Talking About Abortion Part II

by Eric Segall

A few months ago I started writing an essay suggesting that women's rights organizations and other groups supporting the right of women to terminate their pregnancies should engage in civil disobedience. I was going to urge them to occupy state houses where anti-abortion legislation has passed or was being considered and to confront so called "abortion counselors" at family planning clinics with large numbers of counter-protestors. My motivation for the piece stemmed from desperation over the current state of abortion politics in America.

But the piece wouldn't hunt. I couldn't find the right words or reasons to advocate such a strong stance. My fear was that such measures would just further incense those opposed to abortion rights, leading to more laws and more violence.

So I started writing another piece about how both sides of the abortion debate should try hard to listen to and understand the other side’s arguments. I suggested we don’t need to live in a zero-sum world when it comes to abortion and that name calling and misleading labels do not advance the debate or the politics surrounding the debate. Although compromise and civility might be hard to achieve, I argued we should at least try to do better (on both sides).

I eventually published the piece on this blog and have since thought long and hard about both the final essay and the comments I received from trusted friends and colleagues before I finished the essay. I think there is something important to learn from the feedback I received.

One of my colleagues, who has been very supportive of my essay and op-ed writing even when he disagrees with my perspective, thought I should not publish the piece at all (he is, for lack of a better label, a pro-choice liberal). He said that “as someone who believes most things can be resolved in our society through deliberative, constructive dialogue, I have a small list of what I would call ‘intractable’ social conflicts that are not susceptible to honest dialogue. Abortion is on that list. Yes, everyone agrees we should talk, but you can’t talk if the parties are operating from a completely different set of facts ….”

Many of the comments that appeared on this blog after the essay was published echoed a similar theme.

Another friend, a conservative woman (but in favor of Roe) in her seventies, did not like the essay at all. She said: “I think your position is untenable. Most people either accept the need for abortion or are fundamentally opposed. I don’t think empathy and an open mind can be called up. I think respect for the laws and personal autonomy is what should be emphasized.”

A nationally known conservative said: “when I first picked up your essay, I was expecting that overturning Roe v. Wade would be one of your points on which everyone ought to be able to agree. That’s surely the key to working out this issue.” He also said that “if something like this is ever going to work, the reader ought not to be clear on where the author generally stands on the issue. Given the battle of semantics, that’s a difficult task for anyone to achieve. But no reader will come away from your piece thinking that you might be opposed to abortion.”

And, another colleague had this to say: “I agree that it would be helpful to have a more constructive/productive discussion between the two sides, but it’s hard to see how you don’t inevitably reach an impasse in a substantive discussion. At some level, it is hard to compromise when fundamental moral beliefs are at play, which is why the larger debate probably has to be about where we place decision-making power (vs. what the fundamentally “right” decision is). So maybe getting both sides to focus more on the process (vs. where that process should ultimately lead) might be a helpful way to move forward.”

These, and many other similar comments from other readers, suggest that maybe we need to stop trying to convince one another on the ultimate morality or not of terminating pregnancies and more on how we should structure the conversation as a matter of process. This is not inconsistent with the idea I expressed in my first essay that, maybe, just maybe, those who think abortion should be an almost absolute right (at least prior to viability or sentience) and those who think it should be almost always forbidden (except maybe in cases of rape, incest or when the life of the woman is threatened), can agree to disagree on the underlying merits but try to have constructive dialogue about who gets to decide and under what broad rules. I think I agree with my conservative friend that Roe and Casey may have to be scuttled before such a meaningful dialogue can take place.

 A nationally known intellectual figure suggested to me that most people who strongly oppose abortion do so on religious grounds and people can’t talk about religion. That may be true and may also be why abortion is so hard to talk about. So, perhaps the conversation does need to turn back to who gets to decide the question. If that is true, maybe the courts do need to step away, which will place ultimate and final responsibility with elected leaders.

Many of those in favor of abortion rights will label that “unilateral disarmament” but I am not so sure. If the courts do step away, those who favor women having the right to choose for themselves the morality or not of abortion may, in the long run, be pleasantly surprised by the results. But that, alas, is a discussion for another day.