What’s really at issue with abortion is neither choice nor life. Everyone decent approves of both shibboleths in principle. The real question is, when would a mother’s choices affect, not only her body, but also her baby? But nobody wants to ask that question. The Supreme Court, which defines the legislative ground rules, punted on it in Roe v. Wade, calling life’s beginning an unsolved theological problem beyond the judiciary purview.
The country’s political discourse has basically followed suit. Planned Parenthood and its allies mass thousands on the Mall to protect women from a return to the bad old days of coat-hanger abortions in back alleys; Rick Santorum stabs baby dolls in the neck with a pair of scissors on the Senate floor. Both political movements are making unstated assumptions about what, exactly, is at stake, and acting accordingly. Pro-choicers who seek to “Keep Abortion Legal,” as the old-school buttons put it in all their ’70s-design splendor, imply that a woman’s privacy and her doctor’s judgment are the only relevant issues here. Pro-lifers who hold mass memorial services for all abortions imply that from day one, or perhaps day 10, the baby is alive, a status that trumps privacy claims. But many participants in these debates never actually say either of these. They just take them as givens. They can feel proud of their stances and their legislative victories, but they can’t talk about the roots of their disagreement.
We Yalies are a benign, tolerant bunch, like Americans. Most of us would rather agree to disagree, or better yet, never realize that we do disagree. But sometimes, those disagreements matter. Now is one of those times. The Democratic pollster John Zogby found in a December 2003 survey that some 53 percent of Americans, including 43 percent of Democrats, would agree with the statement “Abortion destroys a human life and is manslaughter.” A decent skepticism toward poll numbers and questions is good policy, but other polls have also suggested that a majority of Americans or close to it identifies as pro-life. According to Planned Parenthood, there were some 1.31 million abortions in America in 2000, or about 150 an hour. If that near-majority of Americans is right, we don’t have to look as far as Darfur for genocide. It happens under our hands, too.
I don’t want to believe that. Americans knowingly condoning genocide by their silence, like ordinary Germans watching their neighbors disappear, just doesn’t sound possible. We’ve been guilty of national sins on such a scale: slavery springs to mind. But when the free-soil Republican Party came to power, they actually ended it. It took a civil war, but they ended it. Today’s Republicans have moved heaven and earth to cut taxes for the wealthiest, but they make only symbolic gestures toward what their rhetoric calls an emergency. I can only assume that the particular pro-life stance Zogby articulated isn’t the one most Americans actually hold.
I’m going to give the American people the benefit of the doubt and infer the nature of our pro-life beliefs from our conduct. Planned Parenthood reports that 88 percent of abortions occur within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, and only 1.5 percent after 20 weeks. Between those tent-poles is the usual moment of quickening, when the baby kicks, typically between 16 and 22 weeks. As the high court noted in Roe, English common law used to recognize quickening as a meaningful boundary in such cases. It appears that very few Americans want to abort after that point. As a man, I can only speculate on how quickening affects the experience of pregnancy. My female colleagues may correct me here, if their own experience has taught them better. But the mothers and expectant mothers I have known suggest that after the baby kicks, they would never give it up unless they had no other choice.
I propose that we should make our underlying shared belief explicit. Many pro-lifers will want to say life begins before quickening; but almost no Americans, in practice, want to push it later. We should think about making it clear, as we did in the Civil War’s aftermath, that the ground rules have changed. After that point, in theory at least, it wasn’t OK to say that black people were anything less than fully human. We still haven’t completely made good on that promise, but at least we’ve learned that’s a failure. And as the pro-life majority establishes itself, I suggest that we in that majority start with the ancient point of unity that the culture wars have brought us back to. Life begins at quickening, if not earlier; and to say otherwise is monstrous.
Such a statement need neither sentence women to death nor tie their doctors’ hands. Any decent law based on it would include an exception for the mother’s life; and it would leave doctors free to choose the safest and best procedure, unlike the misguided “partial-birth” ban. Moreover, such a statement would be a real step toward creating Pope John Paul’s “culture of life,” where people affirmatively value all of their neighbors, especially the most vulnerable: the poor, the outcast and the unborn. There’s more to a culture of life than banning post-quickening abortion — personally, I’d add capital punishment and weapons manufacturing to that list, or even start with them — but it’d be a good step, and a healthy change in a presently toxic debate.
If our conduct implies the common ground I think it does, we as a people should rush to claim it. Can we Yalies agree on this? Can America?
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College.