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Cooling Down the Abortion Debate
February 10, 2004
by Wendy McElroy, mac@ifeminists.net

This Jan. 22 was the 31st anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that de facto legalized abortion in America.

The abortion issue is a reminder that not all problems are created by government ... but government can always make them worse.

Apparently, there is an Italian saying that translates as, "It is raining again ... PIG OF A GOVERNMENT!" But the basic dilemma of abortion cannot be blamed on government. Nor does basic blame reside with pro-life or pro-choice advocates. The problem is that, with unwanted pregnancies, human reproduction involves a conflict of interest between the woman and the fetus.

I am pro-choice in the full realization that it is a terrible thing to take a human life. The closer a fetus approaches viability, the closer to terrible abortion becomes. I weigh a fetus' potential against the woman's actuality. I also realize that if a woman cannot say "everything under my skin is 'me' and mine to control," then there is no foundation for individual rights. If people have no right to control their own bodies, then such rights as freedom of speech become non-sequiturs. And, yet, to the core of my being, I dislike abortion.

I have no doubt that many pro-life advocates are also uncomfortable with their conclusions. Placing a pregnant woman's body under the de facto control of the law denies her rights to privacy and to medical control. Where is the line of denial to be drawn?

The government did not create the dynamics of reproduction nor the political questions that surround it: When is a human being present? When do rights emerge? Nor did it create the division of opinion that exists. According to a December, 2003, Zogby poll, 53 percent of Americans believe "abortion destroys a human life and is manslaughter." But a November, 2003, Gallup poll of teenagers found that 51 percent believed abortion should be legal in some or all circumstances.

When a FOX News poll in July, 2003, asked whether people were "more pro-life or more pro-choice," 44 percent said "pro-life," 44 percent said "pro-choice." But government has widened the scope of the problem and deepened division of opinion.

How has it widened the scope? In the most literal sense, involvement in agencies such as the United Nations has led to the exportation of abortion policy at taxpayers' expense. No government should export reproductive policy -- whether directed at abortion or at abstinence -- to another nation. Despite the nobility and neutrality of its self-description, the United Nations Population Fund is rampantly political and the United States is correct in finally withholding funds.

Domestically, government also expands the scope of debate by using tax money to support -- at different times, in different venues -- both pro-choice and pro-life causes. For example, although he included a "conscience clause," New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg made abortion training mandatory for medical students in that city at its state-supported schools.

On the pro-life side, various states have sanctioned "Choose Life!" license plates that have been described as state-sponsored infomercials against abortion. In each case, some people were forced to financially support a cause they found morally repugnant.

Government also increases the divisiveness of abortion by partisan tactics that turn the issue into a battle of wills. On the federal level, there is Roe v. Wade. But, during a pro-life protest of Roe v. Wade, President Bush beamed a live telephone call to the protesters, praising the pro-life marchers' "noble cause."

On the state level, over 600 anti-abortion bills were filed in legislatures nationwide in 2003. But when an "anti-abortion" measure is passed, it risks being overturned in the courts; a U.S. district judge recently struck down Virginia's ban on partial-birth abortion. Or the measure could be vetoed; Michigan's governor recently vetoed a bill requiring girls to obtain a judicial waiver if they do not have parental consent.

The divisive machinations of government may be an inevitable reflection of how evenly divided the public is on abortion, but they can be no excuse for politicians to fan the flames of conflict for their own electoral profit. For example, there is no excuse for Hillary Clinton's claim that anti-abortion forces "are counting on the vast majority of fair-minded Americans to be ignorant, to be unaware ... They think they can accomplish their goals as Americans sleep." This statement insults about 50 percent of the population. And pro-life rhetoric is often no better.

The best hope of limiting the divisiveness comes from voices in the middle that are not fully committed to pro-choice or pro-life. They know that neither side is populated by monsters. They realize that decent people can disagree. This realization provides space for discussion and better agreement on some of the surrounding issues -- for example, on the question of whether reproductive options for children should require parental consent, or whether abortion should be legal in cases of rape, of severe fetal deformity or when the mother's life is endangered.

The basic question of abortion -- is it murder? -- may not be susceptible to compromise, but that doesn't mean all aspects of it should be made as socially destructive as possible. Shrinking the scope and divisiveness of abortion may be equivalent to treating symptoms rather than offering a cure, but, when no cure is available, treating symptoms is prudent.

Copyright © 2004 Wendy McElroy.

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