Recognizing that the abortion-on-demand position is becoming politically unpopular, many abortion-rights moderates are becoming increasingly more vocal about finding a middle path—at least rhetorically. The shift has been occurring for more than a decade, but it became more noticeable after the 2004 presidential campaign. By 2008 the solidly pro-abortion candidate Hillary Clinton felt comfortable arguing,
There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances. [emphasis added]
It became clear that a significant shift in abortion politics had occurred when the leading contender for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination was willing to admit, albeit indirectly, that the ideal number of abortions is zero.
A year later, in a meeting at the Vatican, President Obama told Pope Benedict that he was committed to reducing the number of abortions in the United States. Despite being the most pro-abortion president in the history of America, Obama felt the need at least to pretend that he shares the abortion-reduction agenda. While it is not a substantive change in policy, it is notable that Obama felt the need to side with the moderates—at least rhetorically—over the more absolutist supporters of abortion. Even the president can sense the public’s shifting attitude away from abortion-on-demand.
This moderation of language is a welcome change, and those of us in the pro-life camp should use this as an opportunity to encourage pro-choice advocates who are serious about reducing the number of abortions in America. But we must also remember our primary goal is not to make abortion illegal but to make it—like slavery, female genital mutilation, and other moral horrors—unthinkable.
We are, of course, far from reaching that goal. Currently, the only aspect of the issue that is “unthinkable” is the idea that people should take responsibility for their sexual behavior. For those who blame society for not allowing them to have consequence-free sex, abortion will always be needed as a backup plan.
However, there are still a few moderate pro-choice Americans who believe in both personal responsibility and that a fetus has some moral worth. We should press these moderate pro-choicers to explain how many abortions would be too many.
The answer to that question will help reshape the debate over fetal life. In the past, hardcore abortion-rights supporters have tended to dominate the pro-choice side of the argument. But while they may still be the most vocal, they are now a statistical minority. While the political left still maintains a strict no-restrictions stance, there are few citizens who share their dogmatism.
As a recent Gallup poll shows, large majorities of Americans favor the broad intent of several types of abortion-restriction laws that are now common in many states:
Of seven abortion restrictions tested in a July 15-17 Gallup poll, informing women of certain risks of an abortion in advance of performing it is the most widely favored, at 87%. Seven in 10 Americans favor requiring parental consent for minors and establishing a 24-hour waiting period for women seeking abortions. Nearly two-thirds favor making the specific procedure known as "partial birth abortion" illegal.
[. . .]
Partisan differences are much greater, although majorities of Democrats as well as most Republicans favor informed consent, parental consent, 24-hour waiting periods, and a ban on "partial birth abortion."
Unfortunately, polling also reveals that while majorities favor banning abortion in the second and third trimesters (71% and 86%, respectively), only 35% are in favor of making early abortions illegal.
Even those who are not in favor of banning first-trimester abortions, though, tend to recognize that there is something inherently immoral about the procedure. Almost no one outside of a Planned Parenthood clinic thinks that the early embryo has absolutely no inherent moral worth. As the liberal legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin has said, “The truth is that liberal opinion, like the conservative view, presupposes that human life has intrinsic moral significance, so that it is in principle wrong to terminate a life even when no one’s interests are at stake.” Like many supporters of abortion, Dworkin believes that the while the unborn does not necessarily have a right to life, killing an embryo or fetus is still intrinsically bad.
This sentiment may strike you—as it does me—as being arbitrary and illogical. After all, the entire premise of the pro-life/pro-choice debate is the incommensurability of life and non-life. If the fetus is a life, then it has moral worth; if it is not a life, than it has no intrinsic moral value. But while those of us in the pro-life camp may not agree, we can use this to gain allies for our side. For example, Leon Kass, the former chairman of President Bush’s bioethics council, is agnostic about the moral status of the embryo. Yet he believes early life is deserving of respect and has been a foe of embryo-destructive research.
Similarly, we may be able to win converts from the moderate pro-choice camp if we are able to get them to recognize what they are supporting. Polling shows that they think the percentage of abortion should neither be 0% nor 100% of its current rate. But what percentage do they think it should be? And how should they determine the number?
One approach is to press them to consider the moral value of early life vis-à-vis infants or adults. They could approach the task of quantifying the number of acceptable abortions using economic analysis. “Economists have a curious habit of affixing numbers to complicated transactions,” said economist Steven Levitt in his best-selling book, Freakanomics. Levitt applies this “curious habit” to the question, “What is the relative value between a fetus and a newborn?”:
For a person who is either resolutely pro-life or resolutely pro-choice, this is a simple calculation. The first, believing that life begins at conception, would likely consider the value of a newborn versus the value of a fetus to be 1:1. The second person, believing that a woman’s right to an abortion trumps any other factor, would likely argue that no number of fetuses can equal even one newborn.
But let’s consider a third person: This third person does not believe that a fetus is the 1:1 equivalent of a newborn, yet neither does he believe that a fetus has no relative value. Let’s say that he is forced, for the sake of argument, to affix a relative value, and he decides that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses.
There are roughly 1.5 million abortions in the United States every year. For a person who believes that 1 newborn is worth 100 fetuses, those 1.5 million abortions would translate—dividing 1.5 million by 100—into the equivalent of a loss of 15,000 human lives. Fifteen thousand lives: that happens to be about the same number of people who die in homicides in the United States every year.
Is the relative value of abortion worth the equivalent cost in lives lost to homicides? If not, then what equivalent number would be acceptable? What is the relative value of a fetus? That is a question that pro-choice moderates need to answer. They often walk up to the line, admitting that abortion is “tragic” and should be “rare.” But when pressed to quantify “rare” by putting an actual number to the abstract value, will they balk? It’s time we found out. It’s time we started asking them to directly answer: When it comes to abortions, what number is acceptable?
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
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