I love the editorial page of the Deseret News, especially the on-line comments page responding to letters to the editor. A few days ago, a woman wrote an op-ed piece about how, as a Mormon, she could also be a Democrat, and then described her experience as a delegate to the national Democratic convention. And the comments page exploded. Mormons can’t be Democrats, because Democrats believe in . . . .
Well, all sorts of absurd things. I’m a Democrat; I didn’t recognize myself in any of the descriptions people came up with. But, yeah, abortion. We favor abortion. And that means liberal Democrats cannot be LDS. Or, if we are Mormons, we can’t be good Mormons.
Because Republicans are anti-abortion, and Democrats are pro-choice, it opens the door to suggest that we’re, well, pro-abortion. That’s the nicer way to put it, really: given the current state of political discourse in this country, we’re baby-killers. We salivate at the prospect of murdering babies. We’re contributors to a Holocaust: we’re Nazis.
So how do I defend myself? I can’t think of a single issue about which I personally feel more ambivalence, or more pain. The only argument I’ve heard on this issue that made my head bob up and down was the one articulated by the late David Foster Wallace, a genuinely great writer who is one of my philosophical heros. Said Wallace, as “a private citizen and an autonomous agent” that he was “both pro-life and pro-choice.” He then says this:
Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.
And I agree with that. He then continues:
At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.
And I agree with that too. In fact, I think it’s kind of brilliant. Like I say, I’m torn.
Maybe here’s another way into it. To some extent, I think a difference between Republicans (conservatives) and Democrats (liberals) is this: Republicans want to define and uphold an ideal, and Democrats want to deal with uglier realities. Conservatives believe (and I respect this belief) that making accommodations to bad behaviors makes those behaviors more likely, and that’s bad for society. Right? Nowhere is this more evident than in the abortion debate. Republicans think all babies should be wanted, should be born into loving, supportive relationships, families in which a pregnancy is welcomed. A lot of research shows that children do better when they’re raised in a solid, two-parent family. A pregnancy announcement is something wonderful, something to celebrate and rejoice in. So that’s the ideal we need to stand up for. And single young people shouldn’t be having sex anyway.
But young people do have unprotected sex, and pregnancies do result. Some families are supportive and strong, but many are massively dysfunctional, and many children are raised under less-than-ideal circumstances, or even, completely horrific circumstances. Don’t we need to provide a helping hand for those children, and those families, and those less-than-desirable outcomes? And the reality is that many many women who discover that they are pregnant are not excited about it, don’t want to be, and many are desperate not to be. Women will terminate unwanted pregnancies. This has always been true, forever, in every time and in every culture, ever. Women who are desperate to end a pregnancy will resort to dangerous and unhealthy measures. This has always been true as well.
So what do we do about that? The Church’s position is that there are exceptional circumstances under which abortion is permitted, which is to say circumstances under which it is a moral choice, and for which it should be legal. One such exception is when ‘the health of the mother’ is at risk. A ectopic pregnancy would be an obvious exception. What about mental health? What about women for whom the prospect of carrying a pregnancy to term fills them with, not just dread, but suicidal thoughts and urges? If that exception were codified into law, wouldn’t that open a loophole under which many abortions could legally be performed? And who gets to make that judgment? A government bureaucrat?
The only real answer is that the person making that judgment has to be the woman who is pregnant. I can’t think of any other way to look at it. That’s why I am, as a liberal and Democrat and Mormon and Christian, reluctantly and painfully and contradictorily pro-choice.
But aren’t abortions performed for morally frivolous reasons? Don’t women have abortions because a pregnancy is inconvenient, because it would interrupt an education or job prospects? Don’t some women have abortions routinely, as part of their birth control?
Sure, I think all that’s possible. But do we really get to judge? Should we cede to government the right to interrogate people requesting a surgical procedure? Isn’t that a threatening and undemocratic power for government to yield?
Are late-term abortions awful? Yes, they are. And really rare, and almost always due to desperate circumstances. (Which is why Roe v. Wade differentiated between first trimester abortions and those performed later in the pregnancy).
I believe abortion to be immoral, because I am a Latter-day Saint. In a religiously pluralistic society, can I appropriately impose my religious beliefs on a legal system that serves people who do not share those beliefs? Is this really a political issue? Is this the kind of issue to which political debate or compromise could contribute helpfully? Doesn’t it instead lend itself to a ‘baby-killers vs. women-oppressors’ polarization?
If Roe v. Wade (which I have read, and which I believe to have been correctly decided) were overturned and abortion was made illegal, all other things being equal, it would likely have very little effect on the numbers of abortions performed. A massive black market of abortion providers would spring up, and many of the resulting abortions would be unsafe and dangerous. Many more young women would die from complications of botched abortions. Do we really want to criminalize a medical procedure? Do we really want to throw doctors in jail? Do we really want to throw women in jail who have just made the most terrible, frightening, difficult decision of their lives?
It’s a moral issue. An exceptionally important one. And yes, we need to do more to encourage adoption, and yes, we should provide pre-natal counseling and love and support. Certainly, if we’re going to require single moms to get jobs, we have to recognize the difficulty of finding child care. That’s a government-provided service I support creating. But if you require me to declare myself, to define myself in one word, up or down, pro-life or pro-choice, I cannot find it in my heart to say anything but this: it’s the woman’s decision. Hers entirely. Religiously and philosophically and personally, I’m opposed to abortion. Politically, I’m pro-choice.