In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Donald Trump saved some of his harshest remarks for Democratic initiatives to expand access to late-term abortion.
New York State legislators, he charged, “cheered with delight” after passing a bill that “would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb moments before birth.” He also proposed federal legislation to ban late abortion in cases where the fetus can feel pain.
This is another salvo in the acrimonious wars over abortion that have raged in the last two weeks since the enactment of New York’s Reproductive Health Act. Is there a way to have a sensible conversation on an issue that generates such passion and touches on core moral principle?
Many conservatives, including ones generally interested in building bridges and finding common ground, see the New York legislation and the proposed Virginia law that would also ease restrictions on late-term abortions as evidence of a frightening truth about pro-choice liberals: that they support abortion even when it becomes clear-cut infanticide.
The controversy was further stoked by comments from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in a radio interview, apparently discussing instances in which a child is born alive after an attempt at late-term abortion. His statement that “the infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother” was taken to mean that the physicians would discuss whether the baby should be killed. Northam’s explanation that he was referring to a discussion of treatment options for an infant with severe deformities did little to pacify the outrage.
For conservatives with strong pro-life convictions, abortion is what racism is to progressives: an absolute evil that allows for no nuance and on which factual quibbling is morally questionable.
Meanwhile, for pro-choice Americans (including ones who sympathize with conservative views on many other issues), this is a question of basic female dignity. They argue that late abortions are performed only in heartbreaking situations in which a grave threat exists to the woman’s life or health, or when the fetus has no actual chance at life. To suggest that anyone would seek an abortion for frivolous reasons weeks away from giving birth, they say, is to demonstrate shocking contempt for women.
What are the facts?
Pro-lifers cite research from the pro-choice Guttmacher Institute showing that most abortions after 20 weeks are not related to medical emergencies. The women might be late to realize they are pregnant; they might fail to get an early abortion for financial and other practical reasons, or decide to abort after a change in circumstances. But it’s unclear whether this applies to very late abortions (the legislation in New York and Virginia deals with abortion after the 24th week). Guttmacher Institute data also show about 1 percent of all abortions are performed at that stage.
The New York legislation is not the abortion free-for-all critics make it out to be. Most important, it adds the woman’s health and fetal non-viability to permitted reasons for a late abortion. Previous legislation provided only to an allowance to save the woman’s life. This is reasonable; but there are also ways to address pro-life concerns, such as more stringent oversight to ensure that “health” is not interpreted too broadly and that non-viability is established with absolute certainty. More resources also are needed to offer abortion alternatives.
Above all, it would do us good to tone down the rhetoric. Most pro-choicers are not callously indifferent to infanticide. Most pro-lifers do not want to oppress women. Let us not make dialogue impossible.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.