Why Can't We Talk About Abortion?

by Eric Segall

Many controversial issues divide Americans, such as how health care should be handled, the appropriate relationship between church and state, and the validity of affirmative action. Although these questions trigger strong views, public debate is often (or at least at times) respectful and bracketed by an awareness on the part of most people that some compromise is likely necessary.

The same simply can’t be said about abortion. Those who believe that terminating a pregnancy is the moral equivalent of murder often characterize those in favor of that right as anti-life, anti-baby, and even anti-God.  Those who think women should have the right to decide for themselves whether to carry a fetus to term often characterize those opposed as anti-women, anti-sex, and anti-choice. The rhetoric on both sides is often extreme with hyperbolic charges hurled in both directions.

Listening to the warring sides suggests that nothing short of a complete prohibition on all abortions or a total ban on any regulation of abortions would satisfy either side. It is an all or nothing, zero-sum game, with little respect paid to the other side’s position.

Legally, the abortion wars are playing out in legislatures and courts all over the country to virtually no one’s satisfaction. The divide negatively impacts judicial confirmation hearings, local and federal elections, and even legislative responses to women’s health issues not directly connected to the abortion debate, such as contraception.

How come we can’t talk about abortion without name calling and invective? Is it because the issue involves religion, sex, and core notions of morality? Maybe, but the recent same-sex marriage debate presents similar issues and, even though tempers flare, the rhetoric is not the same and compromises are frequently discussed by both sides (e.g., civil unions).

Is it because there can be no compromise if one believes abortion amounts to the killing of another human life? Maybe, but the reality is that our country does not have a blanket ban on the taking of human life. We allow people to end the lives of others when doing so is necessary for self-defense, when our country is at war, and by allowing the death penalty.  Moreover, many people opposed to abortion still think it is permissible when rape or incest caused the pregnancy or when continuing the pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. Our societal consensus about the immorality of taking life is by no means an absolute rule with no exceptions.

Is the debate so intense because it is intertwined with the proper role of the Supreme Court in our society? There are many people, including this author, who passionately believe women should have the right to terminate their pregnancies and would vote that way but also believe it was improper for the Court to take the issue away from the states.

The likely answer is that the debate is so intense and the warring sides so extreme for all of the above reasons and perhaps many more. But we will never make progress towards a solution until both sides make good faith efforts to understand, and even have empathy for, the other side’s arguments. It may be difficult but it has to be worth the try.

Here are a few observations about the abortion debate that hopefully most people can accept and might lead to a more helpful dialogue.

First, we should avoid using misleading labels to identify the two opposing positions. No one thinks that murder (if it is really murder) is a legitimate “choice” or that women have the right to end an innocent human life. No one is really against “choice” or “life.” Thus “pro-choice” and “pro-life” name tags are not helpful.

Second, just about everyone would prefer a world with far fewer abortions. If we could prevent unintended pregnancies and do away with complications arising from unhealthy pregnancies, we would all agree the world would be a better place. Planned Parenthood and other women’s organizations would like nothing more than to use all their resources to diagnose and prevent cancer, sexually transmitted diseases, and other threats to women’s health. It may be a cliché but it is true: people are not pro-abortion, just pro-women having the freedom to have abortions. Those two positions are not the same.

Third, those in favor of the right of women to terminate their pregnancies must take seriously and respect at face value the position of people who think that abortion involves the wrongful taking of a human life. Labelling fetuses “a collection of cells” is not helpful. When human life actually begins for legal or constitutional purposes is a metaphysical question with no right or wrong answer.  It is an issue of preference not science or logic.

Fourth, abortion is not just another medical procedure.  For better or for worse, millions of Americans believe there is a moral component to the decision to terminate a pregnancy which does not exist in other health issues. Ignoring that moral component does not advance the discussion.

Fifth, our history and the experiences of women in other countries confirm that abortions will take place regardless of whether they are legal or illegal. Although that reality is relevant to the debate, it does not end the debate. We have laws against many behaviors (prostitution, gambling, speeding) that we know are routinely violated but that does not logically entail the conclusion those behaviors should be deemed legal. On the other hand, if abortions are inevitable, regardless of law, shouldn’t they be as safe as possible?

Sixth, a new round of state laws and resulting litigation will likely lead to a return of the issue of abortion to the Supreme Court. But, no good answer will come from the Justices.

If the Court were to strongly affirm the right of women to terminate their pregnancies, such a decision would likely further energize the pro-life movement and lead to different anti-abortion laws, more intense politicization of the issue, and maybe even civil disobedience. Similarly, if the Court were to go in the opposite direction and allow states to prohibit abortions and states did exactly that, women’s rights groups would forcefully mobilize and engage in expensive lobbying and perhaps even their own civil disobedience. In either case, the debate is not going away.

Both sides would benefit from accepting these observations because the reality is that neither side is going to achieve total victory. It is unlikely that abortion will ever be totally unregulated or totally prohibited. That is not a moral observation just a cold, hard fact.

In light of this great divide, perhaps even those who believe strongly that women should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies might need to accept reasonable and effective governmental regulation of a choice seen as so immoral by so many, while even those who passionately oppose abortion might need to accept that other methods of preventing abortions other than governmental coercion may be effective in deterring abortions and more respectful of those who want to allow women to make the choice themselves.

There may well be other ways to handle such a difficult societal dilemma. But we will never know until we at least try to talk with one another instead of at one another.  And, even if it turns out that compromise is impossible, shouldn’t we at least try?