Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Only Good Abortion

The June 26th New Yorker has an interesting piece by Cynthia Gorney (regrettably not included in the online edition), about the referendum drive to overturn South Dakota's abortion ban. Apparently, quite a few South Dakotans who consider themselves to be pro-life are balking at the absolute nature of the new law, which bans abortions even in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the health of the woman. (Although there is the sodomized virgin exception which made South Dakota Senator Bill Napoli so justly famous.)

It turns out, according to Gorney, that the national anti-abortion movement is not as happy about the South Dakota law as one might have expected from the outside.
"In our hearts, we're going, Yeah, come on, you guys can do it, but in our heads we're going, This is not good," one longterm Midwestern right-to-life lobbyist told me. "Wrong bill. Wrong language. Wrong time. I used to envision the day we ban abortion in our state - people carrying on and crying with happiness and 'Oh my gosh, the world has erupted,' and here we were just, like, Ugh. I remember some of the questions: 'Do you think we're going to get press calls about it?' 'Do we have to respond, or can we just blow them off?' I can't even think of the talking points we'll use. We won't talk about it."
In fact, both the National Right to Life Committee and Americans United for Life opposed the South Dakota law; they anticipated what seems to be happening now. Many South Dakota conservatives, who would be perfectly happy to ban what they think of as "abortion for convenience," are finding themselves troubled by the idea of a rape victim forced to carry her rapist's baby to term. The absolute nature of the ban is awakening a sense of nuance in people who previously, in a world in which Roe v. Wade was firmly entrenched, were very comfortable calling themselves "pro-life" and meaning that they opposed most abortions, frivolous abortions, bad abortions. People who never had to confront the question of what the world would be like if it were completely without legal abortion... until the South Dakota state legislature passed its law.

As Gorney explains, the absolute ban holds no conflict for hard-core pro-lifers, to whom an abortion ban with exceptions for rape, incest, or health "is the equivalent of one that makes slavery legal only for those who really need slaves."
A person who professes to be pro-life but insists on a rape-and-incest exception (which covers most pro-life politicians in this country, including President Bush) is saying one of two things: either it is justifiable to kill children in some circumstances, or what grows in a woman's uterus is a child if the woman had sex voluntarily but not if she was forced into it. [...]

Here's the dilemma: how prudent is it to push people who might otherwise be your allies - who might be at least partially helpful to your cause - to examine the inconsistency of their own position? You might win them over to the true-believer ranks: it's a child, so the law can't permit killing it unless that's the unfortunate consequence of trying to save the mother's life. Or you might alienate them so thoroughly that they end up in the enemy camp: abortion has to be legal at least for rape and incest, which means that it isn't a child, which means that [...] abortion is not child-killing after all but, rather, a morally complex act that requires society to weigh one thing against another - the severity of the pregnant woman's distress, for example, versus developing human life.
The national right-to-life movement isn't confident that South Dakota voters (or the Supreme Court, even with Alito), faced with that dilemma, will choose the true-believer side. The success of the referendum drive, in which nearly five percent of South Dakota's population signed petitions to get the measure on the ballot, suggests that they are right to worry.

Now it's up to the pro-choice movement. How can we frame the debate in South Dakota in order to evoke this dilemma? How do we call forth the moderate pro-lifers' sense of ambiguity? If the women of South Dakota are to retain even the fragile vestiges of abortion rights they have now (there's only one abortion clinic in the entire state, with doctors flown in from Minnesota because no local providers can be found), it will be because moderate pro-life believers vote to overturn the abortion ban. South Dakota simply doesn't have enough self-identified pro-choice voters to carry the measure, even if every last one is mobilized. It's going to throw strong pro-choicers (like me) into our own uncomfortable dilemma, as we try to make common cause across a deep moral, philosophical, and often cultural divide.

A thoughtful reading of Gorney's article is a good place to start. Buy the dead tree edition.