Open to debate?
In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat makes two important points about the abortion debate. Both have been made many times before, by Douthat and others, but they cannot be made too often. The first is that most abortions, including those performed after the first trimester, have nothing to do with rape, incest, or the health of the mother; and yet these are the cases that are mentioned right away anytime someone proposes new legal restrictions on abortion — even if the restrictions would make an explicit exception for such cases. The truth is that most prochoice advocates have no interest in a political compromise that would allow abortion in the hard cases while prohibiting it in others. In fact, their frequent reference to the hard cases does not correspond to any feature of their own position, according to which every case is hard enough; instead, it is intended to stun and confuse the millions of Americans who have mixed feelings about our system of abortion-on-demand, and to preempt the sort of discussion that might lead to a meaningful political compromise. As Douthat writes:
Yes, many pregnancies are terminated in dire medical circumstances. But these represent a tiny fraction of the million-plus abortions that take place in this country every year. (Almost half of that number are repeat abortions; around a quarter are third or fourth procedures.) The same is true of the more than 100,000 abortions that are performed after the first trimester: Very few involve medical complications of any kind. Even the now-outlawed “partial-birth” procedure, which abortion-rights supporters initially argued was only employed in the direst of dire situations, turned out to be used primarily for purely elective abortions.
Douthat’s second point is that the main obstacle to compromise (which is to be distinguished from “common ground”) is not the intransigence of prolife activists but rather Roe v. Wade itself and the subsequent Supreme Court decisions that have reinforced it. If President Obama really believes that the democratic process is strong and flexible enough to confront deep moral conflicts, then he ought to be the first to oppose Roe, for until that ruling is overturned the kind of civil discourse about abortion that the president recommended in his Notre Dame commencement address will remain largely epiphenomenal — you go ahead and talk (nicely!) but the Court’s decided, once and for all. Douthat writes:
If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions — Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be? — is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate.
If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester — as many advanced democracies already do — would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.
You can read the rest of Douthat’s column, titled “Not All Abortions Are Equal,” here.