What You Should Think About Abortion Policy

“There are highly gifted spirits who are always infertile simply because, owing to a weakness in temperament, they are too impatient to wait out their pregnancy to term.”

–Friedrich Nietzsche

The politics of unwanted pregnancies is about as divisive as any aspect of American civic life. Most positions are rooted in strongly held beliefs. Passions run high, yet earnest rational advocates right across the spectrum all rest on sound thinking emergent from a coherent moral center. On at least one point there can be no compromise. Because passions run high, this is not an easy issue for “agree to disagree” peacemaking.

Fortunately, this document is not crafted to tell you what you should think about abortion. I have my own thoughts on why and when a product of conception ought to be recognized as a legal entity. However, those thoughts actually have marginal bearing on my opinions about policy. From the most stereotypical feminist to the most stereotypical fundamentalist, there is an enormous area of common ground. Pretty much every American would like to see a future in which fewer abortions actually take place.

A popular method advocated for achieving this goal is legal prohibition. While dragging the long arm of the law into this issue may satisfy some people on some level, it is just plain wrong to assume that prohibition actually discourages much of this sort of behavior. Did America stop drinking during the Prohibition? Have our laws regarding cocaine or sportsbetting or prostitution truly diminished the extent of those activities in our society? How’s that crackdown on crystal meth working out over the long term?

The brute force of legal prohibition can serve the cause of justice, but only when there is an identifiable victim that has been wronged. Car thieves ought to be punished for a number of reasons. The big two would be that innocent bystanders could come to harm if car theft victims became vigilantes and potential car theft victims enjoy greater security knowing something is being done to address the problem of stolen automobiles. Thus it would be good to incarcerate habitual car thieves even if a penal approach actually has little impact on the number of car thefts from year to year.

Legitimate assumptions about human spirituality can lead to conclusions that establish an identifiable victim of pregnancy termination. However, those assumptions are, by their very nature, religious. They deserve respect, but surely not to the extent that religious beliefs should be imposed on others by force. The beliefs of those who do not see abortion as murder deserve every bit as much respect as the beliefs of those who insist the former is a subset of the latter. Even if you believe something profoundly sacred is imparted on every human zygote just as fertilization begins, living in a free society still demands tolerance for others who believe differently.

Recognizing the reality of those beliefs means understanding that many Americans would regard a ban on abortion as less like a murder statute and more like a vice prohibition. In other words, there is no reason at all to expect that a national prohibition would result in a sustained long term decrease in the number of abortions performed on pregnant Americans. Looking at both the history of other prohibitions and the realities of our nation before Roe v. Wade tells us that prohibition would change things . . . but in no way for the better.

In fact, this confluence of horrors is an especially ugly picture. As with all illegal goods or services for which there is significant demand, a prohibition would provide opportunities for enterprising criminals. No society does well to create another reason desperate young women might seek business arrangements with thugs and gangsters. Driven beyond any hope of government oversight, an outright legal ban would merely trade safe medical care for a range of uncertainties. Among them would be numerous mutilations in back alley clinics, not to mention all the self-inflicted clothes hanger injuries. This helps who? How?

Fortunately, there are sensible alternatives to the wholly negative approach of criminalization. In fact, there is a broad range of tools wise leaders could utilize if they were intent on actually addressing abortion as a problem . . .

  • Maternity Laws — Compared to other nations at our level of prosperity, the United States makes an incredibly weak effort to discourage employers from firing or demoting workers who choose to carry a pregnancy to full term. It may be unfair to require all employers to comply with generous maternity leave policies, but it is an entirely reasonable imposition to make in large organizations, where competent management should make it practical to cope with the needs of pregnant employees. Giving young mothers protection from workplace discrimination and enhanced flexibility related to maternity would reduce the instance of abortions performed on women presently forced to make hard choices between ending a career or ending a pregnancy.
  • Prenatal and Neonatal Health Care — Just tending to the basic domestic needs of a newborn can involve a great deal of expense. Add 21st century medical bills to the equation and some women find themselves choosing between harsh poverty or relative material comfort. Anyone truly serious about preventing abortion should be truly serious about preemptively resolving that painful economic dilemma in favor of a live birth.
  • Effective Sex Education Curricula — There is nothing wrong with embracing a religious belief that unborn entities are equipped with a soul. However, no religious belief justifies ignoring the hard data on sex education outcomes. Programs that offer comprehensive information consistently produce lower rates of teen pregnancy than those that leave students largely in the dark about sexual practices, birth control techniques, etc. There is nothing wrong with encouraging young people to abstain from sex until later in life. However, sex education classes that cover only abstinence are a surefire way to drive up teen pregnancy rates, thus increasing demand for abortion.

There are other good ideas that belong in the mix, but those three each have the potential to be especially effective. It is true that some economic conservatives may object to expanding maternity leave or public subsidy of prenatal and neonatal health care. Then again, how serious can one be about preventing abortion if hostility toward any sort of social service spending is judged to be more important than making a serious effort to reduce demand for abortion?

By sidestepping the theological question, I cannot offer a comprehensive take on what you should think about abortion policy. Yet I believe it is long overdue that our national leaders saw the wisdom in sidestepping that intractable disagreement in order to forge common ground. Would even one percent of the population respond negatively to the poll question, “would you prefer it if fewer abortions were performed in the United States?” If we recognize that such a strong consensus exists, it follows logically that we should promote social change for purposes of dramatically reducing the demand for abortion.

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