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Abortion rights is a multi-criteria decision

Protestors demonstrate at a pro-abortion rights protest organized by Planned Parenthood Action in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 30, 2022.
Peter Afriyie
Protestors demonstrate at a pro-abortion rights protest organized by Planned Parenthood Action in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, June 30, 2022.

The recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling moved abortion rights to the states. Trigger laws effectively made abortions illegal in some states, bifurcating the country into two “abortion” zones. Indiana became the first state to enact new legislation that bans abortions, with limited exceptions.

The ideological positions offered by the “pro-choice” abortion rights proponents and “pro-life” anti-abortion advocates groups cannot be overcome with reasoning or emotional appeals. Each faction is deeply ingrained in their views and beliefs, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the validity of the other’s position, either ethically or legally. 

The abortion rights advocates argue that women have a right to their bodies and any choices made about it. As such, decisions about terminating pregnancies are a personal medical issue, best left to the pregnant women in conjunction with her physician. 

The anti-abortion advocates argue that life begins at conception, and the lives of the unborn must be protected at all costs, except perhaps if the life of the woman is threatened for some. 

So how can one resolve two positions that appear not just diametrically opposed, but are not even on the same page? This is like two baseball teams showing up at different baseball diamonds to play each other. 

A first step forward may lie in the field of multi-criteria decision-making.  

Problems for which there are several criteria demand tradeoffs. If you like to indulge in pizza, fried foods and ice cream, but also do not want to gain weight, you must reach a balance between consuming such foods and what your weight will be. These are choices that we all make individually. 

But what happens when society must make such choices collectively? 

There are numerous options that lie between the abortion rights and anti-abortion positions, based on criteria for assessing the legality and availability of safe abortions.

One criterion focuses on the line for when life begins. The anti-abortion side views life beginning at conception. The abortion rights side mostly acknowledges that life begins when the fetus is viable if delivered, which is around 24 weeks, near the end of the second trimester.

A second criterion focuses on how the pregnancy came about — including whether it is the result of rape, incest or birth control failure. 

A third criterion focuses on the health of the fetus, including genetic defects that could lead to debilitating health issues and the survival of the child if delivered. 

A fourth criterion is the health and well-being of the mother, including life-threatening situations related to the pregnancy. 

A fifth criterion focuses on where the law should be adjudicated: federal or state. 

This presents a practical dilemma to move each groups position from their preferred solution. As such, the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling gave abortion rights advocates federal protections for women reproductive decisions, while the recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs moved such decisions to the states. This effectively traverses the Pareto front towards the anti-abortion preferred solution in some states, which could be fully banning all abortions after conception provided the woman’s life is not in danger. 

What multi-criteria decision-making does is force each camp to consider the spectrum of positions along a Pareto front, which are all nondominated options; one cannot improve the positions of both groups simultaneously. 

 Supreme Court’s Chief Justice John Roberts reportedly sought a more incremental movement on Roe. He wanted to move along the Pareto front in the direction of the anti-abortion position, but not as aggressively as the majority opinion ultimately ruled. 

Solutions between the extremes along a Pareto front rarely satisfy both groups. Roe v. Wade was a compromise for the abortion rights camp, as is the current Supreme Court Dobbs ruling for the anti-abortion camp. What has fueled the current disruption is the abruptness of the movement along the Pareto front.

Compromise demands both give and take, something that continues to be challenging in Washington, particularly in the legislative branch, often in the executive branch, and now in the judicial branch.

Living in a complex society requires, even demands, compromise. Successful organizations, relationships, friendships and marriages all involve compromise. 

If our three branches of government cannot engage in compromise, the results are laws and policies that incite unrest, mistrust and dissent. 

What is necessary and appropriate to inform compromise on abortion rights is greater input from the medical community, given that women’s reproductive decisions fall within this rubric. Without such input, state legislative bodies are guaranteed to overstep their authority and create more harm than good.

Given that 61 percent of the population support abortions being legal, the next move in the abortion access chess match may be more moderate than some expect. The recent vote on whether to ban abortion in Kansas could be indicative of this, with voters resoundingly voting to keep abortion legal. Even the new Indiana law includes exceptions that may incite anger among some in the anti-abortion camp. 

Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a founder professor of Computer Science and the Carle Illinois College of Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is a data scientist who applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy. 

Tags Abortion abortion rights anti-abortion Kansas abortion vote Supreme Court Trigger laws

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