Self-Regulated Abortion

Science, technology, and life.
June 2 2009 11:15 AM

Self-Regulated Abortion

If you've ever been on TV, you've probably had one of those moments where something comes out of your mouth, and a few seconds later, your brain catches up and wishes you'd said it better. I had one of those moments yesterday on Hardball . Chris Matthews, Ceci Connolly, and I were talking about the murder of Dr. George Tiller. Matthews raised the point that under Roe v. Wade , abortion early in pregnancy is a personal decision, whereas later in pregnancy, "it should be more of a community decision." He suggested that "there has to be some conditions set here when you have a late-term abortion."

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William Saletan William Saletan

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

My response was and is that you don't have to pass laws to establish such restrictions. Conditions are in fact set, and elements of the community do in fact participate in the decision, as the pregnancy moves further along. Here's how I said it on the program:

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Under the voluntary system, there are voluntary, private, doctor-by-doctor, state-by-state limits on what people will actually do, so that the numbers go down precipitously. First of all, only 12 percent of the abortions in this country happen after the first trimester. So you wipe out 88 percent of them. Of that, you`re down to about 5 percent by 16 weeks. By the time you get up to about 20 or 21 weeks, you`re down to 1, 1.5 percent of all the abortions in this country.

Well, this is a bit confused. There are at least three layers of regulation in what I was talking about, and I didn't properly sort them out. There's federal regulation, most recently in the form of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. There's state regulation, which allows for more local control and variability but isn't voluntary in the sense I intended. And then there are the self-imposed restrictions of each doctor. That third layer is the main reason why very late-term abortion providers such as Tiller are so rare.

But I left out the most important regulator of abortions: women. The reason why so few abortions happen late in pregnancy is because the women who face them don't want to wait. If they know they don't want a baby, they try to end the pregnancy as fast as possible. If they're not sure, they try to reach a decision quickly. There are dawdlers, hiders, and self-deluders. But by the time you get to the late stages in which Tiller was operating, the self-regulatory system has taken care of 99 percent of abortions. And of the remaining 1 percent, a significant number are the result of nasty medical surprises along the way. So let's not pretend that in the absence of legislation, late-term abortion is out of control.

One more thing: I thought I was being original when I asked yesterday whether killing abortion providers is a logical expression of the belief that abortion is murder. I wasn't. TNR 's Damon Linker (and maybe others I haven't yet found) beat me to it. Linker asked pro-lifers :

Who is the better, truer member of your movement? The man who murdered serial " baby killer " George Tiller? Or Robert George and other (comparative) moderates, who reject the use of violence to save the innocent?

Good question. This is an opportune time to recommit to nonviolence and to dialogue.

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