CHICAGO, July 1, 2013 ― Well-mannered people do not talk about abortion. Opinions on the subject tend to be passionate and intensely personal. They are rooted less in reason than in religion, culture or in painful personal experiences too tender to divulge. Any discussion of the subject almost immediately deteriorates into accusation and acrimony.
When Texas State Senator Wendy Davis successfully filibustered a bill designed to harass a large percentage of Texas’ abortion providers out of operation, she may have inadvertently triggered a change in the national conversation about abortion rights.
For decades, those who approach the matter soberly on all sides of the debate have kept their opinions close to their chests. There were only two public positions available, each defined by their most extreme poles.
This state of affairs is a consequence of the sweeping decision in Roe v. Wade which seemed to make any abortion debate a waste of energy. For decades, there was little to gain from a nuanced public position on abortion rights. Our robed guardians had taken the matter out of public hands. As a political matter it was pure theater.
Republicans, for the most part, learned to publicly take an unambiguous anti-abortion stance and keep their personal feelings to themselves. Democrats generally moved toward the opposite position. For all the noise, nothing changed in meaningful legislative terms for decades.
However, as subsequent decisions have softened and clarified the Supreme Court’s position and pro-life forces have adopted more sophisticated legislative tactics, abortion legislation is starting to impact life outside the political bubble. The embargo on meaningful debate of this issue will have to end.
There is much to gain and just as much to lose from bringing this issue out of the political closet. Abortion sits at the junction box of our political wiring, with deep connections into sexuality, gender roles, economic opportunity, motherhood, race, poverty, the social safety net, and the primacy of the nuclear family. We may not be capable yet of discussing it in a civil manner, but abortion has swollen into an issue that infiltrates every corner of our political life.
Abortion involves two powerful, emotionally loaded, and valid interests at conflict with one another. On the one side is a woman’s right to her own body with all that entails; her health, independence, hopes, and even her livelihood. On the other side are the rights of another person to use that body, potentially against the mother’s will, to achieve a life for themselves.
There is no balancing of those competing interests that avoids potentially harming someone.
Our instinct then is to rely on science to tell us when a cluster of cells crosses a critical threshold, transforming itself from a potential personal to a citizen; or, to use the more emotionally loaded and accurate term ― a baby. Our ability to not only understand but to visualize what happens in the womb has improved dramatically over the decades, but science has brought us not one degree closer to an empirical answer to the question of when life begins.
There can be no empirical answer to an inherently metaphysical question.
To frustrate matters further, religion offers no answers. Abortion has been a fact of life for millenia, but Judaism, Christianity, and Islam fail to address abortion in any manner in their founding texts. As a practice it existed in the shadow world of women, of little concern to official history, law, or organized religion.
Abortion only became a political matter as women began to gain political power. As such, we have few if any traditional cultural markers to help us navigate this extremely complex question. Abortion is a uniquely modern political problem with uniquely modern twists and turns.
Prior to Roe v. Wade, the nation’s most permissive abortion statute was signed into law by California Governor Ronald Reagan. Barry Goldwater, like most of the conservative wing of the GOP at the time was as vehemently pro-choice on the abortion issue as on most issues. Southern Baptists welcomed the Roe v. Wade decision and evangelicals at the time were largely supportive of expanding abortion rights.
When the GOP began to represent those fearful of a declining cultural and religious identity the shape of the abortion debate began to change. Instead of being viewed in the context of personal liberty, middle-class Protestant values, and economic prosperity, conservatives started seeing abortion rights as a threat to public morality.
Democrats, whose urban Catholic base was originally the staunchest source of anti-abortion activism, began to shift in the opposite direction, placing access to abortion in a civil rights context.
Those alignments have hardened over time as the emotional importance of the issue has outstripped its practical relevance. Now that abortion rights are once again becoming a matter of genuine debate with real effects on life outside of politics, those alignments are likely to shift again.
Good folk do not discuss abortion. Wendy Davis broke that rule so thoroughly that it may not apply anymore. Having abortion back on the table as a political issue with authentic consequences is going to cause serious discomfort on all sides. Learning to debate this question will require us all to define much more clearly where we stand on a broad range of deeply personal issues.
We could develop skills we can use to solve other problems that have frustrated us for decades and build a consensus to guide us into a new era of political and economic success.
What’s certain is that we are losing our ability to hide from this question, for better or worse. Let’s work for the best.
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