The Supreme Court vacancy has brought the abortion debate front and center again. If ever there was an issue ripe for compromise it's the abortion issue, but nobody seems much interested in compromising. I understand this is an issue about which people disagree strongly and fundamentally. Still, a healthy society can reach solutions that, while they are not completely satisfactory to everyone (perhaps to anyone) allow the society to continue to function with respect for all points of view. Let's see if we can make any progress on this issue.
First let's dispose of the labels:
Right to choose -- Well, of course, but the right to choose what? An abortion, of course. But if abortion is murder, then there is no right to choose. No one has the right to choose murder. And if abortion is acceptable, why is there any need for the euphemism? Why not just say right to abort?
Right to life -- Well, of course, no one disputes that human beings have a right to life. But when does one become sufficiently human to asserts such a right, especially when that right may only be asserted at discomfort, perhaps even danger, to another person's health or life?
The question is whether, and under what circumstances, a pregnant woman may legally pursue an abortion, and the labels just get in the way. The beliefs they represent, on the other hand, are worthy of respect. Decent people, people of high moral standards, hold beliefs that both labels represent. As with all issues, we should be able to discuss this one civilly and with understanding. Let's try it.
We can start by looking at the issue of murder generally. Some believe any killing, even by a soldier in war or anyone in self-defense, is murder. Others believe than many forms of killing -- not just those above, but capital punishment and euthanasia, maybe even some forms of mercy killings -- are entirely acceptable. The society draws the line somewhere in between and, while the line shifts over time, most people are reasonably satisfied, even if they disagree with the exact line at any given moment.
Abortion differs from the general rule only in that more people stand at either extreme (the society should permit no abortions at all or, on the other hand, should permit abortions with very few limits). Thus, any compromise that draws the line somewhere in the middle will leave most people dissatisfied.
Still, the line must be drawn somewhere, and it is healthier for the society as a whole that it be drawn in a place that at least takes into account all beliefs and points of view.
To reach a compromise that society can live we, we have to start with the acknowledgment that pregnant woman must have some ability to choose abortions under some circumstances. On the other hand, there must be realistic limits that respect the human potential of the fetus.
Interestingly, Justice Blackmun tried to strike a balance in Roe v. Wade. His conclusion is worth quoting at some length:
(a) For the stage prior to approximately the end of the first trimester, the abortion decision and its effectuation must be left to the medical judgment of the pregnant woman's attending physician.
(b) For the stage subsequent to approximately the end of the first trimester, the State, in promoting its interest in the health of the mother, may, if it chooses, regulate the abortion procedure in ways that are reasonably related to maternal health.
(c) For the stage subsequent to viability, the State in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life [410 U.S. 113, 165] may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where it is necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother.
This noble effort has been obscured by the abortion advocates' insistence that any
restrictions at all on abortion somehow represent a violation of Roe and the first step down a slippery slope to the 1950's. However, its emphasis on viability presents problems, since the miracle of modern medicine keeps pushing the line of viability (at least in the sense of being able to live outside the womb with proper medical support) earlier and earlier.
So, are any other objective criteria available? Heartbeat suggests itself, but the fetal heartbeat begins 22 days or so after conception
, probably an impractically short time to allow a woman to decide.
It would be possible to justify prohibiting abortion after the brain begins to function, but it turns out there is a hornet's nest of controversy as to when this happens. Compare Pro Life America's Facts on Fetal Development
to this pro-choice rebuttal
that appeared at the top of my Google search. Apparently, meaningful brain activity begins somewhere between 40 days and 7 months and I personally simply don't have the expertise to settle the dispute. While, personally, this is my favorite solution, the society would have to come to a far better concensus on when brain activity starts for this to be a workable standard.
There seems to be no generally accepted, reasonable point before which the rights of the mother should so trump the rights of the fetus as to allow abortion, but after which the society may assert on behalf of the fetus a right to a chance at life.
Have we made any progress? I don't know. We certainly haven't solved the problem. But it seems to me that we badly need to quit shouting at each other and demanding total victory and, instead, look for ways to find a solution that everyone can live with. When I asked you to join the conversation yesterday, this is one of the topics I had in mind. I'm not much intersted in hearing why one side or the other is right and should get its way completely. But I'd be very interested in hearing from anyone who has constructive ideas on how society can fashion a rule that will, insofar as is possible, accommodate all points of view.