For nearly half a century, the Supreme Court freed Americans from thinking hard about abortion. Its decisions in Roe v. Wade and later cases removed the matter from legislative consideration. That liberated voters from the responsibility to consider the competing values at issue. Whatever you think of those rulings—and in my judgment they were bad jurisprudence—they had the effect of permitting extremism on both sides to flourish.
Everyone knew that the law was fixed in concrete, freeing all to entertain the kind of purism that feels great in the abstract and only begins to curdle when applied in reality. Zealous pro-choicers could argue that any limitation on abortion at any stage of pregnancy for any reason was an unacceptable burden on women’s autonomy. And fanatical pro-lifers could counter that ending a human life, even one conceived in rape or incest, was murder.
If you think your own side has always been reasonable on abortion, you’re probably editing your memory. In 2013, the Florida legislature was considering a variant of the federal Born Alive Infants Protection Act. The bill would have required physicians, in rare instances of second or third trimester abortions in which the baby is accidentally born alive, to give medical attention to the infant. A representative of the Florida Alliance of Planned Parenthood Affiliates testified against the legislation. Several legislators were incredulous. They asked, “If a baby is born on a table as a result of a botched abortion, what would Planned Parenthood want to have happen to that child that is struggling for life?” Alisa LaPolt Snow replied that her organization “believes that any decision that’s made should be left up to the woman, her family, and the physician.”
Is this nut-picking? A completely unrepresentative example of pro-choice views? Consider that when Illinois held hearings on a similar law, most members of both houses supported it. There was one exception: then state senator Barack Obama, who explained that the legislation “was designed to burden the original decision of the woman and the physician to induce labor and perform an abortion.” Obama was saying that when a woman decides to abort, she not only has the right to terminate the pregnancy, but also to terminate the life of that child if it has, by some miracle, survived the initial procedure.
At the other end of the spectrum, Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin has demanded that her state toughen its laws to eliminate exceptions for rape and incest if the Supreme Court overturns Roe. “It is shameful that Idaho’s abortion laws are not the most pro-life in our country,” explained McGeachin, who is running for governor and has been endorsed by Donald Trump. “No child should ever be murdered because of the circumstances surrounding his or her conception.”
Is this nut-picking? No. For decades, even the majority of pro-life activists and politicians could accept legalizing abortion in three hard situations: rape, incest, and a threat to the life of the mother. But in recent years, the purists have prevailed. Eleven states have passed laws removing the rape and incest exceptions to abortion bans, leaving only the life of the mother.
Following the logic of eliminating exceptions for rape and incest, it becomes more difficult to see how even the exception for the mother’s life can stand. After all, if, as McGeachin argues, “no child should ever be murdered” because of the circumstances of conception, then even performing an abortion to save the mother’s life would be murder. If the physician doesn’t interfere, it’s true that the woman dies, but at least the doctor hasn’t committed murder, right?
I’ve been pro-life since college and there have been times when the purist position called to me, but maturity has led me to conclude that on this subject, moral absolutes lead to a dead end. Pregnancy has no analogs and life is messy. In the cases of the life of the mother, rape, and incest, it is cruel to demand that a woman carry a pregnancy to term. Yes, ending the pregnancy is cruel too, but in rare cases it’s the lesser evil. There are a few other situations in which abortion seems the less grave offense—if the child is doomed to a short, painful life as in the case of Tay-Sachs disease, or if the mother is the sole support of other children and becomes so violently sick during pregnancy that it would prevent her from working.
I believe that the overwhelming majority of abortions can be and should be avoided. Many abortions are sought because women feel under financial strain (which can be alleviated), or because they believe they cannot care for an infant (or another child), which can be addressed by adoption. An unplanned pregnancy need not entail unwanted parenthood. And if, as I believe, terminating a pregnancy is a terrible expedient that should be avoided in all but the most dire situations, then we should be helping women to find alternatives.
With the Supreme Court poised to toss the issue back into politics, we’re going to have to wade into the morally murky realms of unsatisfying compromises and imperfect accommodations of conflicting rights. It’s what we should have been doing all this time instead of indulging the pleasures of purism.