TV & Radio
The New York Times
January 22, 2006
Three Decades After Roe, a War We Can All Support
By WILLIAM SALETAN
EVERY year, on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, pro-lifers add up the fetuses killed since Roe and pray for the outlawing of abortion. And every year, pro-choicers fret that we're one Supreme Court justice away from losing "the right to choose." One side is so afraid of freedom it won't trust women to do the right thing. The other side is so afraid of morality it won't name the procedure we're talking about.
It's time to shake up this debate. It's time for the abortion-rights movement to declare war on abortion.
If you support abortion rights, this idea may strike you as nuts. But look at your predicament. Most Americans support Roe and think women, not the government, should make abortion decisions. Yet they've entrusted Congress and the White House to politicians who oppose legal abortion, and they haven't stopped the confirmations to the Supreme Court of John G. Roberts Jr. and, soon, Samuel A. Alito Jr.
You can tell yourself that the pro-choice majority stayed home in the last election, or that they voted on other issues, or that Democrats botched the debate. But those excuses are getting tired. Sixteen years ago, as the behavior of voters and politicians showed, abortion was clearly a winning issue for you. Now it isn't. You have a problem.
The problem is abortion - the word that's missing from all the checks you've written to Planned Parenthood, Naral Pro-Choice America, the Center for Reproductive Rights and the National Organization for Women. Fetal pictures propelled the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act and the Unborn Victims of Violence Act through Congress. And most Americans supported both bills, because they agree with your opponents about the simplest thing: It's bad to kill a fetus.
They're right. It is bad. I know many women who decided, in the face of unintended pregnancy, that abortion was less bad than the alternatives. But I've never met a woman who wouldn't rather have avoided the pregnancy in the first place.
This is why the issue hasn't gone away. Abortion, like race-conscious hiring, generates moral friction. Most people will tolerate it as a lesser evil or a temporary measure, but they'll never fully accept it. They want a world in which it's less necessary. If you grow complacent or try to institutionalize it, they'll run out of patience. That's what happened to affirmative action. And it'll happen to abortion, if you stay hunkered down behind Roe.
Roe is 33 years old today. It freed us from ham-fisted criminal laws that pretended to solve the abortion problem. But it didn't solve the problem, and it never will. It gave us the opportunity - and the challenge - to help women exercise choice before, not after, fetal development. In the moral arc of history, abortion was a step forward from infanticide. Abortion pills that act early in pregnancy are the next step, followed by morning-after pills, which prevent implantation. The ultimate destination is contraception or abstinence.
For several decades, abortion-rights advocates have tried to change the subject. The real question, they argued, was who should make the abortion decision, not what that decision should be. With the question put that way, they won. But they never faced the question of abortion's morality. So the debate became a contest between the two questions. A decade ago, with the coinage of "partial-birth abortion," pro-lifers gained the upper hand. President Bush focused the debate on a culture of life. When the question is "what" instead of "who" - morality instead of autonomy - pro-lifers win.
The lesson of those decades is that you can't eliminate the moral question by ignoring it. To eliminate it, you have to agree on it: Abortion is bad, and the ideal number of abortions is zero. But by conceding that, you don't end the debate, you narrow it. Once you agree that the goal is fewer abortions, the only thing left to debate is how to get there. As a politician might put it: "My opponent and I are both pro-life. We want to avoid as many abortions as we can. The difference is, I trust women to work with me toward that objective, and he doesn't."
Isn't that better than anything you heard from John Kerry?
The problem with using restrictions to reduce the number of abortions isn't that the restrictions are judgmental. It's that they're crude. They leap too easily from judgment to legislation and criminalization. They drag police officers, prosecutors and politicians into personal tragedies. Most people don't want such intrusion. But you lose them up front by refusing to concede that there's anything wrong with abortion. You have to offer them anti-abortion results (fewer abortions) without anti-abortion laws.
The pro-choice path to those results is simple. Help every woman when she doesn't want an abortion: before she's pregnant. That means abstinence for those who can practice it, and contraception for everybody else. Nearly half of the unintended pregnancies in this country result in abortions, and at least half of our unintended pregnancies are attributable to women who didn't use contraception. The pregnancy rate among these women astronomically exceeds the pregnancy rate among women who use contraception. The No. 1 threat to the unborn isn't the unchurched. It's the unprotected.
Solutions are already on the table. Give more money to Title X, the federal program that finances family-planning. Expand health insurance and access to morning-after pills. Educate teenagers about sex, birth control and abstinence. Many of these ideas are in the Prevention First Act, which Democrats ritually file and Republicans ritually ignore. Some pro-choice activists would go further, by pushing for more contraceptive diligence in the abortion counseling process, especially on the part of those women who come back for a second abortion. What's missing is a clear anti-abortion message to unite these proposals.
A year ago, Senator Hillary Clinton marked Roe's anniversary by reminding family planning advocates that abortion "represents a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women." Some people in the audience are reported to have gasped or shaken their heads during her speech. Perhaps they thought she had said too much.
The truth is, she didn't say enough. What we need is an explicit pro-choice war on the abortion rate, coupled with a political message that anyone who stands in the way, yammering about chastity or a "culture of life," is not just anti-choice, but pro-abortion. If the pro-choice movement won't lead the way, politicians just might.
William Saletan, Slate's national correspondent, is the author of "Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War."
January 24, 2006
Roe v. Wade, Beyond the Extremes (6 Letters)
To the Editor:
Re "Three Decades After Roe, a War We Can All Support" (Op-Ed, Jan. 22):
William Saletan is correct that "it's time for the abortion-rights movement to declare war on abortion." Doing so would make it the voice of many women who have been unrepresented in the virulent shouting match that the abortion debate has become.
As one who has long been pro-choice but anti-abortion, I long for honest discussion about options for women that both respect their right to make their own reproductive decisions and encourage practices that are life-affirming.
Unfortunately, fear on the left that any move from a rigid "abortion on demand with no restrictions" position will take women back to the back alleys makes discomfort with abortion unspeakable in that quarter.
Equally difficult are the folks on the right who steadfastly refuse to accept the use of contraception under any circumstance, thus taking the main means of preventing abortion off the table.
If the debate is to change, more reasoned voices in the middle will have to raise the volume enough to be heard over the screaming extremes.
(Rev.) Anne-Marie Hislop
Davenport, Iowa, Jan. 22, 2006
To the Editor:
William Saletan's assessment of the politics and morality of abortion is on target in every way but one. What we call the abortion conflict is not just about abortion; it is about sexuality in general and women's sexuality in particular. A thought experiment will make this clear.
Suppose the pro-choice forces offered the pro-life forces a truce. Under its terms, both sides would cease all activities pertaining to abortion itself. Instead, they would devote their full resources of money, political clout, moral authority and volunteer time to promoting universal sex education and easy access to contraception, with the goal of eliminating abortion by preventing unwanted pregnancies.
Whichever side of the debate you are on, can you imagine the pro-life movement accepting this plan, even if its success were somehow guaranteed?
Mr. Saletan dismisses "yammering about chastity" as if it were the least of our worries. That, alas, is wishful thinking.
Providence, R.I., Jan. 22, 2006
To the Editor:
While I was thrilled to read William Saletan's argument for a more anti-abortion approach to the pro-choice movement, he did not mention another very important reason to consider this ideological shift: viability.
Roe v. Wade rests upon the idea that a fetus is not a "person" until it is able to survive outside the womb. As technology pushes that point of viability back, the time at which a woman may legally abort will be pushed back as well.
Because of this, the pro-choice movement has always been on the road to certain demise. It's critical that we start to focus our energies on the real problem: unwanted pregnancies.
New York, Jan. 22, 2006
To the Editor:
William Saletan gets it mostly right but doesn't mention one crucial factor in unwanted pregnancies. Most are the result of a man's refusal to wear a condom.
Any fair and honest war against abortion and unwanted pregnancies must insist that both partners - not just the woman - use contraceptives.
Chicago, Jan. 22, 2006
To the Editor:
I agree with William Saletan that pro-choice groups need to target women before they are pregnant.
The pro-choice position has evolved over the years into a stance that is untenable for most reasonable adults, which is that not only are abortions O.K., but hey, they're great! Or at least that there are few if any negative consequences to them.
But why insist that abortions are O.K. to get when we have this thing called birth control. Yes, it's true - you can actually prevent pregnancy and avoid abortion.
I am 32 and had my first child last October. I never got pregnant accidentally before that because I made very, very sure that I always practiced safe sex.
On two occasions, just to be safe after an "accident," I took the morning-after pill. On one of those occasions, when I had just moved to New York and didn't have a doctor or insurance yet, I bought a prescription online and had the pills the same day.
Why was I so careful? Because I never wanted to have an abortion.
For the number of abortions to start going down, we need a culture not of "life," but one of personal responsibility.
Venice, Calif., Jan. 22, 2006
To the Editor:
It is impossible not to agree with William Saletan that abortion is bad. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not a judgment forced on us by the "Christian right"; it is not even a religious issue per se, merely that of basic fairness, decency and humanness.
No cultures known to mankind, including non-Christian and pre-Christian ones, would have allowed the mere thought of killing a new life in the mother's womb.
With life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as core rights, the right of a fetus to be born clearly trumps the mother's liberty to choose otherwise.
Alas, discussion is of no use. The solutions offered by Mr. Saletan will lead to nowhere for a very simple reason: abortion is far more than a "choice" as professed by its advocates; it is the only ace card of the feminist establishment in asserting power in the face of male "chauvinist" dominance, and it will fight tooth and nail to the last to preserve it.
Boston, Jan. 22, 2006