Abortion's Middle Ground

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I watched the demonstrations this weekend marking the 33rd anniversary of Roe v. Wade and wonder at their familiarity; the candlelight vigil in front of the Supreme Court, the masses on the mall and in cities across the country, the urgent hope that protesters express as they see the fight breaking in their favor: John Roberts. Sam Alito. New laws in multiple states that are bound to wind up being challenged, so that the next battle is bound to be waged before a more sympathetic High Court.

It strikes me mainly because as visible and volatile as the issue is, the transforming events have already occurred, to an extent that makes the legal fight less practically relevant. It's not just that abortion is already unavailable in the vast majority of communities across the country, and would remain available in some states even if Roe were overturned. It's the personal changes that stand out as I talk to women of the post-Roe generation, those of us who came of age with the assumption that the abortion question was, for our purposes, settled.

When I graduated from college in 1982, abortion was not a matter of debate among women I knew. We didn't tug and pull at the ethical implications of it, or stay up late debating the legal logic underlying the Roe decision. It was just there, a safety net, the kind of right we hoped we'd never to have to exercise, but were grateful to have just in case.

That complacency began to change for me when I went to graduate school and met a philosophy professor who liked nothing better than making lighthearted and unreflective students stop dead in their tracks and assess the sturdiness of their beliefs. The professor had a big heart, a mild manner and a lethally logical mind, and so in his moral philosophy tutorials, when it came time to discuss abortion he would invite his 20-somethings to choose which side they wanted to argue.

I'm willing to bet that the vast majority of us just automatically chose to argue the pro-choice side, which served his educational purposes perfectly. I lasted maybe five minutes—maybe less—before I was trapped and whimpering in a logical snare of my own making. These gentle queries, little pokes and probes into the inconsistencies in an argument would be familiar to any logic student, but they were new to me, and unnerving.

"Would it make any difference in your thinking," he would ask, "if a pregnancy lasted for nine hours rather than nine months?"

"What if your belly were transparent," he would ask, "and you could see the fetus as it grew? Do you think that would change your attitude at all?"

And on it went until I cried uncle. And then, most unsettling, the professor asked if I would like to change sides, which came as a relief since by this time I was feeling like an infanticist and believed he had given me all the logical arguments to win.

Except that when he argued in favor of abortion rights and I took the pro-life side, I was backed into the opposite logical corner in about five minutes more, as he laid out scenarios involving autonomy, and control over our bodies, the proper role of the state in matters of health and privacy and family life.

What I took away from this was less a conclusion about which side stood on the strongest logical foundations than a profound sense that up till then I had reached a position without taking the journey to get there. This sense was heightened when I got married and got pregnant the first time, by which time technology had made the philosopher's hypothetical real: I heard the heartbeat, strained to see the image on the ultrasound, made out the features, like my womb had a window—and grieved at a miscarriage. If life, at this tiny, unimaginable stage, was a life worth mourning, was it not one worth respecting, and protecting as well? And then when my daughters did come, and the abortion question refracted through both the miracle of their births and the concern for their future safety and autonomy, I felt I was back in the classroom again, confounded.

At the same time I could turn on Larry King and watch a conservative Republican Vice President admit that if his daughter ever got pregnant, if her life or health or happiness were a stake, well, "I hope I never have to deal with it. But obviously I would counsel her and talk to her and support her on whatever decision she made."

These journeys of course, are typical, which is why the public debate has shifted so much in the years since Roe. Many women who once defended the right to life or the right to choose as automatic and unfreighted have matured through their own experiences and those of their friends. It is increasingly common for Democratic candidates who would once have allowed not the least ethical elasticity into their positions to embrace the careful Clinton Construct: that abortion should be safe, legal and rare. When extremists on the right suggest that liberals view abortion as not just a right but practically a sport, or extremists on the left suggest that there is nothing deeply personal at stake here, only political, they are operating outside the region where I think the rest of us have landed. We have conducted, over the course of 33 years, a long and often painful tutorial that works every moral muscle. I don't know if demonstrations ever really change people minds. But life's lessons very often do.