There Is Only One Way to Settle the Abortion Issue
There Is Only One Way to Settle the Abortion Issue
I do not expect that by writing this I will win any popularity contests. I do not expect everybody to agree with the main points. I don’t expect everybody from either side of the issue to agree that all of the points I raise are valid points in the debate. I do expect to receive criticism for not bringing up all relevant points that anybody can think of. I did not write this in order to avoid criticism. My only point in writing this is to try to influence people to consider the benefits of thinking beyond their own rhetoric. In this essay, I do not even mention my own point of view on this important topic – not to avoid criticism, but to focus on the main point, which is unrelated to my personal position.
Neither side is going to “win” the debate over abortion. The issue will never be settled in favor of the pro-choice movement. The issue will never be settled in favor of the pro-life movement.
It is impossible to settle this issue in favor of one of these sides. Advocates can make political points within targeted audiences, perhaps, but that is all they will ever “win” in this debate.
The reason this debate is unwinnable is quite simple. The talking points don’t match the issue at hand. As long as the talking points don’t change, the real issue is not going to be addressed in a manner that will allow for any kind of general consensus to be reached. If the talking points ever do change – in a manner which addresses the real issue – then the debate will no longer be between pro-life and pro-choice factions.
Here is a truth that is bound to make many people uneasy: If you feel strongly that you are pro-life, or if you feel strongly that you are pro-choice, then very likely you are lending your support to policies that you strongly disagree with.
Is it irrational for me to say that you strongly disagree with “your side’s” positions on an issue that you feel strongly about? No, because this is what happens when the rhetoric doesn’t match the issue at hand. The rhetoric has resulted in people being divided into two opposing positions. Millions of us have chosen one side while steadfastly opposing the views of the other side.
Here is an important question; please think about it carefully: Is your agreement or disagreement with the abortion positions of friends, family members, politicians, and pundits based on whether they claim to be pro-life or pro-choice? If so, then you have fallen for the false “us vs. them” rhetoric. You are not concerned with what the issue is really about. There is one large group of people who claim to be united on one side of the issue. There is another large group of people who claim to be united on the other side of the issue. Those are the two sides, and you have aligned yourself with one of them. But neither side is discussing the real issue at hand, and neither side has a unified position on the real issue.
We have people on one side saying things like “I think abortion is wrong, therefore I am pro-life”. We have people on the other side saying things like “I think a woman should be able to decide for herself, therefore I am pro-choice”. The language in the talking points often gets much stronger than that, but that is what it boils down to for many people. We have one side saying “abortion is murder” while the other side says “it’s my body to do what I want with it”.
These and other talking points are merely simplistic statements – and by simplistic I mean too simplified to deal with the reality of the issue. The reality is more complicated than either side will admit. There is no room in the rhetoric for complicated details. In the meantime, the talking points don’t really change. No rational person should expect the outcome to change as long as the talking points don’t change.
Do those in the pro-life camp really believe that everybody in the pro-choice camp actually likes abortions, and that the decision to have one is taken lightly? That is what pro-life talking points are designed to get people to believe through inflammatory language such as “abortion on demand.” Do those in the pro-choice camp really believe that everybody who calls themselves pro-life really wants women to be treated as second-class citizens?
Such language evades the real issue at hand. Do people in either camp really believe that electing representatives who support their own side in this issue will lead to any kind of sustainable resolution? One side may be able to get certain laws passed. One side may even be able to get a Supreme Court that agrees with them. But laws and Supreme Court decisions alone are not sustainable for this hot-button issue. The political pendulum swings, and nothing is resolved without some kind of national consensus. Roe v Wade has been the law of the land since 1973 and it certainly did not settle the issue, let alone create a consensus. Recent changes in state laws are open to interpretation by future courts and future voters, which in turn are subject to the political pendulum.
I keep mentioning that the two sides are dealing in rhetoric, and not addressing the real issue at hand. I’m fairly certain that if you have read this far, you are waiting for me to finally get to the point and mention what that real issue is.
The reason the abortion issue cannot be settled through a black and white, us vs. them approach between two opposing positions is that the issue at hand is not abortion itself, but the government’s role regarding abortion. That is all the issue is about – the government. The talking points hide the fact that the issue is complicated enough to have numerous possibilities for a government role. Just because other people are on the same side as you –pro-life or pro-choice – that doesn’t mean that you support the same role for government that everybody else in your camp supports. Your position – pro-life or pro-choice – is not a policy, because there is no one policy that everybody who agrees with your position supports.
The issue cannot be settled through the talking points of two opposing positions. The issue can only be settled through a discussion of specific policy options. In order for the issue to be settled, government’s role must be settled. But the options for that cannot be simplified and summarized as pro-life versus pro-choice.
What outcome do you want? Are you in favor of policies that are likely to reduce the number of abortions, or do you prefer policies that make an anti-abortion statement even if statistics say they do not reduce abortions? Are you in favor of policies that statistics say will create more back-alley abortions and endanger more lives? Are you in favor of economic policies that will likely decrease the number of situations in which this difficult choice arises? Are you in favor of preventative measures, such as education and birth control for at-risk young girls; and if so, what kinds of education and access to birth control do you support?
Some possibilities to take into consideration:
The government could side with personal freedom, and place no restrictions on abortion. This would be a position consistent with an attitude of “getting government out of people’s lives”, which ironically is a traditional conservative position that has become widely associated with modern liberalism.
The government could take the opposite extreme and make all abortions illegal in all cases. This position has some high-profile advocates, and is being used effectively as a hot-button campaign issue in many jurisdictions. In some districts, political candidates take this position in order to pass some sort of a litmus test for office. This is a litmus test designed to test “conservative” qualifications, even though the method is not consistent with traditional conservative principles of personal freedom without government intrusion. Abortion is the issue that has, more than any other social issue, turned traditional principles of conservatism and liberalism upside down.
The government could make abortions legal, but with certain restrictions.
The government could make abortions illegal, but with certain exceptions.
Unless I am missing some other possibilities, these are the four potential categories of government involvement in the abortion issue:
- Abortion legal in all cases
- Abortion illegal in all cases
- Abortion legal with restrictions
- Abortion illegal with exceptions
Within these four categories, though, there are many details that need to be worked out. These details add more possibilities which those who take a position on this issue need to consider. Without factoring in the details, a personal viewpoint is nothing more than theoretical. You can’t move from the realm of the theoretical, or the rhetorical, to a real world solution without taking care of the details. Some of the details to consider…
What about funding? Should the government stay out of it, and in effect make abortion legal only for those who can afford a legal abortion? Should insurance companies be allowed to cover this procedure? Should they be required to cover it? Should they be forbidden from covering it? If abortion is a right, then what do we do about those who cannot afford it? Should the right be restricted to those who can afford it, or should the government intervene in order to make this right available to all? Where do the taxpayers fit into the picture?
What specific criminal penalties are you in favor of imposing? We can’t simply pass a law that says “illegal” without including penalties. What exactly are you advocating if you want all abortions to be illegal? Do you want to take scared, pregnant teenagers and lock them up for life if they choose to have an abortion? Or if you advocate lesser penalties for young women and girls, what penalties do you have in mind? Or perhaps you want to penalize doctors who perform abortions. Do you simply believe that you can say “you can’t have a license to practice medicine if you have performed abortions, or plan to do so”? Is taking away a medical license the only penalty that you have in mind? Or should doctors be locked up for this procedure? If so, how long should they be locked up? If you believe that abortion is murder, then do you want everybody involved in each case to face murder charges and penalties? How do you justify equating somebody who has an abortion with somebody who randomly shoots innocent bystanders to death, when there is a consensus across all civilizations and all time that the latter deserves to be called murder, but no such consensus exists for the former? Would it not make sense to get such a consensus in your own civilization before passing laws that turn people into murderers by definition?
What restrictions and exceptions do you have in mind? Are you concerned about victims of rape and incest? Do they get an exception? What about situations in which the woman’s life is in danger? Does she get an exception? Where and how does the doctor’s opinion come into play? Do you support restrictions based on a religious viewpoint about when life begins? If so, how do you justify having your personal religious beliefs being used to make laws for others to follow, when the Constitution says you cannot do so? If there is no scientific, medical, and religious consensus on the exact moment that life begins, then whose version or opinion do you use to pass laws that affect everybody, and how do you justify it without violating the Constitution? What about the age of the pregnant girl? Should there be age restrictions, and if so, what would they be? Should the girl’s parents have a right to make this decision, and if so, at what age does the girl gain this right for herself? What if two parents disagree? What if there is an absent parent who has disappeared and/or lost parental rights? What about teenage girls who fear for their lives because of angry parents, boyfriends, or community members? How should those cases be handled? What about paternal rights? Should they be honored in all, some, or no situations depending on the character and attitude of the expectant father? If there are restrictions on paternal rights, who gets to decide for each case when those restrictions are in effect? Who decides when the expectant mother and expectant father disagree? Who exactly is allowed to be involved in an emotional decision regarding abortion? Would it be the pregnant woman, her doctor, her parents, the biological father, somebody else, or some combination of these people?
When people choose to place themselves into one of two camps in order to label themselves as being either pro-life, or pro-choice, and the talking points are from the perspectives of these two camps, then the details get lost. Without the details being a part of what people consider, then people are not factoring in all of the relevant costs of each position they take. Remember, there can be no policy without details. Perhaps many of the people who call themselves “pro-life” would insist on certain combinations of exceptions, if they were forced to think about the details of their own positions – but they have sided with the pro-life movement because they don’t want to be seen as being in favor of “abortion on demand.” Perhaps many of the people who call themselves “pro-choice” would insist on certain combinations of restrictions if they were forced to think about the details of their own positions – but they have sided with the pro-choice movement because they don’t want to be seen as favoring women being forced to let the government “make choices over their own bodies.”
Millions of people have been influenced by the talking points, but not by the necessary policy details. The issue will never be decided as long as the talking points stay the same. Only an honest discussion of the details from all viewpoints of any potential resolution has any chance of settling the issue. Perhaps there is more of a consensus regarding the details of policy options than we are allowed to consider in an “us vs. them” world of rhetoric.
If you feel strongly about this issue, then pick a position – including the details – and be prepared to justify your position based on the details of the real issue involved, instead of simply repeating political rhetoric from pro-life or pro-choice advocates. Changing the talking points to the real issue will force advocates to thoroughly consider their own positions, and create an atmosphere of civil discussion. Unfortunately, it will also deprive many politicians of campaign funds, and feel-good talking points – so don’t expect politicians to make this change for you. Politicians will only change tactics if we insist on it.
There is only one way to settle the abortion issue. Forget about “us vs. them”, forget about giving yourself the simplistic label of pro-life or pro-choice, and start discussing which policy details you do and do not support.
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