For decades, the never-ending abortion debate has been summarized by the dueling sound bites of pro-choice and pro-life. Very slowly, but lately more steadily, the fundamental premise of pro-life advocacy—that abortion not only stills a beating heart, but takes a human life—has resonated with the American public. Indeed, the New York Times itself reports that “one of the most enduring labels of modern politics—pro choice—has fallen from favor” as a means of furthering abortion rights policies.

That’s a notable shift. But pro-lifers should not unduly celebrate. Rather than moderating, activists have embraced an advocacy model they once eschewedbeing explicitly pro-abortion. In this new approach, Roe v. Wade is no longer a moment to celebrate. Rather, it must be overturned because it is too restrictive of what they believe should be an absolute right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, at any time, for any reason.

Why did “pro-choice” lose its efficacy? Mendacity has its costs. Understanding the public’s sentimentality about babies, pro-choice apologists often falsely claimed their goal was simply to make abortion “safe, legal, and rare.” That worked for a time. But conceding that abortion should be “rare” implicitly accepted the pro-life movement’s fundamental premise—that the entity terminated in an abortion is far more than an inflamed appendix. Eventually, the sheer force of logic and fact helped push the country in a more pro-life direction.

Second, most previous pro-life successes—such as the federal statute outlawing partial birth abortion—primarily restricted terminations late in pregnancy. But recent pro-life legislation in conservative states has seriously eroded easy access to early-term abortion, when most of the 1.3 million annual terminations are undertaken. Countering that trend will require convincing the country—or at least the courts—that abortion is a positive good.

Take Texas: A new law requiring abortionists to have admitting privileges at a local hospital (among other provisions) has survived initial court challenges. The law’s enforcement has caused Planned Parenthood to close clinics all over the state (undermining the organization’s dubious assertion that abortion only constitutes 3 percent of its services). In the near future, unless different courts intervene, all but a handful of Lone Star State abortion clinics may close.

Such successes have sparked a more honestly pro-abortion pushback. Thus, writing in the Washington Post, Janet Harris urged readers to “Stop Calling Abortion a Difficult Decision”: 

When the pro-choice community frames abortion as a difficult decision, it implies that women need help deciding, which opens the door to paternalistic and demeaning “informed consent” laws. . . .

But there’s a more pernicious result when pro-choice advocates use such language: It is a tacit acknowledgment that terminating a pregnancy is a moral issue requiring an ethical debate. To say that deciding to have an abortion is a “hard choice” implies a debate about whether the fetus should live, thereby endowing it with a status of being. It puts the focus on the fetus rather than the woman.

At Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams expressed a similar opinion last year in approving Planned Parenthood’s decision to downplay “pro-choice” as an advocacy meme. Asking, “So What If Abortion Ends a Human Life?” Williams comes to blunt premise.

All life is not equal. That’s a difficult thing for liberals like me to talk about, lest we wind up looking like death-panel-loving, kill-your-grandma-and-your-precious-baby storm troopers. Yet a fetus can be a human life without having the same rights as the woman in whose body it resides. She’s the boss. Her life and what is right for her circumstances and her health should automatically trump the rights of the non-autonomous entity inside of her. Always.

Here we are witnessing the beginnings of a new philosophical thrust aimed at winning what I previously called in these pages a “pro-abortion reversal of Roe v. Wade” that would overturn existing federal abortion jurisprudence as too limiting on a woman’s right to abort. The courts may be already moving in that direction. In Planned Parenthood v. Bentley, Alabama’s law regulating abortion clinics—similar to the one in Texas—was declared to be unconstitutional.

That might not be surprising, but the reasoning in the decision certainly was. U.S. District Judge Myron H. Thompson’s equated access to abortion with the Second Amendment, of all things, which should set off loud pro-life alarm bells:

At its core, each protected right is held by the individual: the right to decide to have an abortion and the right to have and use firearms for self-defense. However, neither right can be fully exercised without the assistance of someone else. The right to abortion cannot be exercised without a medical professional, and the right to keep and bear arms means little if there is no one from whom to acquire the handgun or ammunition.

That’s a big step in an absolute-right-to-abortion direction, so notable in fact, that the case was celebrated by the New York Times’s openly pro-abortion legal reporter, Linda Greenhouse, as “remarkable” and “delicious.”

I expect that in the coming years abortion rights supporters will execute a tactical retreat that admits the humanity of the unborn, conjoined with a strong counter-offensive dismissing the moral relevance of that biological fact. What matters, advocates will increasingly assert, is the state’s guarantee that women’s reproductive desires are fulfilled—with abortion viewed as a positively good way of doing so. Pro-lifers had better quickly discern how to counter the new candidly explicit pro-abortion advocacy.

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute’s Center on Human Exceptionalism. He consults for the Patients Rights Council and the Center for Bioethics and Culture. 

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Articles by Wesley J. Smith

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