Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Safe, Legal, and Early

Over at Beliefnet, Steve Waldman takes note of a curious statistic in the abortion debate:
According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the "taking of a human life," but 72 percent believe it should be legal.

Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet favor the procedure being legal...
Waldman ponders what this means. He suggests that Americans are not immoral or inconsistent, but believe that there are gradations to human life. While most Americans believe that a 6 week old fetus is really a human life, they are more comfortable with the idea of aborting a 6 week old fetus that is is no bigger than a poppy seed, even though it has a beating heart, than they are aborting a 26 week old one that is almost certainly viable outside the womb.

Bill Clinton gave us "safe, legal, and rare" which captures the position of many people in the middle of the abortion debate. But Waldman wonders if we might find more common ground between pro-choice and pro-life activists and find a way to turn down the dial on the culture wars if we found a way to made our abortion laws and policies support a "safe, legal, and early" philosophy. Make abortion easy in the first trimester, more difficult in the second, and nearly impossible in the third unless the mother's life is in danger.

This kind of policy, he says, would require compromises from both sides:
My fantasy is that if the political system embraced the safe-legal-early doctrine, a few activists might even accept the legitimacy of part of their opponents' argument. Pro-choicers who accepted this framework would be implicitly conceding that, for at least part of the pregnancy, there's a "baby" in the womb--and the woman's right to terminate that life is neither absolute nor nine months in duration. With early abortions not only legal but easier, pro-choice activists could then have the confidence to accept what many of them have publicly avoided but privately wanted: reasonable, tightly written prohibitions on third trimester abortions while genuinely protecting the life of the mother.

Open minded pro-lifers would take note of these concessions from their "enemies," viewing them as a sign that these pro-choicers--far from being hideous baby killers--fully embrace a moral dimension to the abortion decision.

Meanwhile, any pro-lifers who accept this framework would be making a concession, too. They'd be saying, in effect, that if the other side can concede that something precious is alive - and becoming more alive with each day - then they could, in turn, acknowledge that reasonable people, of different faiths, can disagree about when exactly that baby becomes alive enough to have legal rights.

Open minded pro-choicers would take note of these concessions, feeling less condemned and more respected.

Would this work? I doubt that many pro-life or pro-choice activists would go along. If you are pro-life and hold religious convictions about when life begins a policy that works just to shift the amount of abortions to an earlier moment in the term doesn't change the facts on the ground. Most pro-choice activists I know adhere to a hard-line on choice issues in political battles but are willing to concede in private conversations that they are not as comfortable with late-term abortions. But their over-riding concern is to protect choice - women control their own bodies - and they fear any compromise that might begin to chisel away at what they consider to be a hard-fought-for right.

My own preference, since I am pro-choice and pro-life but believe that there are indeed gradations of human life in the womb, would be to keep the goal "safe, legal, and rare" and do the work we need to do in religious communities and in our society to support mothers and children in such a way that abortion isn't viewed as a necessary choice. At the same time I could support Waldman's idea of making birth control, Plan B, RU-486, and abortion in the first trimester as accessible and easy as possible so that more unplanned pregnancies are avoided or ended, if that choice is made, as early as possible.

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