What Republican Candidates Should Say about Abortion
Journalist: Candidate X, do you believe in banning abortion, even in the case of rape and incest?
Candidate X: I'm glad you asked me that question. Abortion is a complex and controversial issue that has, unfortunately, become politically polarized. On the right, the anti-abortion position has become ossified as "the sanctity of human life." On the left, the pro-abortion position has become sanctified as "a woman's right to choose." These positions are presented as moral absolutes, and there is precious little room for discussion or moderation.
In practice, most people hold nuanced and inconsistent positions on abortion. Our laws are also nuanced and inconsistent. Polarization has caused us to lose sight of these nuances. We permit abortion in some circumstances and forbid it in others, but the lines we draw are fluid and, some could argue, arbitrary.
By custom and law we call the unlawful taking of a human life "murder." Thus, if a child is one day old and is killed, we prosecute the killer. This happens sometimes, and we read about it in the news. Mothers -- often teenagers who are not equipped to know what to do in these circumstances -- kill their newborns. Despite our sympathy with their circumstances, they are charged with murder, and there is no groundswell of support to change the law to allow the killing of babies. The practice of infanticide, common in some other countries, is condemned by the U.S. in international venues.
For a long time the U.S. also banned abortion and prosecuted practitioners as murderers. That changed with the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion in some, but not all circumstances. Since then, there has been a constant pushing and pulling -- both in statutory law passed by legislatures and in case law adjudicated by courts -- to define the boundary between permissible and impermissible abortion.
Recent developments in medical science highlight the nuance and inconsistency of abortion positions: fetuses born prematurely -- as young as six months in gestation -- can be incubated to full term. Coincident with these advances, laws have been passed in most states banning third-trimester abortions -- the theory being that the fetus could survive outside the womb, and therefore, the taking of its life would be murder. Once we have established that distinction, the sanctity of the mother's right to choose is breached; the right to an abortion established by Roe v. Wade is not absolute, but conditional on the maturity of the fetus. These laws also establish the principle that an unborn child has legal rights, independent of the mother's rights, that are exercised by the state on behalf of the child, similar to how the state acts in the interest of other minor children when their parents are ruled to be incompetent to care for them.
Who is to say that medical science won't advance further and extend the range of survival to fetuses which have gestated for four months, or three? If that happens, we will be faced with the choice of extending abortion bans and legal rights to ever younger fetuses.
The law is also advancing from the other direction. A robust artificial insemination industry has developed whereby embryos are created in laboratories and implanted in women -- sometimes the ovum donor, and sometimes a surrogate. The question is being asked: what legal rights do these embryos have? In one case, a woman whose husband died had herself implanted with a frozen embryo conceived with his sperm and claimed survivor benefits for the resulting child from Social Security. The claim was denied, but this surely isn't the end of the attempt to establish legal rights for embryos at the moment of conception. Do these embryos, which are the biological offspring of adults, have legal rights?
Time will tell where society comes to rest on the issue of legal rights for the unborn, but one thing is certain -- as the rights of unborn fetuses are extended earlier, a conflict is inherently created with abortion law. Can one fetus of five months have its own legal rights, exercised on its behalf by the state, and another have no legal rights if the mother wants an abortion? This is a conflict that will be difficult to reconcile under law.
Here is another circumstance to ponder: when a pregnant woman is killed by a gunman and her baby is unaffected, we undertake heroic measures to save the baby, including keeping the woman on life support until the baby is at term. Here the rights of the fetus supersede those of the woman and her heirs. The state maintains her body, even after her sentience has departed, as an incubator for the fetus.
Alternatively, if the fetus dies as a result of the shooting, prosecutors charge defendants not just with the murder of the mother, but with two counts of murder. Here the death of the fetus is treated as a murder.
As we can see from these examples, the drawing of the line between abortion and murder is arbitrary. It's hard to argue medically, legally, or morally that anybody can draw an absolute line, to the satisfaction of all parties, on one side of which is murder and on the other side of which is, let's call it, not-murder. That is why people who oppose abortion argue that life begins at conception. It appears that an increasing number of our fellow citizens agree with that position; at least, that's what the polls show.
This is also my position, but I do not insist on imposing it on other people. I know women who have had abortions, usually when they were young and single. For them, abortion was a decision of convenience. Yet the aftereffect is profoundly moral. Those who are comfortable talking with me about it usually express regret and guilt. They wonder what the aborted child would have been like. I don't think that the guilt and regret ever go away. Many women who had abortions are now opposed to them, and nobody is in a better position to opine. I do not judge these women; they have my sympathy for the difficult choice they made, and they must live with the consequences of those choices.
I must confess that I have my own doubts about my own positions. I sometimes go to a developmental center -- what a euphemism that is -- in my community where severely disabled people are institutionalized. Most are mentally and physically deficient and cannot live on their own. Some are dangerous to others or to themselves. There is no hope that, even with an abundance of care, these people can be made normal. When I see them, despite my opposition to abortion, I wonder whether they wouldn't be better off -- whether society wouldn't be better off -- if they had never been born. Indeed, one of the main uses of abortion is the termination of pregnancies when the fetus has Down syndrome or some other disabling genetic deficiency. Is that where we draw the line?
Abortion is a difficult issue. As a candidate for office, I recognize that people are going to want to know both what my own beliefs are and what I would do in office. I trust that these answers explain the origin of my beliefs.
As to what I will do in office, if you elect me, I will do my utmost to balance my own views with those of others, including those who disagree with me. These are difficult, weighty issues, worthy of serious discussion. Slogans, polarized positions -- I have no use for these.
Journalist: But you didn't answer my original question. Do you support abortion in the case of incest or rape?
Candidate X: I'm not going to fall into your trap of sound-bite simplicity. Thank you.