Last week, The Atlantic magazine fired its just-hired conservative columnist, Kevin Williamson, over old comments that women who have abortions should get the same penalties as murderers, “up to and including hanging.” Leaving aside squabbles over how much he meant it, this incident exposes the deep divide between conservatives and liberals on abortion — and more important, the need for more nuanced conversation.
Conservative commentators say liberals outraged by his remarks simply cannot understand or respect the belief that the developing fetus is a full human, that abortion is murder, and that the more than 55 million abortions legally performed in the United States since Roe v. Wade represent mass slaughter.
Blindness to this perspective, they say, explains why Williamson’s view is considered extreme and shocking, while endorsement of abortion when the fetus is diagnosed with Down syndrome is not.
But in truth, the absolutist pro-life viewpoint is hard to take seriously because most people who profess to hold it don’t act as if they take it seriously. Indeed, if that view were consistently followed in a society in which majorities back legal abortion, the consequences would be destructive. If you really believe we are amid an abortion holocaust, can you coexist amicably with people who support such a monstrosity? For that matter, shouldn’t you consider the use of violence to stop the slaughter — including abortion clinic bombings — morally permissible?
Besides, most of our social norms don’t treat a fetus as a full human. Early miscarriages (of which about 3 million happen annually in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) can be traumatic, but they are seen very differently from the death of a child.
But the pro-choice position, which I support, has its own contradictions. The unborn child is a “baby” when wanted, a “fetus” when it is not. It can be treated as a homicide victim when a pregnant woman is murdered. Recent advances in ultrasound technology and fetal surgery are hailed as important progress, yet there is little recognition that the gains make the humanity of the unborn — at least in later stages of pregnancy — an uncontestable reality.
Outside the political and pundit class, most Americans have fairly complicated views of abortion; according to the Gallup Poll, about 30 percent believe it should always be legal, and about 20 percent say it should always be illegal, while most of the rest are in between. They might not see abortion as baby-killing, but they believe that the destruction of a growing human organism poses moral problems other surgeries do not.
Yet such complexities are largely missing from public discourse. Pro-life conservatives speak of unwanted pregnancy as an “inconvenience,” ignoring the fact that it is a drastic infringement on women’s bodily autonomy (and that bodily autonomy is one of our fundamental values). Pro-choice liberals deny that unborn life has any moral standing, focusing solely on women’s rights (and ignoring the gender inequality of the system, where only women can opt out of parenthood post-conception).
More nuance on abortion would lead to more dialogue and probably more compromise — including more restrictions after the first trimester and a more solid wall between abortion and taxpayer-funded services. While such compromises would likely be seen as a retreat by many on the pro-choice side, they would significantly lower pro-life passions, helping protect abortion rights long-term.
Our hyper-polarized politics are not conducive to nuanced dialogue on anything, especially a topic as emotional as abortion. But we can always try.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.