A Future for the Pro-Life Movement
Matthew Schmitz of First Things registers a complaint by Twitter about my CNN column hoping that the abortion controversy may someday be de-escalated:
“It is chilling that @davidfrum doesn’t have a spare second to consider the morality of abortion. Politics trumps all.”
For the record, I have often considered the morality of abortion. Like most people, I find that morality complicated.
But the political debate over abortion is not a debate over morality. It is a debate over legality.
Today’s pro-life movement goes beyond arguing that abortion is immoral to argue that abortion should be punishable.
Morality and punishability are two very different categories. Lots of actions that are immoral are not subject to punishment. (Otherwise the senior executives of more than one US ratings agency would now be languishing in prison.) Many actions are punishable that are not immoral. (For example, exceeding the density limits proscribed by urban zoning codes.)
It is the demand that abortion be punished that divides America so passionately. My column for CNN argued that we have lived this kind of divide before, during the heyday of prohibition agitation from the Civil War to the Great Depression.
Then a strange thing happened. Federal prohibition was repealed. Alcohol ceased to function as a cultural signifier separating rural from urban, Protestant from Catholic, agrarian from industrial. Once alcohol lost its culture war status, we discovered that the evils of alcohol could be addressed in ways that did not rip apart the country.
Government continues to regulate alcohol in all kinds of ways, especially at the local level. Those regulations are often contested: where should alcohol be sold? How late? In what kind of store? To people of what age? But the contests are limited in scope, non-existential in character, and resolved with compromises that most people in most places find reasonably satisfactory.
The end of the culture war over alcohol was both the cause and effect of a great national sobering up. Americans drink less now than ever before in history. Public drunkenness is less acceptable than ever before. Operating cars or machinery while intoxicated is not only illegal, but universally condemned. Alcoholics are not seen as people exercising a “lifestyle choice” but as people destroying themselves and their relationships — and a wide social network has come into being to counsel and assist.
I hypothesized that we might see a similar future for abortion. Yet here’s the point for Mr. Schmitz: the only way to get to a broader national consensus about the morality of abortion is to put an end to the culture war over abortion as symbolized by the demand for the punishment of abortion.
Imagine if we had a pro-life movement that said the following: “We’re not trying to change any laws. But we want you to take a look at these pictures of the child in the womb and decide for yourself that abortion is wrong. We will study why particular women have particular abortions and see if there are things we can collectively do to reduce the pressures that cause women to end their pregnancies in this way. We will measure our success not by what we are able to criminalize, but by reductions in abortion’s frequency. We’re already 1/3 of the way to our goal, as compared to 1980, and with continued effort we hope to achieve continuing reductions in the future.”
Such a statement would involve some considerable changes in the thinking of the pro-life movement. It would mean the end of abortion’s signifier as a symbol of everything that is wrong with the modern world. It would sever abortion from the larger debate over sexuality and spirituality — just as alcohol has been separated from debates over ethnicity and spirituality. And it would define success in terms of abortion reduction rather than abortion prohibition.
I wonder if Mr. Schmitz would find such an outcome acceptable. Possibly he would not — even if it brought us to a world in which the abortion rate was reduced from the former 30 per 1000 women of child-bearing age beyond the present 20 to a future of 10 or 8 or 5. He might say: no compromise is possible on this vital moral concern!
That’s exactly what the old anti-saloon-league people said too. But eventually the political system answers: issues on which no compromise is possible are issues that do not belong in politics at all. They must either be resolved by war (as slavery was) or by removal from politics altogether. America won’t fight a war over abortion, and so the most likely future for the abortion issue is that it will be resolved in the same way we resolved the problem, “Which religion shall be chosen as the official religion of the state?” We resolved the problem by ceasing to ask the question.