Is There a 'Middle Ground' on Choice?

Editor's note: This article originally appeared on

Someone must have slipped a textbook on quantum mechanics into the offices of the Democratic Party. Careening desperately toward a more "moderate" stance on abortion rights, centrist Democrats are now hard at work searching for Schrödinger's Fetus: alive and dead at the same time. Indeed in a trend that has been developing for years, a few high-profile anti-choice Democratic candidates, including Heath Shuler in North Carolina and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, won election on Tuesday.

John Kerry rankled pro-choice activists during the 2004 campaign by suggesting that his party should recruit more pro-life candidates--advice that the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee apparently took to heart, offering primary endorsements to pro-lifers such as Casey this year. A speech by Hillary Clinton, describing abortion as "a tragic choice" that she hoped one day would "not ever have to be exercised," won kudos from Slate columnist Will Saletan, who wrote: "Once you embrace that truth--that the ideal number of abortions is zero--voters open their ears."

The idea that abortion should be, in Bill Clinton's memorable formulation, "safe, legal, and rare," is appealing, if only because it would be clearly preferable if effective sex education and broad access to contraception made unwanted pregnancies less common. But framing that worthy goal as a means to the end of reducing abortion would be both a moral and strategic mistake. Solomonic attempts to split the difference will collide unpleasantly with the reality that Schrödinger's Fetus, like its feline predecessor, is always either alive or dead under scrutiny.

Abortion raises deep questions about the origins and basis of moral personhood, so one's position on abortion should be "radical," in the etymologically precise sense of "going to the root." Abortion is a difficult and complex question if we suppose that the fetus is a person with interests and rights that must be weighed against those of the mother. But the proposition that fetuses are not moral persons is both true and worth defending loudly. Even very late in pregnancy, when a fetus may have some sort of rudimentary awareness, it lacks all the features traditionally advanced as moral distinctions between humans and other animals: a sense of self or identity, the capacity for abstract thought and reflection, and the capacity for moral choice. But the vast majority of abortions, about 98 percent, take place before the 20th week of gestation, well before the cerebral cortex is "wired up" to the rest of the nervous system. At this stage, the fetus has nothing that could reasonably be described as conscious awareness.

The only reason for regarding an abortion as more regrettable than a root canal, then, is the belief that moral personhood is not fundamentally about having a certain kind of mind. This is a strange view, when you think about it: If we are ever visited by some alien species, we will decide what kind of treatment we owe them by reflecting on the sorts of minds they have, not by poking at their genetic structure. If the most popular basis for considering fetuses persons is some sort of theory about souls, giving credence to this view tacitly endorses the notion that public policy ought to be tailored to accommodate moral premises whose sole basis is theological.

Treating fetuses as persons has harmful consequences, even if we simultaneously insist that their interests are trumped by women's right to control their bodies. For one, it means endorsing the notion that the one-third of American women who will have an abortion will be killing a child. And in the political realm, how uneasy we are about abortion will determine what measures short of an outright ban we are willing to entertain as means of ensuring that abortion remains "rare." Hillary Clinton, for instance, has suggested that because "religious and moral values" are strong predictors of abstinence, we should "support programs that reinforce the idea that abstinence at a young age is not just the smart thing to do, it is the right thing to do." But if there is nothing seriously immoral about abortion, then this sort of unseemly government-sponsored religious indoctrination would gain little of importance even if it were effective.

Of course, having the right moral position doesn't do a great deal of good without the political power to implement it. So what about the strategic case for playing up antipathy to abortion on the stump? The group Third Way has been one of the loudest proponents of the view that progressives have much to gain from pandering to "Abortion Grays," the 67 percent of voters (by their measure) "who believe that abortion should be neither always legal nor always illegal." Their analysis doesn't stand up to much scrutiny.

About 43 percent of the voting group Third Way considers moderate holds the "nuanced" view that abortion should be "mostly illegal." Which is to say, they favor banning abortion with exceptions for rape, incest, or threat to the life or health of the mother--cases accounting for fewer than 5 percent of abortions by the highest estimate. Any sane taxonomy would characterize these as pro-life voters. To the extent that they're casting their ballots on the basis of those views, it seems unrealistic to suppose they'll be impressed by any platform that emphasizes preserving the basic right to an abortion, whatever other concessions it may make.

Third Way assumes Republicans are gaining ground by capturing the mantle of the reasonable middle on abortion, since Democrats win "mostly legal" voters by smaller margins than Republicans win "mostly illegal" voters. An alternate explanation seems far more likely, though: Since abortion is currently legal, voters who think it involves the killing of tiny persons will feel it's urgent to change the status quo; abortion will tend to be a significant factor in their vote. Voters who favor legal abortion, on the other hand, may simply feel more comfortable voting on other issues at present.

Finally, there is something disturbingly shortsighted about taking a snapshot of public opinion as representing some kind of eternal verity, independent of the positions parties take. People often form their opinions on difficult issues by a sort of Bayesian weighting of other people's views. Many genuine abortion moderates probably reason that since large numbers of people seem equally powerfully convinced that abortion is either morally unobjectionable, on the one hand, or tantamount to murder, on the other, it's best to leave such a fraught decision in the hands of individual women. If it begins to seem that there's a broad cross-partisan, cross-ideological consensus that abortion is a morally terrible thing, however, there's no reason we should expect the distribution of opinion to remain stable.

When enough people self-consciously move to the political "center," it ceases to be the center and becomes a new pole. A "mainstream" of political discourse defined by the shared assumption that all abortion is morally suspect should be regarded by all advocates of reproductive freedom as a rough beast, slouching toward 2008 to be born.

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