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Life Itself:
Abortion in the American Mind

by Roger Rosenblatt
Random House, 194 pages, $20

Roger Rosenblatt wants you to know that he has solved the abortion problem. Really. He’s written a whole book about it called Life Itself. Of course, the middle third of the book is just a summary of other people’s research on the history of abortion from the beginning of time, and there is one section at the back describing the results of some opinion polls and another section listing lots of books about abortion (although Rosenblatt doesn’t actually discuss any of them). But altogether the book is nearly 200 pages long, so you know it must have some answers. 

Rosenblatt also wants you to know that he has actually talked to other people about the subject of abortion. Most Americans, he claims, have not. The premise of Life Itself is that Americans never “talk,” “argue,” or “speak” about abortion; nor do they “say what they feel” or “express” or “discuss” their views. “Abortion has existed mainly as a shouting match that had been overheard by ordinary people.” For Rosenblatt, this revelation explains why, “in spite of the fact that most Americans want choice, the right to choose is at greater risk than before.” The “vast silence” of most Americans “puts the majority at risk of living in an America that inaccurately represents them on this issue.” 

More likely Rosenblatt hears a “vast silence” because he is a bad listener. That he is a snob as well becomes clear when he tries to interview “ordinary” Americans in an attempt to learn “where we are on abortion.” It turns out that this ambitious project doesn’t take nearly as much traveling as you would think. Rosenblatt just boards a plane in New York City and heads out to Iowa, since “Iowa has always been an especially good place for getting at the heart of what the country is thinking.” The Iowans Rosenblatt spoke to “spoke for the country.” He knows this because Iowa has a river on either side of it, and the 42nd parallel runs right through it, so you can tell it is Middle America. Also, when you fly over the state you can see that it is divided up into lots of little squares, “as if to emphasize its solidity.” And “roads run either horizontally or vertically; there are no short cuts in Iowa.” 

There are other telltale signs that Iowa is full of ordinary Americans. It has state fairs (Rosenblatt says there was even a cow-chip toss going on while he was there) and people dress badly (he says one woman he met was wearing silver nail polish). Everyone he interviewed seemed eager to talk with him about this very serious topic of abortion, although Rosenblatt points out that it wasn’t until they sat down to chat with him that they became aware of what they actually thought and felt about the subject. 

After talking to Iowans—fifty of them!—and some other people he already knew like Peter Jennings, Garry Trudeau, Jane Pauley, Jim Lehrer, Martin Peretz, and Derek Bok, Rosenblatt concludes that America is pro-choice. But not pro-choice in some simplistic way. What Americans really want is for abortion to be permitted but discouraged. Although this notion is presented as the breakthrough solution to the age-old abortion controversy, Rosenblatt is very vague about what his formula actually entails. By piecing together scattered references in the book, though, we learn that “discouraging” abortion means working toward broad societal changes that would make abortion unnecessary. For example, discouragement “may be effected by things as specific as sex education and the introduction of improved contraceptives such as Norplant and by things as general as increased attention to the poor and to family structure and discipline.” Of course, we should be careful not to deter or restrict or limit or inhibit a woman’s access to abortion in any way. In fact, abortions should be federally funded. A woman’s right to choice, after all, is absolute. 

Rosenblatt’s reluctance to clarify his terms serves him well, especially when he is talking with people who use words far more conventionally than he does. Rosenblatt blithely quotes people on both sides of the issue who favor limits on abortion, but he glosses over those comments, preferring to focus on the fact that most people agreed that restrictive measures would have a hard time getting through their legislature. And he boasts that both the pro-choice and pro-life individuals he interviewed “spoke unprodded of creating social remedies that would keep the need for abortion down.” That must mean they agree with his permit-but-discourage formula! Having convinced himself that he is very much in touch with ordinary Americans, Rosenblatt pats his Iowans on the head for holding “a secret that, once revealed, could do everyone considerable good.”

But if it turns out there is so much room for accommodation on the abortion issue, why is the subject still so confrontational? Rosenblatt dismisses out of hand the possibility that the tension could center on the status of the fetus. Talking about fetuses, he says, is a misguided attempt to “impose objective precision on a subjective area of speculation”; it is neither “pertinent” nor “useful” to the abortion debate to discuss when life begins. Sociological, not substantive, reasons must account for Americans’ discomfort with the issue. Rosenblatt concludes that we are in conflict because we have many cultural strains pulling us in different directions. 

For example, the intrepid Life magazine reporter reveals that America has a “secret, undercurrent religion,” a “hidden national feeling about faith and God.” In fact, a historian named Perry Miller says that America has been this way since colonial times. Americans are also very individualistic (Perry Miller says this goes back to colonial times, too), which means that we like to make our own decisions. And America is very puritanical (Rosenblatt himself traces this back to colonial times), which is why we hate all expressions of sexuality and see abortion as a symbol of sex. Also, the American nation “began like an orphan” and went on to become the “world’s most powerful baby, like Gargantua.” This sense of being “the child alone” may explain why Americans have such powerful emotions about things having to do with babies. There are lots of other sociological factors, too. 

No wonder we are so confused about abortion. But confusion isn’t necessarily bad, Rosenblatt tells us. We get into trouble only when we try to reconcile our jumbled thoughts and feelings instead of just treating abortion “as one of our normal unresolvable problems.” We shouldn’t run from our confused feelings. Rosenblatt has even noticed that “the more significant the problem, the less adamant honest thinkers will be in considering it.” Abortion certainly fits this bill: it is “too significant a problem to admit adamancy on either side.” Most people don’t realize that outlawing abortion would trivialize life: A “society in which abortion is permitted and its gravity appreciated . . . takes life with utmost seriousness and is, by the depth of its conflicts and by the richness of its difficulties, a reflection of life itself.” 

The implication of Life Itself is that if everybody on both sides of the abortion debate had the same opportunity to talk to Rosenblatt as the lucky residents of Iowa did, they would soon discover that their strongly held views were founded on sand and that they share a fundamental ambivalence. The irony, says Rosenblatt, is that “we are closer in our thinking on abortion than the politics would indicate, but as yet we seem unable to live with the ambivalence the problem requires.” If only we could be more like Mario Cuomo, “one of the few major politicians in the country with an articulated and sophisticated position on abortion.” Yet Rosenblatt laments that even Cuomo’s courage falls short since he “has spoken more in defense of his own personal ambivalence than as a leader urging the benefits of ambivalence on his countrymen.” We need to realize that people actually become more moral by learning to live with ambivalence. Rosenblatt hastens to assure us that “bifurcated thinking” isn’t namby-pamby or un-American: “acknowledging and living with ambivalence is, in a way, what America was invented to do.” 

Rosenblatt also explains that people who have learned to express themselves on the subject of abortion know that the issue really boils down to communication. Because it is so important to share our thoughts and feelings on abortion, Rosenblatt recommends that Congress pass a law like Roe v. Wade, “but only after people had had the chance to hear what others thought and, more importantly, to discover what they themselves thought.” Our thoughts and feelings could even be worked into the new law: “It would be heartening to see wording attached that conveyed the range and complexity of feelings on the issue, that acknowledged that abortion is the taking of life at some stage, and that voiced the concern of the country that the best antidote to abortion is to make it less necessary.” 

But Congress should be sure to pass a law like Roe v. Wade, says Rosenblatt, because it would be terrible if the issue were left up to the states. After the Webster decision there was hardly any communication at all; “Instead of discussion, the states responded with one set of laws or another.” Worse, if Roe were overturned, some states might go ahead and outlaw or restrict abortion, even though America is overwhelmingly pro-choice. These things happen. Besides, adds Rosenblatt, “abortion is the whole country’s problem, and it will only be messed up further than it already has been if each state, an odd political unit in any case, appoints itself as a separate moral authority.” 

Having tackled the complicated issue of federalism, Rosenblatt moves on to larger questions of democracy. Really irritating minorities should stop being so divisive. Those who oppose abortion are a “distinct minority,” says Rosenblatt, and they should begin to act like one. Rosenblatt (a man old enough to have lived through the civil rights movement) explains that the opponents of abortion “bear a responsibility toward the country and its form of government to behave like a minority—that is, to oppose the majority without destroying the country until or unless their position eventually prevails.” Better still, both sides on the issue could start working together “toward creating a country where everyone had the same health care, the same sex education, the same opportunity for economic survival, the same sense of personal dignity and worth . . . .” 

Rosenblatt’s book has a happy ending:

Picture the two combatants laying down their signs and slogans and staring at each other with sympathetic curiosity. They begin to ask questions of each other. They listen to the answers. Slowly, awkwardly, they detect grounds of agreement. They occupy those grounds. From time to time they argue, and often they gaze separately into the distance with an imponderable helplessness. Yet they do not quit each other’s company. And eventually they touch, surprised to discover that they were always within reach.

Thus both sides can finally embrace Rosenblatt’s compromise solution: on the one hand, permit abortion; on the other hand, federally fund it.

Elizabeth Kristol has written for First Things, the New York Times, the Washington Post, American Spectator, Commentary, and other publications.

Photo by Jens Johnsson on Unsplash. Image cropped.