Even in a year when the abortion issue has been relatively quiet, the struggle over abortion policy continues to make news. On June 26, the Supreme Court decided that a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics was too great an imposition on the free-speech rights of anti-abortion activists. On June 3, the US Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit struck down restrictions on pills that induce abortion early in pregnancies.
And Wendy Davis’s uphill campaign to become governor of Texas was jumpstarted by her filibuster against restrictions on late-term abortions.
The American politics of abortion generates a lot of heat because of the passion of those with extreme views. Yet most Americans have moderate views on abortion. The debate over abortion restrictions involves a tragic conflict between a human life—however small and undeveloped—and the freedom of a potential mother to determine the course of her life.
Bill Clinton famously said during the 1996 presidential campaign: “Abortion should not only be safe and legal, it should be rare.” In saying this, he missed another important proviso. According to most Americans, abortion should be not only safe, legal and rare–when there is an abortion, it should be done early in pregnancy.Gallup polls from 2012 indicate that only 31% of adults think abortion should be illegal in the first trimester, but 64% think abortion should be illegal during the second trimester, and 80% think abortion should be prohibited in the third trimester. And these attitudes have been remarkably stable over time.
I agree with the majority of Americans. It makes sense to me that someone ought to have the right not to be killed the day before they would otherwise have been born. And it makes sense to me that, despite its potential, the interests of a single human cell from a recently fertilized egg cannot weigh as much in the balance as the interests of a woman in choosing one of the most basic aspects of what her future will look like. In between, I see the ethical weight of nascent human life as increasing gradually over time. There are milestones along the way: fertilization, implantation, getting a heartbeat, becoming able to feel pain, being born. But even those transitions, seen up close, are gradual ones. For example, birth is not one moment of transition, but many: the breaking of the water, the emergence of the baby’s head, the first breath, the cutting of the umbilical cord, and many key moments along the way.
Even after birth, loving parents feel a baby becoming more and more precious with every passing day. And with passing time, the child gains a greater and greater consciousness of its own existence, and (in all but pathological cases) its own strong desire to live. At the other end, even before conception, I like to think that even the unconceived have at least some small ethical interest in getting a chance to become an actual human being.
So to me, there are no sudden ethical jumps, but instead, a gradually increasing ethical weight to a developing human life, at least from shortly before conception to shortly after birth. What this ethical view means for policy is that when an abortion does happen it is better to have it occur early. Laws against partial-birth abortion seem ethically appropriate to me just as laws against killing the baby one day later are, but attempts to discourage women from using morning-after pills such as “Plan B” do not. It takes many, many fertilized eggs to equal the ethical weight of a single one-month-along fetus aborted because a woman was kept from using a morning-after pill. And while it might be reasonable to consider short waiting periods to encourage people to think things through, restrictions on abortion (or harrassments to drive out abortion clinics) that force women to go to another state at the cost of weeks of delay magnify the horror of the abortion that ultimately does take place.
Unfortunately, the extreme viewpoints that have driven much of the policy debate have left little room for us to focus on trying to insure that the abortions that do occur are early ones. The politically most active parts of the pro-life movement claim that a fertilized egg is the moral equivalent of a baby, while the politically most active parts of the pro-choice movement are loath to give any rights to a human being the day before birth. So it is the duty of the rest of us—who have both pro-choice and pro-life leanings jostling in our hearts at the same time–to work toward policies that will insure that abortions are not only safe, legal and rare, but also early.