Perhaps because I want to alienate the few people that read this website, today I’m going to write about abortion.
Abortion is among the most divisive issues in the United States — perhaps the most divisive. The reasons for this divisiveness, I believe, fall into two general categories:
- Abortion is less a matter of facts and figures and more a matter of moral philosophy and culture.
- History and the Constitution can be used to support both sides, and it has fallen to the Supreme Court, rather than our elected political branches, to interpret the issue.
Since those are distinct parts of the same political issue — and there’s a lot to say about each — I’m actually going to separate them into two different posts:
- Part I (today) — Abortion and America: The Impossible Debate (and surprising common ground)
- Part II — Abortion and the Law (the history of abortion law, the “right to privacy,” and Roe v. Wade)
But that’s not all! I also want to address a case that could transform abortion’s legality, rolling back Roe v. Wade as early as June. Therefore, I’ll finish with:
- Part III — Abortion and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization
But first, we have to lay the groundwork.
Part I — Abortion in America: The Impossible Debate (and surprising common ground)
Our positions on political issues are usually the result of a fundamental ideology. In a process called our political socialization, this ideology is ingrained into us at a young age by family, peers, region, era, race, and so much more. It determines what we think the world is like and what we think it should be.
Relevantly, ideology usually develops before political opinions; first our ideology takes shape, and only later do we seek out political positions that support it. Take, for example, this simple philosophical inquiry that informs one’s ideology:
“Is the world fair?”
That is a fundamental question to ask of our society. Our answer influences how we see government, economics, religion, and so much more. From a young age, we receive inputs with potential answers to this question, even if we never directly ask it. Instead, we get indirect answers from our parents, our friends, our broader culture, and our experiences, and those gradually affect how we answer the question ourselves. And then once we have our answer, we pick political positions that mesh with it.
Let’s say, for example, that someone thinks the world isn’t fair. Imagine the political opinions they might take. They’d probably support a robust welfare state to help those less fortunate. They might promote a universal health care system. They’d want more food stamps for hungry families. They’d want to pour money into high quality, publicly funded education, at least from K to 12 and perhaps into college. They’d want to send more financial and material aid overseas. And how would they fund all of that? With money from the rich. A person who thinks the world isn’t fair would lean into concepts like the poverty cycle, pointing out that just because a person is born into a poor family does not mean they deserve to be poor themselves and yet data suggests they will be at higher rates than people born into rich families. Meanwhile, children of the rich will have so much more support and many more opportunities to succeed and therefore more often will. Taxing the rich and policies like a higher minimum wage could go a long way toward helping people who live in largely unfair economic conditions share in the wealth unfairly inherited by higher socioeconomic classes. That all being the case, we should involve the government to better address this unfair society. Here are American liberals and Democrats.
But someone who think the world is generally fair will likely take opposite political positions. Over the poverty cycle they’d prioritize economic individualism. Someone who shows up to school or work on time then works as hard as they can will gradually succeed and force themselves out of any ostensible economic trappings. It should be with our own bootstraps, not government handouts, that we pull ourselves up. It’s not the responsibility of government or society to provide universal health care, welfare, food stamps, or free college by taxing people who might themselves never need those systems, particularly if they’re taxing the most successful among us to do so. By taxing wealth and regulating businesses through enforcing a higher minimum wage, we are allowing dependence on the state over self-reliance. In the process, we’re making it more difficult for successful businesses to grow and hire, and we are incentivizing moving investment and business dollars overseas rather than attracting investment and business to the U.S., all of which ultimately hurts the American economy, including the American worker. Here are American conservatives and Republicans.
Now, if the above two people got into a debate about health care or welfare, how would that debate go? Would facts and figures change either’s mind?
I don’t think so. That debate is not about facts and figures. It’s about a fundamental, philosophical worldview about the nature of society — about whether it’s fair — and you’re not going to change someone’s mind about their political positions until you first change their mind about their basic worldview on fairness. Change the ideology, change the political position.
The abortion issue asks its own philosophical questions. Does human life begin at conception? Should a fetus be protected by the Constitution? Should a fetus be called a baby? Is there a certain stage or threshold for that transition, and is it that threshold that conveys personhood or citizenship and therefore legal protections for the baby? Does the life of the fetus/baby take precedence over the well-being of the woman/mother?
There are no facts and figures that can answer those questions for us. Much like “Is the world fair?,” the answers to those questions depend on one’s ideology, and then that ideology seeks out a position on the abortion debate.
That said, I think we too often overlook that abortions positions are complicated, with varying intricacies inside of the “pro-choice” and “pro-life” positions. To better understand these variations, I’m going to open up Microsoft Paint and execute a truly bad idea. Although a two-dimensional spectrum can’t quite capture the complexity of abortion positions, I’m going to nonetheless give it a go and hope WordPress doesn’t deplatform me. Behold!
This chart is, obviously, incendiary, but I also think that it’s instructive. First, it’s a good reminder that on all political issues, both sides have crazy extremes. Historically and today, those extreme positions do exist out there on the margins of American political opinions. Neither party and no ideology has a monopoly on insanity.
Second, there’s a decent enough chance you think I put the “center” — which may imply “correct” — in the wrong place, which is, in itself, also instructive. On all political issues, including abortion, many people naturally tend to place themselves at the reasonable position, and all other positions get organized around that, like planets orbiting a star. For example, let’s say you think abortions should be legal until the third trimester. You may have drawn the spectrum thusly:
In that example, you think that someone who wants to prohibit abortions in the second trimester is “too conservative,” although you’d also argue that abortions until the very end of term is “too liberal.” In this example, you’ve staked out what you think is the correct position, and therefore all other positions are oriented around that correct position.
This paradigm extends to many political issues. Frankly, we could just have a spectrum on standby:
Finally, I think such a spectrum is a nice supplement to analyzing polling on the abortion issue — polling that determines my organization of the initial abortion spectrum. Although some on the right think the left just loves aborting babies right up until and maybe even after birth (*cough* Trump *cough*), and some on the left think the right wants to outlaw all abortions and even re-ban contraception (*cough* the media *cough*), that’s simply not the case.
Last year, Gallup found that 80% of Americans want abortion legal in some or all cases. That leaves only 20% opposed in all cases — a considerably lower percentage than the portion of Americans who identify as Republican or voted for Donald Trump in the last election, with both clocking in around the mid-40s. Simply put — it appears to me that most Republicans do not want to outlaw abortion, to say nothing of contraception. Confirming that hunch, a 2021 Pew poll found that only 17% of Republicans think abortion should be illegal “in all cases.”
Meanwhile, we should also be careful not to read too much into that “80%” figure, either — the one that says 4 in 5 Americans want abortion to be legal. That figure combines two numbers — those that think abortion should be legal in “all” cases and those that think it should be legal in “some” cases. It’s actually the “some” category that wins the poll with a strong plurality:
Leading the way with nearly half the country is allowing abortion only in “certain circumstances.” Just 32% of the country says “all circumstances,” which is far less than the portion of Americans who identify as Democrat or voted for Joe Biden, the latter making up 51% of the electorate.
Further, general support for abortion’s legality plummets as the pregnancy enters the second and third trimesters:
If all or even most Democrats supported after-birth or late term abortions, we would not see national numbers at 13 percent support for third trimester legality. Even second trimester abortions are endorsed by just a quarter of Americans. Supplementing these statistics, a 2018 Gallup poll isolated Democrats and found that a minority of them would permit second trimester abortions, and less than a fifth were open to third trimester abortions.
Meanwhile, those who are open to first trimester abortions often require what they would call a good reason, but that reason becomes a lot less justifiable later in the pregnancy:
In sum, I think we have a lot more overlapping opinions on abortion than most people realize. About 80% of Americans are open to some abortions under certain criteria, most Americans are particularly tolerant of first trimester abortions, and most Americans would rather not allow second and third trimester abortions unless there’s a darn good reason. Meanwhile, abortion data supports that abortion-seekers practice what they preach; in 2018, 92% of abortions were conducted in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy, and less than 1% came after 21 weeks, or about midway to term.
The broadest way to look at it is that Americans are not as rigid on the abortion issue as many assume, with most Americans acknowledging exceptions to their general abortion politics. There are many pro-choicers who thinks the choice should be made early in the pregnancy or else the baby should be carried to term, and there are many pro-lifers open to early-term abortions and/or exceptions for rape, incest, and health of the mother.
And yet, despite all of this overlap, look at how Americans identify on the abortion issue if just asked whether they’re “pro-choice or pro-life”:
It’s basically tied! Despite considerable overlap in trimester and exception opinions, Americans have, like with so many other issues, sorted themselves into two fairly even-sized camps that stereotype the other.
A question remains: if there’s so much overlap, what might these two camps be telling themselves when self-classifying as “pro-choice” or “pro-life”?
Earlier, I asked a handful of philosophical questions, questions like whether human life begins at conception, whether the fetus should be called a baby, and whether the fetus is a person and therefore whether its life should be protected as if it were out of the womb. The answers people give may come down to competing narratives — of differing interpretations of who the main character of the story is.
A narrative centered around the baby says its life must be protected in most or all instances. Mike Huckabee, winner of the 2008 Republican Iowa Caucuses on his way to winning eight states and finishing third overall in the Republican Primary, once explained his opposition to abortion, even in the case of the rape of a minor: “I wouldn’t pretend it’s anything other than a terrible tragedy, but let’s not compound the tragedy by taking yet another life. . . . Life is precious. Every life has worth and value.”
Huckabee and other pro-life advocates imbue onto the fetus a full sense of personhood. That’s their philosophical starting point. I think we’d have to grant that, if that premise were accurate — if a fetus were a full-fledged person — then claims of abortion being “murder of the unborn” are understandable. Further, I’m really not sure what someone who’s pro-choice could say to reverse the premise; it’s not a question of science or data, but of belief that the baby is a person. Although we see above that the pro-life position can swing from pure pro-life (abortions should be illegal in all circumstances) to more of a pragmatic pro-life (one that understands there are scenarios in which abortion is more tolerable than in others), I think the starting point — that of the baby’s life as either the centerpiece or the co-centerpiece of the discussion — is the same.
On the other hand, the pro-choice position shifts the narrative to the woman as the sole citizen with all the agency, while their fetal framing is that it’s more like (forgive the insensitive terminology) a parasite or “clump of cells,” one that, without autonomy or citizenship, depends on the host for survival. For them, it’s not a matter of life but a matter a woman’s freedom to choose, another core tenant of a developed society that cherishes individual rights. If this premise were accurate, then it’s hard to argue that the woman shouldn’t be able to handle her body any way she’d like.
Each side layers on top of these premises an arsenal of supporting arguments, but none of them matter as long as these premises are held tight by their respective advocates.
Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those issues where we can just leave the moral and scientific debate to philosophers, clerics, and scientists. That’s because our government needs to determine to what extent our law will accept abortions.
Therefore, the question of whether to allow abortion doesn’t go to the clergy or scientific community. Instead, the question goes to self-interested politicians trying to win elections and robed judges trying to interpret an old document.
And that, finally, brings us to…
Part II — Abortion and the Law (the right to privacy & Roe v. Wade)
In Part II, we’ll take a look at abortion’s evolution in American law, including the issue’s hallmark case, Roe v. Wade. I hope to see you then.
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