The U.S. House of Representatives voted last week to eliminate federal funding for Planned Parenthood, which provides abortions, along with a variety of health care services for women. (The federal funding was allocated for family planning and health care, not abortion.) The Virginia General Assembly last week approved legislation that requires abortion clinics to be regulated as hospitals, and providers say the stricter regulations will force many of them out of business. Both measures were pushed by anti-abortion activists. Should personal and religious views be allowed to prevent women from having access to a legal medical procedure?
I thought I’d keep the opening paragraph short and sweet. Now let’s ponder the problem in more detail. In a secular society that observes the separation of church and state, neither personal metaphysical views about, say, fetal ensoulment nor religious doctrine should have any role in obstructing women’s access to a legal medical procedure. That said, I also recognize that some of us haven’t lived in that United States for the last 30 years or so — and that way too many House Republicans are drawn from that group.
Will their views prevail? Sadly, I think they just might. For too many years abortion-rights advocates felt invulnerable beneath the sheltering mantle of Roe v. Wade. For strategic reasons they retreated from the hard work of educating America as to why abortion is morally licit, preferring to focus on what they viewed as a slam-dunk rhetoric of “choice.” And so we had — to cite just one example — the National Abortion Rights Action League change its name to the meaningless NARAL in order to shed the albatross — whoops, I meant that other “A” word. (William Saletan’s 2003 Bearing Right gives an excellent picture of this process, though Saletan doesn’t draw from his narrative the same conclusions that I do.)
There’s a problem with this approach, and it’s bearing bitter fruit today. That problem is that when abortion-rights advocates restrict themselves to talking about choice, abortion opponents have the arena of moral discourse all to themselves as they make their arguments that abortion is hideous, sinful, selfish and so on. Too few voices rebut them to argue that (to use atheist Ann Gaylor’s wonderfully ironic trope) “abortion is a blessing.” Too few voices argue that since the capacity for personhood does not exist until the infant brain begins some internal wiring well after birth, the only justifications for imagining that abortion is murder flow solely from personal metaphysics or religious doctrine. Too few voices argue that in a secular society, personal metaphysics and religious doctrine are properly off-limits as drivers of public policy.
Which brings us to the present day, when a vocal anti-abortion minority — and a big chunk of moderates, especially young people, who’ve listened to the right’s uncontested jeremiads all these years and concluded that abortion is, like, you know, sort of yucky — are prepared to guide our nation one giant step down the path to theocracy.
Appalling, even terrifying, as it seems, they just might get away with it. And if they do, the missteps of the “pro-choice” lobby will merit at least part of the blame.
I’m not just pro-choice, I’m pro-abortion. And I’m losing hope.