Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Middle Way: Choosing Life and Preserving Choice

While I'm on the subject of arguments that never seem to quite get resolved, the recent commencement speech by President Obama at Notre Dame seems to have stirred up the abortion cauldron again.

This is an issue within which many can admit to no common ground at all. If the responses of pro-lifers to Obama's speech are any measure, there is nothing at all to be said. There is no conversation or dialog. Within that community, abortion is simply murder. For them, describing abortion as a choice is like describing genocide as a "choice."

Within the highly charged rhetorical framework of the pro-life movement, even the goal of reducing the number of abortions in our society is not acceptable. If those who disagree with you are committing genocide, how can you possibly accept a lower percentage? Many conservatives are offended at even suggesting that conversation on the issue is possible. There is only one option, and that is the zero option. No abortions ever for any reason.

Unfortunately for our nation, this absolutist position is disastrously counterproductive. It paralyzes the nation, and prevents us from making any forward progress on the issue. Assuming, as I do, that reducing abortion rates should be a clear goal in our society, we have two possible ways forward. If we look cross-culturally at our options, two different societal approaches seem to have worked in reducing abortion.

The first is the Saudi approach: the complete ban. That essentially mirrors the absolutist position of American conservatism, and would require us to criminalize abortion at the federal level. This does achieve the goal of reducing abortion through the coercive power of government. It drives it underground for the poor, or drives it across national boundaries for the rich. That, in essence, is the Saudi approach. Under the Wahabist form of Islamic sharia law that governs Saudi Arabia, abortion is considered premeditated murder, and can only be considered if the mother's life is threatened. This is essentially the same position as that held by the American pro-life movement, and in Saudi Arabia, it means that abortion is quite rare. Unfortunately for the pro-life movement, the only reason that works in the Saudi context is that the country is not a democracy. It's legal frameworks are those of a theocratic monarchy, in which the boundaries between faith and the power of the state are very different from those established in our Constitution.

The second is the approach taken by liberal social democracies. This is the Western European model, which has produced abortion rates that are half that of those in the United States. That approach involves progressive sex education, easily available contraception, and significant "nanny state" benefits provided to those who choose to bring a child to term. Despite the ideological resistance many conservatives have to this approach, the numbers are clear: it works. Given that the U.S. sees between 1.2 and 1.5 million abortions annually now, if we could reduce our abortion rate to that of the Netherlands, we' the language of the pro-life 600,000 preborn lives a year. The challenge for conservatives is that their absolutism and resistance to this middle way may be, by their own metric, costing two thousand lives a day.

As we are a democracy and not a theocratic state, the latter approach seems far and away the more viable one. We have a model that works. Why doctrinal and ideological purity should trump the possibility of real, practical and measurable improvement on an issue that for many is a matter of life and death is beyond me.