With the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg the most divisive element of this already divisive presidential election is likely to be the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to replace RBG on the Supreme Court. With Trump having nominated and the Republicans about to confirm such an ultra-conservative justice a seismic shift in the court’s judicial balance is virtually certain. Previous court rulings in the most immediate danger of reversal from this shift are the Affordable Care Act and Roe-v-Wade. I have already expressed my views about healthcare. Here I will just address the issue of abortion.
I am pro-life; I am also pro-choice. No, those are not contradictory positions. I believe civilized society should be aggressive in its legal and moral effort to protect human life from unnatural death, disease, hunger, abuse, and neglect. At the same time I think a woman and her partner should be able to decide when to have children and their right to choose to abort an unwanted pregnancy should be respected and memorialized in federal law. I admit I tend to be a bit philosophical on that subject since I don’t suffer from either religious or political dogma. I do agree, however, that democratic society must establish some rational guidelines and limitations on the exercise of abortion rights that balances the different and conflicting perspectives.
The limits on abortion in my judgment should be a function of social and medical needs combined with when a fetus becomes a viable live human. To me societal limitations should be a continuum – the closer to viability the more the rights shift from the woman to the potential child. No one would argue that a healthy new born baby is not a life to be protected. But what about the month before birth? Or three months before? When should society step in and say a fetus is an independent life that society must protect?
The issue is not whether human life should be sacred and protected. Virtually no rational person disagrees with that. The real rub comes over the concept of when life begins. But today there is no agreement among Americans on when that occurs. Is it at conception? At birth? When a fetus is viable outside the womb? Or some other milestone?
Leaders of the Evangelical Christian community as well as most Catholic leaders, though they seem less militant, consider abortion to be the murder of a human being any time after conception. They vehemently oppose the woman’s right to choose under almost any circumstance. Some more radical faith groups include rape and incest as unacceptable reasons for abortion. A few extremists even include the health and survival of the mother as inadequate criteria. They would leave it “in God’s hands” in every circumstance.
But women of childbearing age generally don’t seem to look at abortion in those terms. They don’t see abortion as taking a human life, at least not in the early stages of pregnancy. Most Americans believe that a woman should have the right to abort an unwanted pregnancy, especially if she and/or her partner do not have the maturity or means to provide adequately for the child. I agree with them.
I know there are sincere people of faith who believe that abortion is a sin and cannot condone it on religious grounds. I respect them and would gladly join with them in honest efforts to minimize the frequency of the procedure. To me that should be society’s goal, recognizing that we cannot eliminate it. However, even minimizing the incidence of abortion requires us to be realistic about what works and what does not. For example, we are not going to stop people of childbearing age from having sex, married or not, religious or not. Therefore we must accept that unwanted pregnancies will occur and that many women facing that situation will demand safe abortion services, regardless of religious, legal, or societal pressure. We are also not going to eliminate or even substantially reduce the incidence of abortion by making it against the law or forcing closure of clinics that provide family planning, contraceptives, and abortion services. Remember? We tried to outlaw alcohol once with disastrous results.
Such misguided attempts simply ignore reality and just drive abortions underground. In that scenario those with the financial means will continue to get the procedure from qualified medical professionals in states where it is legal; The only impact of taking away its federal legal status or making it particularly difficult will be on the poorer women and families with the least ability to afford the procedure or provide adequately for a child. They will either have babies that become a further burden on welfare systems or they will turn to back alley quacks with the attendant danger of infection and death.
The large majority of abortions today are preformed on poor and working class women. Therefore I would argue that making birth control information/education and contraceptives readily available (most likely free) to that population is critical. Of course I realize that requires faith communities to accept family planning and use of contraception as a reasonable compromise to reduce the incidence of abortion; that will be a hard sell and why I am not confident that we can make much progress. Regardless, I think that is the only viable approach to reducing abortions in the near term. That is also just the reverse of what many states are doing now. They are moving aggressively to find ways to circumvent the federal law and close family planning and women’s health clinics.
Over the longer term we need to implement strong comprehensive sex education programs in middle and high schools, including education in the use of contraceptives. Providing equally strong social and moral ethics training (but not religion-centric) ought to be a complementary program to maintain a realistic and balanced approach. In spite of the “horror” of teaching kids about sex in school that some faith communities may fear, if we want to reduce the incidence of abortion we must face reality. We need to make sure our young people enter adulthood with factual information about reproduction, including use of contraceptives, with which to make informed social and health decisions.
Education and contraception, both near and long term, seems to me to be the most responsible societal strategy if the goal is to reduce the incidence of abortion.