The Abortion Stalemate

From the Fall 2013 issue of the Human Life Review.

A politically conservative friend recently confided to me that he wants abortion to go away. It’s not that he is looking to see the practice outlawed—though he might accept that outcome if it were to magically fall from the sky. Rather, he would like abortion go away as an issue. He wants abortion, and all the political heat it has generated over the years, to cease animating and obstructing our discourse. Abortion hovers over everything, this friend told me. It is the backdrop for every tired, mean-spirited, and counter-productive partisan standoff. It divides families and ruins friendships. It keeps the right people out of politics and the wrong people in.

In short, my friend thinks abortion is drowning us. As long as we remain trapped in a winner-take-all stalemate over abortion, he says, we’ll never be able to solve our most entrenched and difficult problems. I can’t say I disagree. Sometimes it seems everything comes down to abortion. Debates over a host of issues, from health care to religious freedom and from privacy rights to foreign aid, all fall apart over the questions of who can have an abortion, when, and whether the government will pay for it.

“We have to get past this,” says my friend. “It’s destroying our ability to be civil with one another. It’s dragging everything down with it.”

My friend thinks he has a workable plan. He’s come up with a simple compromise that he thinks is so reasonable, and so self-evidently fair to both sides, that it will prove irresistible to the great American political middle. It goes like this: No abortion anywhere after 20 weeks with a blanket exception for rape and the health of the mother. Beyond that, kick all regulation back down to the states.

Now, my friend is no dummy. His job is to think and write about politics, which he does from the right, and I know him to be both thoughtful and fair. I suggested that his plan looks a lot like the current status quo and that neither side is particularly happy with it. He countered by saying that the pro-choice left would accept the status quo if they could be guaranteed that the pro-life right would cease trying to undermine it—and vice versa. The middle, he claimed, will be happy just to see the whole thing go away.

“Issues like this go away all the time,” said my friend. “Not that long ago, the big issue dividing America was alcohol prohibition. Now, it’s gone, disappeared, no one ever talks about it. It can happen.”

I don’t share his confidence in the good faith of the pro-choice left, and, as I will explain shortly, I’m not at all convinced that there is a “middle” position on abortion, but my friend is right about one thing: The short history of the United States is replete with examples of big political issues that divided the nation but that ultimately resolved themselves one way or another. From the earliest days of the republic, we have been sniping at each other, sometimes literally. After the Revolution, debate over taxation and the federal government’s assumption of state war debts threatened to destroy our fledgling democracy some states had even ratified the Constitution. In the nineteenth century, slavery was the divisive issue, looming over everything much as abortion does now. The twentieth century was a mélange of acrimonious, pick-a-side “isms”: isolationism, McCarthyism, communism, fascism. And, as my friend rightly notes, the temperance movement once attracted activists as radical and committed to the cause of alcohol prohibition as any of the participants in today’s abortion debates. Yet, all of these issues have become political dead letters. They all went away.

True. But for all of his intelligence and good faith, my friend failed to appreciate what it was that actually made these issues “go away.” It wasn’t that the parties to the disagreement found some unexpected common ground on which to build a careful compromise solution. It wasn’t that political moderates bearing sensible, third-way proposals moved in and defused the issue. Quite the contrary. In most cases, issues “go away” from our politics only when one side deals the other a clear and unambiguous defeat. In order for an issue to truly go away, someone has to lose.

Only when Northern military forces defeated the armies of the Confederacy was the question of slavery in America settled for good (the spirit of slavery lived on in the Jim Crow South, but legal slavery came to an official end in the United States with the ratification of the thirteenth amendment in 1865). World War II put an end to the longstanding strain of serious isolationism in our foreign policy—after Pearl Harbor, Auschwitz, and the Battle of the Bulge, no one could argue convincingly that our security interests were served by hiding away in our continental paradise. The repeal of Prohibition in 1933 drove the final nail into the coffin of the temperance movement. Though, as my friend correctly notes, there are still a smattering of “dry” counties in certain states, no one talks seriously anymore about banning alcohol sales entirely.

What’s interesting to note about the temperance movement in this context, however, is that final defeat came just 13 short years after what looked to the “drys” like total victory—the passage of the 18th Amendment. Similarly, many have argued that the legalization of abortion made possible by Roe v. Wade energized the pro-life movement and contributed to what George Weigel has called the “increasing desperation” of the pro-choice crowd. But Roe v. Wade, as the last 40 years of acrimony and division have proved, did not settle the abortion issue. It lingers on in our politics, with both sides dreaming of a day when total victory will become possible.

***

American politics is binary. When an issue emerges that resonates with people, the major political parties move in and take ownership of it almost immediately, supplying the financial and intellectual resources to defend entrenched positions and to repel attacks from the other side. It happens with such regularity, and we engage in it with such relish, that it sometimes seems as if partisanship is as much a part of our DNA as mom and apple pie. But if partisanship is baked into the American character, so is compromise. The nation was founded on a compromise—though it was, as we see now, a morally flawed compromise—and recurring issues from immigration reform to the debt ceiling will, we presume, find their ultimate solutions in some form of negotiated compromise between Republicans and Democrats.

But there are some issues which by their very nature are immune to compromise. Those problems evolving from or speaking to deeply held moral principles are particularly resistant to the horse-trading and logrolling of legislative compromise. A true pacifist will find it hard to give much when it comes to questions of war and peace. An environmentalist will rise in opposition to even minor levels of waste and pollution. The ACLU eagerly defends the free speech rights of those whose views its staff and leadership find execrable. The NRA moves quickly to beat back any potential restrictions on the right of the people to keep and bear arms, even when doing so is highly unpopular.

As politically binary Americans, what do we do with issues that inflame our passions and send us to the proverbial barricades? How do we compromise when giving an inch feels like giving it all away?

The short answer is: we don’t. Polls show pretty clearly that public attitudes about abortion haven’t changed much in the 40 years since Roe v. Wade. While recent findings suggest that more and more Americans consider themselves pro-life with every passing year, it is also true that roughly the same percentage of Americans thought that abortion should be legal under certain circumstances in 2013 (52 percent) as thought so in 1975 (54 percent).[1] And there has been almost no change in the percentages who think abortion should either always be legal or always be illegal. In other words, there is a hard-core of at least 20 percent on both sides of the abortion issue who haven’t given an inch in decades and aren’t making plans to compromise any time in the future. More than 40 percent of Americans think the issue is one of pure principle and view with suspicion offers to broker compromise from—for lack of a better word—“centrists” like my friend.

We are in a stalemate. If you’re the type of person that thinks life begins at conception, then you are likely to view abortion at 20 weeks as no better than abortion at 39 weeks and abortion at 39 weeks as no worse than abortion at four weeks or, for that matter, the morning after. If you hold this view—and, full disclosure, I do—then life is life, full stop. It must be preserved and protected. And so, four decades post-Roe, pro-life movement is as energized as ever—maybe more energized than ever. Even as demoralizing a setback as the election and reelection of a militant, pro-choice president hasn’t dimmed the hopes of those intent on establishing a public culture that respects and preserves life. The conscience of the pro-life right simply will not allow for a compromise solution resting on an arbitrary gestation-date cut off or for a rape exception that, as has often been said, punishes the child for the sins of the father.

On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who thinks a pregnant woman is just carrying around a clump of cells in her uterus, or that a fetus is a parasite, or that women should never be forced to give birth to babies they don’t “want,” then you’re not likely to be comfortable with any limitations on access to abortion, no matter how late in the pregnancy. And so we see a pro-choice movement that elevates and celebrates anyone who opposes even marginal restrictions on abortion. Even those measures with broad popular support are viewed as salvos in the continuing, all-out conservative assault on reproductive rights. The conscience of the pro-choice left will not rest easy while the possibility exists, either at the federal or state level, that the “right to choose” will be restricted in any way.

Mistrust around the abortion issue makes any negotiated compromise solution not only unlikely, but unimaginable. Both sides can point to instances where the other has broken its word: bills seeking to legalize partial-birth abortion undermine the pro-choice left’s claim that it seeks to keep the procedure “safe, legal, and rare”; late-term abortion bans haven’t kept the pro-life right from pursuing ultrasound- and pain-capable laws. Both sides view the issue as unsettled. One side views it as a matter of life and death while the other views it as a totem of female sexual and political empowerment. Both sides feel threatened. Both sides know that the other guys’ word is no good. They’re just waiting for us to let our guard down so they can break the arrangement and come after us again.

***

There will never be a compromise solution to the problem of abortion. Our everlasting belief in the possibility of compromise is the homage we pay as Americans to the idea of ourselves as an open-minded and reasonable society. It is an expression of the bedrock optimism of our collective political soul. But it ignores a difficult reality: some issues are immune to compromise. As a matter of pure politics, abortion is a binary issue—the pro-lifers on one side, the pro-choicers on the other. As a scientific matter, abortion either takes a child’s life or it doesn’t. As an ethical matter, you are either okay with this or you aren’t. There is no cutting a deal under such circumstances. There is no—if you’ll pardon the pun—splitting the baby. Only a clear and unambiguous victory for one side or the other will put the issue to rest. Nothing short of Appomattox will make this issue go away.

In practical terms, for either side to achieve a clear and unambiguous victory, especially in a binary system dominated by actors convinced of their own righteousness, something extraordinary would have to happen. Some exogenous event would have to come along to dislodge the current status quo and create the political conditions necessary for one side to triumph over the other. It would be wonderful if the nation suddenly had a giant, collective change-of-heart—a coming to consciousness about the evil of abortion culture—but that is unlikely. If such an event is to occur, it is more likely to take the form of an economic or social calamity that shifts the political center of gravity on a range of issues, not just on abortion. Prohibition ended because the pain of the Great Depression made the cost of maintaining such a frivolous social experiment seem silly. Our isolationist foreign policy couldn’t continue after the shock of Pearl Harbor.

Obviously, wishing for something like Pearl Harbor or the Great Depression to come along is not a practical political strategy. On top of being generally undesirable for a host of reasons, these are rare and impossible-to-predict events. Yet, we’ve had a few in the abortion debate over the years. On the pro-life side, many thought the horrors revealed at the trial of the abortionist Kermit Gosnell would shock the nation into a renewed push for restrictions on abortion. The murder of Dr. George Tiller occupied a similar place in the minds of the pro-choice movement’s strategic thinkers. Neither event proved compelling enough to break the stalemate over abortion.

It would be altogether better for a leader to emerge who was willing to put his or her political career on the line to break the stalemate. The Civil War was the result of many factors, but the proximate cause was the election of Abraham Lincoln, a president determined to force the unsettled issues of our founding compromise to their bloody but necessary conclusions. It remains unclear if there is an Abraham Lincoln out there on the pro-life side who is capable of delivering a clear and unambiguous defeat to the opposition such that no one on either side will ever again seriously consider the matter an open question.

Nothing less will break this desperate deadlock and allow my friend’s dream to come true. Nothing less will make abortion go away as an issue in our politics. While even the slightest glimmer of hope of victory remains—for pro-life and pro-choice alike—the fight will go on, with each side trying to bleed the other to death over time.

Enjoy the stalemate.

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