With the addition of two new justices to the Supreme Court — and Pat Robertson praying for more — it is no surprise that many have taken up “Defend Roe” as their battle cry. “Pro-choicers” square off against “pro-lifers” at California demonstrations and on the floor of Congress. But, as is so often the case in politics, the dividing line is unhelpful. The abortion debate is too intricate to reduce to uphold/overturn Roe. The “pro-choice” camp comprises fundamentally differing opinions, and to consider it as one unit opposed to the “pro-life” camp destroys any potential for constructive interaction.
The first group, which I’ll call “fundamentalists,” supports Roe because they believe a woman has the right to end her pregnancy if she so desires. While fundamentalists sometimes make emotional appeals to garner support for a woman’s right, emotional arguments are irrelevant in establishing whether or not the right exists. A right doesn’t exist because it “feels good” but because it is dictated by the axioms of society. As such, a woman’s right to end her pregnancy is independent of her circumstances.
It makes no difference if she is an unemployed teenager trapped with an irresponsible boyfriend or if she is a wealthy wife having her third abortion in a year — abortion is an unconditional right. Arguments about the viability of the fetus/child, emotions of the mother, effect on crime or lack of alternatives are, therefore, non sequiturs. But more than being a necessary right, as perhaps freedom to speak hate may be considered, the right to an abortion is considered a moral good. Hence, fundamentalists might encourage women to show proudly that they exercised their right by wearing an “I had an abortion” t-shirt just like an “I voted today” button. One would never encourage hate-mongers to wear an “I exercised my right to free speech by telling [insert minority group] that they aren’t fit to live” shirt because this right clearly is a moral bad.
In contrast, the second group, which I’ll call “pragmatists,” understands abortion simply as sometimes necessary. Rather than a moral good, abortion is an unfortunate reality of an unpredictable, sometimes unfair world. There are circumstances, pragmatists will argue, when the deleterious effects of an unwanted pregnancy outweigh the harm and ethical uncertainties of an abortion. The question then becomes, under what circumstances are the effects of carrying a pregnancy to term so harmful that an abortion becomes the lesser of two evils?
Arguments about the viability of life, the moral value of a fetus, and the financial, emotional or marital status of the mother now are relevant because they address precisely this question. Such arguments seek not to establish that abortion is always desirable but that it is sometimes allowable or even necessary. Pragmatists stand by President Clinton when he says that abortion should be “safe, legal and as rare as possible.” Fundamentalists cringe at this — why should abortion, an exercise of a fundamental, morally good right, be rare? Pragmatists, for a variety of reasons, urge that abortion is generally undesirable for society — perhaps even harmful to it — which is why they posit that it should occur infrequently. Society should impose restrictions on abortion while keeping it legal. Pragmatists are inescapably opposed to the position of fundamentalists. The two agree on nothing more than that there should exist some amount of legal abortion.
How, then, can politics group these two camps together? The pragmatist argument has more fundamentally in common with the “pro-life” movement. (Let me differentiate between “pro-life” and radical fanatics who bomb abortion clinics and intimidate women; the latter group is not “pro-life” or worthy of discussion.)
Any reasonable anti-abortion argument is in essence equivalent to a contention that abortion is harmful, and it is so harmful that it is never the lesser of two evils. Once all involved have regained composure, calmed their emotions and moved beyond insults, pragmatists and pro-lifers unquestionably agree that abortion should be limited to a specific set of circumstances — pro-lifers happen to think that set of circumstances is an empty set. While they have obvious points of disagreement, they do not have to be naturally opposed. Both pragmatists and pro-lifers are disgusted by the unnecessarily high abortion rate, incidences of repeat abortions and the lack of alternative options. And both oppose fundamentalists. Where they disagree is in degrees, albeit significant degrees.
Obviously, the Roe question is important. One cannot claim pro-lifers, pragmatists and fundamentalists should agree on Roe’s status. But the abortion issue is more nuanced and important than simply a call to defend Roe. Don’t limit discussion — and certainly not policy decisions — to what side of the line you belong. While political rhetoric and conduct often make it impossible to do so, discussion should strive for construction and clarity, not division and acerbity. Overturning or upholding Roe will not settle the abortion dilemma, but working beyond it might.
Greg Phelan is a junior in Morse College.