Ending America’s Abortion “Forever War”

During the summer of 1992, when Bill Clinton was running for his first term as President, I served as a volunteer at a campaign rally that he held in Buffalo, New York.  It was a hot, tiring, and instructive experience.

One of the main duties of the volunteers was to act as a buffer between pro-life demonstrators and the other attendees, and I ended up on the front lines of that effort.  Being my usual personable self, I found that the best way to keep tempers from flaring was to talk to those who were protesting the abortion policies espoused by Mr. Clinton in particular and the Democratic Party as a whole.  Having grown up outside of New York City, attended Yale, and lived in New York City for many years, I had not had much opportunity to converse with those opposed to abortion—I suppose you could say I had lived much of my life to that point in a liberal bubble—so being stuck face to face for many hours with no one to talk to but those who thought very differently than me was a unique opportunity to hear the other side.

Although no minds were changed, our dialogue was mostly respectful, and I was impressed by the commitment of those who ended up standing with me for over seven hours on the steaming asphalt—Bill Clinton was, as usual, many hours late.  During that time I learned how deep were the feelings of those whose religious and moral beliefs led them to the inescapable conclusion that each abortion was the cruel and unforgivable murder of a child.  From the perspective of the pro-life demonstrators, it was abhorrent and impossible to knowingly acquiesce in what they deemed to be a state-sanctioned holocaust no different from the Nazi extermination of the Jews and others during the Second World War.

Although a great many other problems and issues confronting America receive far more attention right now, the battles between those who want to restrict or ban abortions and those who believe the unrestricted ability to end a pregnancy is a fundamental civil right is today coming to a boil due to a series of new laws and impending court decisions.  Advocates on both sides of this issue are as implacably divided as ever, and we are certainly moving to a new level of rage and division regarding the laws and politics surrounding abortion in the months ahead of us.

Unwanted and unexpected pregnancies are, of course, as old as humanity itself, although the stigma attending out-of-wedlock births in America has diminished right along with our society’s slackening interest in matrimony.  As Americans continue to struggle with our moral, political, and ideological battles over legal abortion, there are several factors that both exacerbate our conflicts—and point to possible points of agreement that might facilitate a broader and less acrimonious societal consensus.

First, Americans now have access to birth control methods that are virtually infallible—although not without side effects—and this is driving steep drops in both our national birth rates and the total number of abortions being performed.  Moreover, teen pregnancies have cratered as implantable hormone-based birth control devices have been widely adopted by this cohort of our population.

It is, of course, also true that more restrictive laws affecting abortion access have been passed in many states, but the continued decline in birth rates suggests that improved birth control is a far larger factor in the decline in abortions overall.  The skyrocketing incidence of sexually-transmitted diseases, which are now at record levels across America, also serve to emphasize that women of childbearing ages are still engaging in a great deal of sexual intercourse, but widely available birth control methods are very effectively suppressing pregnancies regardless of the number of partners or intimate episodes.

All of this tends to suggest that Americans on both sides of the abortion debate could unite in common cause by promoting birth control.  There are, of course, anti-abortion zealots who believe preventing conception is itself a form of abortion, but this viewpoint tends to float along at the fringes of a movement that finds the violence inherent in the surgical or chemical extraction of an embryo or fetus to be far more disturbing.  Given the choice between preventing a pregnancy and ending one, we can be certain that the vast majority of pro-life advocates would much rather facilitate birth control than see pregnancies terminated.

Education about birth control would naturally land in our nation’s Primary and Secondary classrooms, but this discussion also crashes headlong into controversies about the content and intent of sex education in our nation’s public schools today.  In order to generate the broad public support that would be necessary, there would need to be a clear demarcation between teaching about birth control and promoting sexual activity by children and adolescents.  Unfortunately, advocates for teaching grade schoolers about the wonders of masturbation and the necessity of choosing your gender are unlikely to respect any guidelines put in place to enforce the public’s will concerning this matter.  In any case, if we are currently unable to even agree that being a man or a woman is reliant on biological fact, discussions about the mechanisms of procreation might turn out to be a tad confusing for young minds.

Therefore, efforts to promote thoughtful education about birth control, which would likely further reduce the need for abortions, are certain to be impeded by the same problem that makes reasoned conversations about abortion impossible—extremists simply refuse to budge.

And speaking of extremism, we also need to address one of the most divisive issues now surrounding abortion in America today: late term abortions.

There was once a time in the decades following Roe v. Wade in 1973 when abortions after the first trimester were exceedingly rare.  Given that fetal viability at 3 months of gestation is a functional impossibility, first trimester abortions carry no whiff of infanticide.  Abortion might not have been popular, but it seemed just a bit less awful as a result of the gestational time limits imposed by original Roe v. Wade decision, which also ruled that abortions after six months of pregnancy could only proceed in order to save the life of the mother.

That was yesterday; we live in a different world today.

Now only 20 states prohibit late term abortion unless the health of the mother is at risk.  However, this restriction is far less sturdy than it seems because the definition of threats to the health of the mother has been vastly expanded to sometimes include emotional and familial factors that are both highly subjective and only tangentially connected with any discernible life or death risk to the mother.  In addition, 9 states now allow abortion up to the point of actual birth with no restrictions whatsoever.  The net result is that activists who have spent the nearly fifty years since Roe v. Wade pushing for unfettered access to abortion have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams, but they have simultaneously opened the door to abortion procedures where a perfectly viable fetus, who only a moment later could be a perfectly healthy baby, can be snuffed out of existence with nary a thought regarding the life that child should have enjoyed.  

This is, for many Americans, a freedom gone too far, and for those whose consciences already cry out at first trimester abortions, a freedom most foul.

Unsurprisingly, any hint that the pendulum might swing back to stricter abortion guidelines that more closely mirror those enshrined in the original Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision provoke an outcry from abortion advocates.  Abortion opponents in some states have now shepherded laws through their state legislatures—Texas being the most obvious example right now—that far exceed the restrictions from the original 1973 decision, and abortion advocates are preparing for battle at the Supreme Court this upcoming term.

Something has got to give.

Although better education and access to birth control can help to eliminate the need for many abortions, it will never eliminate them entirely.  For example, victims of rape and incest are obviously unable to negotiate consensual guidelines regarding the responsibilities each party has for contraception—and must not be forced to carry those pregnancies to term against their wishes.  It should also be recognized that plain old human lust tends to cast forethought to the wind, so the necessary birth control may not be readily at hand—or could be simply forgotten in a bedside drawer—when passion strikes a man and a woman.

Whether abortion is legal or not, women will still seek them out because of fear, desperation, or personal choice, and the the history of back alley abortions in America is a tale of horror that left countless women scarred, sterile, or dead.  No matter how distasteful the idea may be to those ideologues who dream of a country where abortions simply do not exist, the reality is that avenues for safe and legal abortions are necessary, and the option of driving women back into a murky underground network of charlatans and sadists for assistance with terminating a pregnancy is simply unthinkable.

Heartbeat Laws that ban abortions after only a few weeks—before many women might even realize they are pregnant—are cruel and impracticable.  However, abortion on demand up to the point of live birth is an example of repugnant extremism that makes the average American shudder.  A workable and reasonable middle ground must be found, and politicians on both sides of the abortion question must stop parroting the talking points of those whose fundraising is predicated on promoting controversy and discord—not on seeking common cause between Americans of good faith.

It seems to me—and I’m sure to many others—that the guidelines enshrined in the original Roe v. Wade decision were a thoughtful compromise that set higher standards for obtaining an abortion during the second and third trimesters, and a national return this framework would undercut the extremists on both sides of the abortion issue.

Will either improved education regarding contraception or a return to common sense guidelines for obtaining legal abortions put an end the many controversies surrounding this issue?  No, they will not.  Matters of personal conscience and moral beliefs are inevitably messy and contradictory.  This is our human condition—whether we like it or not.

However, with a bit of luck and honesty, perhaps we can lower the temperature of our national dialogue so that we can focus our energies and attention on the many other problems besieging our nation today.  The American experiment with representative democracy has hit a rough patch recently, and we need to find ways to work cooperatively rather than find new methods for bashing one another over the head regarding our differing values and ideas.

To continue to tear at one another’s throats over the many difficult decisions surrounding contraception, pregnancy, and abortion rather than accepting the necessity of compromise is a poor way to honor our obligations to the great nation that is our inheritance and our sacred responsibility.

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