In one respect, it’s very easy to understand why abortion is one of the most contentious and irresolvable political issues in the world. One side insists that abortion is murder, and that outlawing it is therefore a moral necessity. The other side does not believe it is murder, sees it as a fundamental right, and views any legal restriction as an infringement on women’s bodily autonomy. There can be no reconciliation between these two positions. The pro-choice slogan “if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one” will never persuade the other side: To someone who truly does think it’s the taking of a human life, this phrase is about as compelling as saying “If you don’t like murder, don’t commit one.” Differing conceptions about the moral status of the fetus, which are matters of instinct and religious belief that cannot be resolved through appeals to reason, make compromise impossible.
At the same time, even though it’s obvious why abortion is very divisive morally and politically, from another perspective it’s odd that it should be a difficult issue to resolve. After all, no woman wants to need to have an abortion, and no woman enjoys her abortion. In an ideal world, she wouldn’t ever have to have one, but we don’t live in an ideal world. Women might view it as anything ranging from an unfortunate inconvenience to an emotionally wrenching and painful decision. But it is obviously never something done for pleasure.
That means that even for advocates of choice, it would still theoretically be desirable to have as few abortions as possible. Hillary Clinton is sometimes criticized by the pro-choice movement for using the formula “safe, legal, and rare,” on the grounds that her use of “rare” implied stigmatizing and discouraging abortion. But there are multiple ways in which legalized abortion could become “rare.” It could become rare because, while it is technically legal, practical obstacles and social pressure are put in the way of women actually exercising the choice to abort. Or it could become rare because other social and economic factors have changed, e.g., motherhood is actually supported and subsidized so that it isn’t prohibitively expensive and difficult to raise a child, the erosion of male dominance means fewer controlling partners refusing to use condoms, and methods of birth control continue to improve.
Everyone would ideally want a world without abortion in it, then, because even in the pro-choice formulation, it’s a remedy for a problem rather than a pastime. The divide between the pro-life and pro-choice positions is therefore not quite about whether it would be better if there were no abortions, but about whether abortion should be legal or not. Michelle Oberman, in Her Body, Our Laws, explains that these two questions are often conflated but are actually quite different. The criminalization of abortion is not the elimination of abortion, and there is good reason to think that making abortion illegal would not substantially reduce its occurrence. Oberman traveled to Chile and El Salvador, both of which have strict laws prohibiting abortion, and discovered that abortion is widespread in both countries, especially thanks to the black-market availability of abortion drugs like mifepristone. The law may symbolically declare the government’s position on the moral status of fetuses, but symbols and consequences are not the same.
The laws do have consequences, though. They may not successfully eliminate abortion, but they do make it more difficult and dangerous for women to receive them. Predictably, these harms have fallen almost exclusively on poor women. Wealthy women can simply leave the country and have the procedure performed elsewhere. It is the poor for whom abortion is criminalized, and for whom breaking the law actually poses risks. Oberman reports that in El Salvador, when women are turned in to the authorities by doctors who suspect them of having induced abortions, the reports come almost exclusively from public hospitals. In private hospitals, where patients are wealthier, doctors strictly honor patient confidentiality. As a result, those women with the least money are the ones most likely to be prosecuted. Even worse, because it is often impossible tell the difference between an ordinary miscarriage and an intentional at-home abortion, Salvadoran women have been imprisoned for the crime of losing a child. This is an act of extraordinary cruelty by the state; a woman suffering one of the worst emotional setbacks of her life may find herself incarcerated and blamed for her misfortune, right at the moment when she needs support the most. As Oberman writes:
It is almost too painful to imagine what it feels like to go into labor suddenly, alone, far from the hospital. To be carried to the hospital, hemorrhaging and in pain, having lost the pregnancy. To arrive there only to be accused of killing your baby, by a state that never had evidence the baby was born alive, let alone that you killed it.
While members of the U.S. pro-life movement often claim that they do not intend to prosecute women, whom they see as “second victims,” Oberman says there is reason to fear that the criminalization of abortion in this country would harshly affect the destitute and desperate. In fact, American women are already prosecuted for having abortions, and when women have been charged with illegally attempting to end their pregnancies themselves, they have been treated as monsters rather than victims. Oberman cites the case of Purvi Patel, an Indiana woman prosecuted for feticide after ending her pregnancy using an illegally-obtained abortifacient. Patel was originally sentenced to 20 years in prison before her conviction was overturned. Since Roe v. Wade in 1973, over 400 women have been prosecuted for illegal abortions, and nearly 60 percent of them have been poor women of color.
Laws are only meaningful to the extent they are enforced, and while the pro-life movement has preferred to target doctors over patients, when at-home abortion drugs are used, it is hard to see how laws against abortion can avoid treating the women themselves as criminals. This is the inevitable consequence of viewing abortion as murder: If it truly is murder, then the women who seek abortions are attempting murder, and the choice is either between being “soft on murder” or putting a lot of women in prison. When he suggested that the pro-life position meant women who seek abortions ought to be “hanged,” conservative writer Kevin Williamson was fired from the Atlantic magazine. But in one way, Williamson was being remarkably honest about the implications of the conservative position on abortion. If the pro-life movement believes its rhetoric, then it should be comfortable treating nearly 1 in 4 women as criminals. Yet even in El Salvador, the implications of declaring fetuses to be full human persons are not followed through entirely: Prosecutions remain the exception rather than the norm.
Oberman believes that the pro-life movement has an unwarranted confidence that if abortion is made illegal, “the moral stance and the practical consequences will move in one direction.” Yet practically speaking, the result may not be substantially fewer abortions, but the imposition of additional burdens on women and the specter of prosecution. It’s possible that fear will deter some women who would have ended their pregnancies from doing so. But abortion rates are similar in countries in which abortion is legal and those in which it is not. If one were cynical, one might say that advocating criminalization is less about trying to stop abortions than about making a moral statement.
After all, if one truly cares about ending abortions, the first task would be to examine the reasons women seek them. When women who abort are asked why they do not want to have a child, 74 percent say that having a child would interfere with education, work, or their ability to care for dependents, while 73 percent said they cannot afford a baby. Abortion rates are high in the developing world and low in the developed world, where they have been dropping steadily over time. We would expect pro-life conservatives, if they wanted to make it more likely that women would choose life, to strongly support family-friendly policies like paid parental leave, and universal free child care. The easier it is to raise a child, and the more support one receives, the more likely a woman is to decide she can go through with her pregnancy. When one of us (Nathan) worked in an abortion clinic, booking appointments for women, patients would often relate the circumstances of their choice, unprompted. The stories were almost always sad, and frequently related to material factors: abuse, poverty, overwork, a lack of support. One woman said she was firmly pro-life, but since her house had just burned down and she was uninsured, she simply had nowhere she could raise a child and didn’t know how she could possibly manage motherhood at such a difficult time. These are hardships that can be mitigated through compassionate public policies.
In fact, even those who are strong advocates of legalized abortion should be disturbed that so many women seek abortions for economic reasons. Even if one does not view abortion as a killing, and rejects language suggesting abortion is somehow a “tragic” choice, one can deplore the fact that economic circumstances compel so many women to choose abortions who would otherwise wish to be mothers. If one is truly “pro-choice,” then it has to actually be a choice, and it’s a fundamental tenet of left politics that choices made under conditions of economic necessity aren’t really meaningful choices at all. The aim should certainly be to reduce to zero the number of abortions that occur because women cannot afford to raise children. (And for all the conservative complaints about single mothers living on welfare, to make raising a child financially realistic the government will actually need to make sure single mothers don’t need to work full-time.)
This does mean that any compassionate and feminist left political program would result in a reduction in the number of abortions, not because of moral stigma against women, but because left social policies should make raising a child much more feasible and eliminate the possibility that anyone will have to parent in poverty. And the left ought to be concerned not just with women who can’t access abortion services, but with women who can’t access motherhood because the economy narrows their realistic options. Similarly, the parts of the pro-life movement that concern themselves with talking women out of having abortions, but do not offer to do anything to make it less difficult to raise children, are offering sanctimony rather than solutions. (Katha Pollitt has argued that reducing poverty may not actually substantially reduce the number of abortions, because while ¾ of women cite economic factors, few cite economic factors alone. But many of the other factors are also “hardship” related, e.g., not enough time to raise a child. Reduced workweeks, strong communities, and generous family leave policies will reduce the burdens that all mothers, not just poor ones, must bear.)
There is therefore a version of the “pro-life” position that can be respected, one that is actually about life rather than about law. A person could sincerely believe the fetus is a life, but advocate improving the conditions of motherhood rather than using the criminal law to punish the poor and desperate. The problem with the pro-life position is not the particular view that it takes on the moral status of an unborn child, but that it responds through advocating policies that do little to help unborn children while using the blunt instrument of police power to dissuade women through threats rather than help.
If we are being honest, the philosophical questions about whether the fetus is a “life” are actually difficult. The view that life begins at conception, and that the death of an embryo is morally tantamount to the death of a teenager, is easy to criticize as absurd. (Teenagers are marginally more capable of higher-order thinking than embryos.) But conception has been favored as a point for drawing the line in part because it is straightforward; every other concept, such as the “point of viability,” is either impossible to measure, variable, or arbitrary. One reasonable instinct is that personhood does not pop into being all of a sudden, but develops over time between conception and birth. Yet since abortion is an all or nothing proposition that requires us to agree on a fixed point, fluid personhood on a spectrum doesn’t help very much.
Additionally, while compromise may feel ideologically impossible between the “abortion is murder” contingent and the “abortion on demand” contingent, it’s worth mentioning that the majority of U.S. Americans appear to have views on abortion that fall somewhere in between these two poles. The last time Gallup conducted a poll on abortion, in March 2017, 49 percent of respondents self-identified as “pro-choice” and 46 percent as “pro-life.” However, when asked to define their views more narrowly, 29 percent of respondents said that they thought abortion should be legal under “any” circumstances, 13 percent thought it should be legal under “most” circumstances, 36 percent thought it should be legal in “only a few” circumstances, and 18 percent thought it should be “illegal in all circumstances.” In 2011, 83 percent of respondents believed that abortion should be legal where the woman’s life was in danger, 82 percent where her “physical health” was in danger, and 61 percent where her “mental health” was in danger. 75 percent thought abortion should be legal in all pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
Though these polls were taken in different years and the numbers thus can’t be directly compared, they seem to suggest, broadly, that U.S. Americans don’t have entirely consistent positions on abortion. At least some of the people who claim that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances seem to think that there should be an exception for cases of rape and incest. (Pro-life lawmakers frequently build such exceptions into their bills.) This position doesn’t actually make sense if you truly think abortion is “murder” in the exact same sense that killing a non-fetus person is “murder”: Under other circumstances, we would never give a before-the-fact sanction for the killing of a defenseless person, even if the killer had suffered deeply and thought their suffering would be reduced if the other person ceased to exist. While the rape/incest exception may reflect some anti-choice advocates’ disturbing beliefs about female innocence and moral desert—only women who have had pregnancy violently forced upon them are permitted to choose abortion—it may also be indicative of some basic instinct to balance maternal well-being against the fetus’s right to exist. On the other end of the spectrum, there’s been some polling (by the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute) suggesting that 77 percent of Americans would theoretically favor a ban on sex-selective abortions—a number that, if accurate, likely includes some people who otherwise favor abortions being legal under all or most circumstances.
It goes without saying that the general population’s knee-jerk reactions to polling questions are not a suitable guide for either moral reasoning or policymaking. But what these numbers do seem to suggest is that people, on average, feel ambiguous about abortion, and have difficulty relating their complicated instincts to a discrete position whether abortions should be “legal” or “illegal.” Some of this confusion is because the question of when personhood ought to “begin” is fundamentally a very hard one. Even the Catholic Church—whose unambiguous “life begins at conception” stance has massively influenced abortion policies in Latin America and, until very recently, in Ireland—has not always precisely defined all fetuses as full persons. St. Thomas Aquinas thought that a fetus was not endowed with a soul until its “quickening,” or the point when the fetus could be felt to move (which is usually between 13-25 weeks after conception, i.e., well past the point when most modern abortions occur). Some medieval penitentials that mention abortion treat a termination after quickening as a homicide, but termination before quickening as some lesser category of sin, carrying a lighter penance. (For most of its history, incidentally, the Church also claimed that all unbaptized babies and fetuses were banished to a weird purgatorial circle called “Limbo,” before abruptly deciding a few years ago that this had all been a big misunderstanding and Limbo had never existed.)
Meanwhile, on the pro-choice side, people have often struggled to carefully articulate a definition of “personhood” that would meaningfully distinguish a fetus from, for example, an infant, or a profoundly disabled adult, whom we recognize as beings entitled to care and protection. And even if one views a fetus as obviously “not a human being,” there may still be serious moral questions. Non-human animals aren’t human either, but “lesser lives” are still lives. For those who support animal rights, and do not think an entity need possess a fully-developed intellect in order to deserve protection from destruction, fetuses raise complicated questions. Infants, the disabled, and the elderly lack many of the capacities that able-bodied adults have, yet we rightly classify infanticide and involuntary euthanasia as murder. Fetuses are not much less developed, and the gap between the fetus and the infant narrows and narrows until the moment the one becomes the other. The left’s concern with the weak and powerless should cause us to be very cautious about dismissing moral claims made on behalf of a life form that cannot speak in its own defense. It might not be murder to destroy a fetus, but it isn’t murder to kill a puppy either, so we haven’t quite solved the problem merely by distinguishing the unborn from the born. In fact, it’s only the fact that pregnancy occurs within the physical body of a woman that makes it easy to sweep aside the question of rights for the unborn—if pregnancy caused a growing fetus to appear within a bell-jar in the mother’s living room, the left position on where life begins would not seem as obvious.
For some pro-choice advocates, these abstruse debates about personhood are pointless and distracting. The only relevant factor is the lived experiences of women, who are the ones who must endure the real-world outcomes of any policy decisions on abortion. Pregnancy is an incredibly intimate and invasive experience, which causes disruptive physical and hormonal changes in women’s bodies—and that’s even before getting to the stresses of labor, infant care, and the thankless lifetime slog of parenthood, an emotionally exhausting job where you can never hand in your notice. (We should mention, at this stage, that neither of the authors of this article have ever been pregnant, much less had a child, so we rely on secondhand intelligence from exhausted family members.) A woman is a fully sentient being. A fetus, to the best of available medical knowledge—leaving aside scientifically-dubious, politically-motivated studies on “fetal pain”—does not seem to have consciousness or to be capable of experiencing pain, at least not until sometime in the third trimester, when almost no abortions are performed. For many people, the debate begins and ends there: Of course women should be allowed to make their own decisions on abortion, since they are the only ones who actually stand to suffer in any meaningful way.
But the reality is that the debate does not end there for many other people, and it seems better to acknowledge this openly than to sweep it under the rug, or to disallow questions and misgivings. People’s moral uncertainties about abortion run very deep. In fact, although slightly more Americans identified as pro-choice in 2017 than pro-life, the same poll shows that slightly more Americans (49 percent to 43 percent) believed that abortion was “morally wrong” than “morally acceptable.” It might be an easier question if divisions on abortions split conveniently along gender lines, but they don’t really. As of 2017, 59 percent of women polled by Pew thought abortion should be legal under all or “most” circumstances, and 38 percent thought it should be illegal under all or “most” circumstances. (With men, the split is 55 percent vs. 42 percent.)
In particular, as we develop greater potential to predict unborn children’s physical characteristics, there will also be thorny questions about the connection between choice, prejudice, and the potential for eugenics. Anti-abortion activists are often eager to equate being pro-choice with a covert eugenicist agenda. (And let’s be honest, it certainly doesn’t help that the founder of Planned Parenthood, Margaret Sanger, spilled a great deal of ink in the early 20th century on the need to sterilize the “feeble-minded” and to discourage the “great masses, who through economic pressure populate the slums and there produce in their helplessness other helpless, diseased and incompetent masses,” from reproducing. Incidentally, she was also anti-immigration, and thought that criminals, sex workers, drug addicts, illiterate people, and “unemployables” should be forcibly segregated into re-education farms until their “moral conduct” improved. What a beacon of enlightenment!) The obvious counter to this charge is that putting choices about pregnancy in the hands of a decentralized mass of individual women, rather than in the hands of the state or medical professionals, seems like the best way to prevent elites from enforcing their social preferences through reproductive control.
That said, the left is no stranger to the idea that explicit state policies are not the only things that influence human behavior. The economic inequalities generated by a broader policy framework, together with social and cultural expectations, will also influence people’s choices. If we think these inequalities are unfair, or that certain cultural and social expectations are inegalitarian and morally wrong, we may not like the aggregate mass of choices they produce. In India and China, for example, selective abortion of female children is believed to have been a widespread practice over recent decades, as evidenced by skewed gender ratios. (There are 34 million more men than women in China, and 37 million more men than women in India.) This preference for sons over daughters reflects deep gender inequalities: At least until recently, a son was simply “worth” more, socially and economically, than a daughter. This is not itself an argument against abortion access, inasmuch as these abortion patterns are a symptom rather than the immediate root cause of sexism in these countries, but it does show that “choice” is a complex phenomenon, and that abortion access is not, by itself, the end-all and be-all of female autonomy. A woman’s most intimate reproductive choices, like many of her other choices, may be shaped by factors well outside her choosing.
In the U.S., there is far less widespread acceptance of sex-selective abortion as a routine practice. Some pregnant women do experience an unexpected sense of distress upon learning the sex of their fetus, and there are whole websites and support groups devoted to helping women reconcile themselves to the fact that their real child will look different from their acknowledged or unacknowledged expectations. Usually, these support groups tell women it’s okay to feel sad (even if it doesn’t seem rational), and gently remind them that gender (or chromosomal sex) is not the defining factor of any person’s identity. There is an implicit underlying assumption that women who want to be mothers should be encouraged to work through their feelings of “gender disappointment.” The way we approach the selective abortion of fetuses after screening for physical and mental disabilities, by contrast, is quite different. Many Americans who would balk at the idea of sex-selective abortion are seemingly far less troubled by the idea of abortions based on prenatal diagnoses of disability.
Down syndrome, in particular, has recently become a popular talking-point for anti-choice activists and politicians, with states like Ohio recently attempting to ban abortions after a prenatal diagnosis. Down syndrome is an “easy” condition to turn into a public cause: Unlike some other congenital disabilities, which may cause people to lead lives of constant physical pain or terrifying medical uncertainty, individuals with Down syndrome seem about as likely to lead happy lives as most people, provided they have the right kinds of social and emotional support. This debate forces disabled people and disability activists into frustrating territory. As s.e. smith wrote in January 2018: “As a disabled person, talking about laws that restrict abortion is intensely challenging, because often, these conversations can feel like a referendum on whether the lives of disabled people are worth living.” smith points out that “opinions of the disability community on this issue are not uniform, as the disability community is extremely large and diverse. Some are opposed to abortion, period; others have concerns about the potential for genetic eliminationism on the basis of Down syndrome or other disabilities; others may unilaterally support abortion on demand and without apology.”
A frequent point made by pro-choice disabled people, such as Shain Neumeier, is that since disabled people have long been denied control over their over bodily integrity and reproductive functions— to say nothing of the fact that they suffer rape and sexual abuse at rates much higher than the general population—they have more stake than anyone in preserving the right to choose whether to continue a pregnancy. David Perry, the father of a child with Down syndrome, has written eloquently against the Ohio abortion ban and the political weaponization of children with Down syndrome, advocating that women need early access to accurate information about the condition, and better social supports, not potential criminal liability. Clearly, the most important goals—which all people of conscience can hopefully agree on—are to work to make all areas of life as physically and socially accessible to disabled people as possible, and to rectify the economic inequalities that may make the prospect of raising a disabled child feel unusually overwhelming for people who otherwise do wish to be parents. But how do we approach the immediate reality that fetuses with Down syndrome are indeed aborted at very high rates, perhaps even as high as 90 percent in some countries? Doesn’t that number feel “bad” to us, the same way that female fetuses being aborted en masse feels “bad”? Aren’t these numbers a clear manifestation of the reality that our society considers some people more valuable than others?
Having this conversation can be somewhat difficult, because it’s become customary on the left to state that a woman doesn’t need to apologize for her decision to have an abortion, and that her reason for doing so should never be interrogated. But what about when women do proffer their reasons for aborting a fetus with a disability, and they’re, well, kind of creepy? Ruth Marcus, in a recent Washington Post op-ed baldly titled “I would’ve aborted a fetus with Down syndrome,” announced that if she had received a prenatal positive for Down syndrome for either of her children—who, in real life, are able-bodied and neurotypical—she would have had an abortion “without hesitation.” She points out that because Down syndrome individuals may have more limited capacity for long-term financial independence, supporting a child with Down syndrome may be a longer-term commitment than average, and can thus be economically difficult for families. But then she goes further, stating: “I’m going to be blunt here: That [i.e., a child with Down syndrome] was not the child I wanted.” Though she did want to be a parent, she didn’t want to be a parent of a child “whose intellectual capacity will be impaired, whose life choices will be limited, whose health may be compromised.”
How should we feel about this? On the one hand, as non-parents, the authors of this article are certainly not the best people to be making judgment calls. On the other hand, if the headline of Marcus’s piece had been “I would’ve aborted a biracial fetus” or “I would’ve aborted a gay fetus,” it would have been immediately obvious that there was something very unsettling about her thesis. It’s one thing to feel you aren’t ready to be a parent at all, or that you aren’t emotionally equipped to raise a child with a disability in a world that is hostile to that child’s dignity and personhood. These fears feel justifiable: They go to a desire to protect your loved ones from pain, to not take on responsibilities you think you’ll fail at. All of that seems rather different, however, from saying that you yourself would not value a disabled child, because you share your society’s worst prejudices. People on the left ought to be ashamed and outraged that our society values people according to their appearance, their intelligence, or their capacity for gainful employment, rather than according to their basic humanity. It is deeply disturbing to think that some people, implicitly, still believe that disabled people ought not to be born at all, or that they fundamentally cannot be part of a “normal” family.
Chris Kaposy, a bioethicist and father of a child with Down syndrome, suggests that the left needs to keep its commitment to abortion access firm, while also promoting economic policies and social values that would encourage people to embrace being parents of children with Down syndrome. “My wife and I are pro-choice and oppose placing limits… on abortion,” he wrote in the New York Times. “Nonetheless, I wish more people would include children with Down syndrome in their families.” He pushes back against the popular tendency to view parents of children with Down syndrome as “saintly,” saying that they are in fact simply normal people who love their children. He suggests that, to the extent that our reproductive choices are influenced by bourgeois assumptions, it’s worth thinking critically about them:
Why do we have children at all? Most parents would agree that it is not only so that they can replicate a conventional arc of a successful middle-class life: college, marriage, real estate, grandchildren. If those are the reasons to abort fetuses with Down syndrome, they seem disappointing… Prenatal tests enable our capacity to choose, to some degree, the children we will raise. And those who are pro-choice typically embrace this autonomy in reproduction. … In one sense, [autonomy] simply means being free to choose, without infringement by the government. But, in a richer sense, it means choosing in accordance with one’s own values. If you value acceptance, empathy and unconditional love, you, too, should welcome a child with Down syndrome into your life.
Some pro-choice people may disagree with Kaposy’s sentiment, because they believe that a woman should never be encouraged to make one choice over another, or made to feel that there are “good” or “bad” reasons for choosing to end a pregnancy. But do we really think that—among people who all agree that a legislative ban on abortion is bad—there can never be any kind of discussion about how best to apply one’s moral values to one’s reproductive decisions? Isn’t it, at any rate, a conversation that parents and formerly-pregnant people of the left can have among themselves? It seems unwise for the left to fall silent on such important questions.
A further problem in discussing these questions is the “pro-life” and “pro-choice” positions do not distinguish between morality and law. It is possible to believe that the fetus is a life, or is something beyond a mere cluster of cells worth little more than a tumor, and yet be “pro-choice” in the sense of strongly opposing criminalization. But the “pro-life” movement has linked itself to the project of overturning Roe v. Wade and making abortion illegal, and the “pro-choice” movement is committed to proving that abortion is not a moral issue (because this risks stigmatizing women as having committed a bad act, and would seem to justify criminalization). As a result, those who oppose abortion morally but do not believe in punishing it criminally, like social justice Catholics, do not really have a comfortable home on the left.
Over the past year, in particular, there has been a lot of debate over whether there should be a Democratic Party “litmus test” on abortion. There is certainly a good argument to be made that party members shouldn’t vote to restrict abortion access in the first trimester, impose unduly onerous restrictions on later-term abortions (most of which are cases where the pregnancy has severe complications or the mother’s health is imperiled), or support any restrictions that impede abortion access disproportionately for poor women (as do waiting periods, for example, in the present climate of geographically-dispersed abortion clinics). These requirements seem especially reasonable given that legislative bans on abortion, as discussed earlier, do not actually meaningfully reduce abortion rates, making them a largely symbolic gesture whose limited practical effects fall heavily on the most vulnerable people. That said, if the Democratic Party wants to have a litmus test on “choice,” this should encompass more than just abortion access. It should also encompass things like robust paid family leave, on-site workplace daycare, increased benefits and community services for parents, eliminating long-standing racial inequities in maternal healthcare, and funding more creative, flexible assistance programs and open-adoption options for mothers who need more hands on deck. Democrats who are willing to unreservedly support these initiatives and fight for them shouldn’t be required to perform public enthusiasm on abortion, if they are morally conflicted about it. It should be enough that they allow abortion access to remain an option for women.
Democrats certainly shouldn’t make haphazard policy concessions in a misguided attempt to “accommodate” pro-life constituents. Last summer, an article in the Week suggested that it made strategic sense to “soften” the party’s position, in the interests of retaining pro-life Democrats and winning over moderate Republicans. The “softening” measures included ceasing to “advocate for late-term abortions” or “use federal dollars to pay for abortion.” But these two compromises are actually extremely poor ideas. Late-term abortions, after all, represent just 1 percent of abortions, and usually take place under incredibly difficult and upsetting circumstances, such as where the fetus is found to have profound medical complications, or when poor women have experienced economic or trauma-related delays in obtaining an abortion. The women who rely on Medicaid for insurance, meanwhile, tend to be poor, and 54 percent of them live in states that also do not provide funding for abortions. This “softening,” without more, would represent an abandonment of unusually vulnerable women—and there is no moral argument offered for why these policies, in particular, are the ones that ought to be changed, beyond the fact that they happen to be unpopular and would thus cost Democrats little politically if they flip-flopped on them. If the Democratic Party only cherry-picks gimmicky compromises with no underlying logic, it will produce disparate impacts for women who are in uniquely difficult positions, without addressing any of the actual concerns of Democrats who are opposed to or ambivalent on abortion.
It would be far better to continue advocating for access to abortion, while also devoting a comparable amount of resources and energy to meaningfully supporting women who wish to be mothers. (Focusing on programs for mothers and children is also a great way to call the bluff of any “pro-life” politician who is opportunistically using abortion as a wedge issue and does not, in fact, give any shits about human life.) That said, there are also certain hills that are not worth dying on. Some pro-choice advocates have opposed initiatives (such as “informed consent” laws) requiring that women seeking abortions be provided with information about alternative options, on the grounds that this is “patronizing” or implicitly “pressures” women out of abortions. This is a reasonable objection when the information being provided is misleading and manipulative: “Crisis pregnancy centers,” for example, which are usually funded by anti-abortion groups, are notorious for giving women false information, such as unsubstantiated claims that abortion causes cancer. It’s also reasonable to oppose weird, invasive, and emotionally fraught requirements, like forcing women to look at ultrasounds. But in most other contexts of U.S. life, the constant complaint is that doctors, bureaucrats, bankers, and other “expert” functionaries don’t provide people with enough relevant information, because they don’t take people’s concerns seriously and don’t care whether they make a genuinely informed choice. The goal should always be to get people more and better information, rather than merely less bad information. (Additionally, if we can improve our public policies on children and families, that will certainly give doctors more actually useful information to impart to people.)
It should be obvious, from the examples of countries that have heavy restrictions on abortion, that the dominant “pro-life” policy position is not defensible. If abortion is murder, then women who take abortion pills are murderers, something hardly anyone other than Kevin Williamson seems comfortable acknowledging. Even if the pro-life movement admitted, though, that the “life” that begins at conception is not a life with the same moral weight of an infant, any attempt to criminalize abortion practices will in practice simply impose a restriction on poor women. If abortion is actually treated as a crime, then there must be prosecutions, those prosecutions will likely be racist, and they may well be like El Salvador’s, which have imprisoned women for their miscarriages. Just as with alcohol prohibition, making something illegal doesn’t make it go away, but it can certainly make it more expensive, and put a lot of people’s lives at risk.
Anyone who wants to see fewer abortions, then, should start by empathizing with women who make the choice, and understanding why they do it. Few of them make it casually. Since economic circumstances have at least something to do with the majority of abortions, the most pro-life thing one can do is to become a socialist. No woman wants to have to have an abortion, but that “have to” is important; it’s not the result of whim, but because society has made the alternative impossibly burdensome. There’s something perverse about seeing politicians who erode the social safety net, and then want to punish women for the choices they make as a result of that lack of a safety net. Abortion itself is inevitably morally complicated, given the problems of line-drawing, but it is not difficult to see that a world with fewer abortions must be a world where women are supported, not a world in which women are prosecuted.
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NOTE ON TERMINOLOGY: Throughout this article, we frequently refer to “women.” The more precise and correct term for the group we are talking about is “people who are theoretically capable of becoming pregnant,” which also includes many genderqueer and trans individuals. We are using “women” as a shorthand, but we do not intend to exclude non-women. We also have used the term “disabled people” to describe members of the disability community. We ourselves are not members of the disability community, but our understanding is that some individuals prefer to use the term “disabled person,” and others “person with a disability,” to refer to themselves. We have chosen to use “disabled people,” simply because this is the term used by several activists whom we quoted directly in the article.