Abortion reality check

My last couple of posts on this topic have sympathized with women who had abortions at a late stage in their pregnancies. Despite my sympathetic response to those truly gut-wrenching stories, I remain pro life.

Why do I remain pro life? Ross Douthat (formerly a senior editor at The Atlantic, now a columnist at the New York Times) clears away some of the fog that obscures the issue:

Most abortions in the United States bear no resemblance whatsoever to the hardest third-trimester cases.

Yes, many pregnancies are terminated in dire medical circumstances. But these represent a tiny fraction of the million-plus abortions that take place in this country every year. (Almost half of that number are repeat abortions [.pdf]; around a quarter are third or fourth procedures.) The same is true of the more than 100,000 abortions that are performed after the first trimester: Very few involve medical complications of any kind. […]

The argument for unregulated abortion rests on the idea that where there are exceptions, there cannot be a rule. Because rape and incest can lead to pregnancy, because abortion can save women’s lives, because babies can be born into suffering and certain death, there should be no restrictions on abortion whatsoever.

As a matter of moral philosophy, this makes a certain sense. Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t. The circumstances of its conception and the state of its health shouldn’t enter into the equation.

But the law is a not a philosophy seminar. It’s the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense. And it can take account of tragic situations without universalizing their lessons.

Indeed, the argument that some abortions take place in particularly awful, particularly understandable circumstances is not a case against regulating abortion. It’s the beginning of precisely the kind of reasonable distinction-making that would produce a saner, stricter legal regime.

I think that’s an exceptionally clear-headed analysis. (Read the whole article.)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Douthat, he’s a devout Roman Catholic and a Republican supporter. In 2008, Douthat co-authored a book that sets out a prescription to save the Republican party from itself:  Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream.

It’s no surprise, then, that Douthat is pro life. But he seems to have a better grasp of “compassionate conservatism” than George W. Bush ever did.

I have long maintained that opponents of abortion rights should cede the hard cases, which are relatively rare. If abortions were lawful only in cases of rape or incest, or where there is a grim medical prognosis, legal abortions would be relatively few in number.

The most morally repugnant scenario is where women (and the men who have sex with them) rely on abortion as a species of birth control. Thus I’m delighted to see that Douthat has unearthed a study on the number of repeat abortions. If the study is correct, and 25% of all abortions are third- or fourth-timers — we’re in the realm of abortion as a form of birth control.

A society that tolerates such statistics has lost its moral bearings.

People who murder abortion providers have likewise lost their moral bearings. As have churches which celebrate the murder of abortion providers. Some pro life folks have their heads up their asses.

But that doesn’t change the basic social objective, well articulated by President Clinton:  abortions ideally would be safe, legal, and rare.


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