen and is going to get an abortion. RU-486 just makes sure the abortion is an early one . The reduction framework doesn't capture this benefit. The timing framework does.

But the timing framework has two problems. One is that conceptually, it's too complicated. A few years ago, I tried it out on some pro-choice thinkers who are pretty good at assessing political messages. My version was almost word-for-word the same as Waldman's: moving abortions earlier in gestation. (I tried a later version of it here .) They squinted politely. The backward-in-time idea, while logical, was a bit hard to get across in a pithy way, they explained. And less of a bad thing is easy to understand. But a bad thing in smaller bites? Without the "less" part, it's not particularly compelling.


The other problem is that people won't take the more-but-earlier-abortions deal. Yes, they prefer earlier abortions to later ones, as Waldman's poll data show. But those data say nothing about a trade-off for more abortions . So earlier timing isn't a substitute for reduction. It's an add-on.

In fact, the timing approach logically fits the reduction framework. A nine-week abortion is better than a 12-week abortion. A six-week abortion is even better. But eventually, this trajectory takes you all the way back before conception. That's not an abortion anymore. It's birth control or abstinence. In other words, it's reduction.

I'll tell you where I really like Waldman's idea. It's a good answer to abortion-delaying restrictions. Waldman notes:

Parental notification also sounds reasonable if your goal is reducing the overall number of abortions. But these policies may have a secondary effect: increasing the number of abortions that happen later . The 2006 Guttmacher survey found that among women who said they wished they could have had their abortions earlier, the most common reason they cited for delay was that it took a long time to make arrangements. Therefore, efforts to reduce the number of abortion clinics, cut off government aid to women who want abortions, or otherwise delay the decision may reduce the number of overall abortions but also make it more likely that those abortions that do occur will happen later. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association , a requirement in Mississippi that a woman wait 24 hours between realizing she's pregnant and an abortion decision led to both a decline in the overall number of abortions and a rise in abortions performed after 12 weeks.

He's totally right about that. It's immoral, from an intelligent pro-life viewpoint, to impose restrictions that simply delay abortions , adding days or weeks of fetal development to what is already a tragedy.

But for the same reason, let's be careful about imposing such restrictions on a timing basis. Under Waldman's proposal, for instance, "Medicaid funding would be generous for first trimester abortions, minimal for second trimesters, and non-existent for the third." That sounds good. But suppose you're just past your first trimester. A second-trimester abortion is considerably more expensive than a first-trimester abortion, and now we've taken away your anticipated means of paying for it. Good luck raising the money from family and friends while your fetus develops and the eventual abortion becomes that much more awful.

I liked Bill Clinton's idea: safe, legal, and rare . I like Waldman's idea, too. Barack Obama has a task force working on such ideas. Safe, legal, early, and rare is a good place to start.