How both sides of the abortion debate lost the moral high ground

Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.
Greg Nash
Protesters are seen outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday, May 3, 2022 after the leak of a draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito preparing for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade later this year.

The abortion debate in the United States is becoming even more immature than it is dishonest — reflecting ever more polarization and ever less common sense.

In May, Democrats in the House and Senate voted nearly unanimously for a bill that would ostensibly codify Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision legalizing most abortions. The bill would enshrine a right to abortion up until (and, in some cases, past) birth.

This means that half of America’s lawmakers apparently support a mother’s right to extinguish the life of a fully viable infant, full stop. Never mind that Roe did not necessarily enshrine abortion until the moment of birth. Never mind that the overwhelming, bipartisan majority of Americans disagree with this position. And never mind that it is the height of euphemism to call the abortion of a baby at, say, eight months gestation “abortion” rather than “infanticide.”

This is not the nuanced, considered decision one could be forgiven for expecting from any group of rational adults, let alone from nearly half of our highly educated and duly elected lawmakers. Nothing can begin to excuse it, and nothing can fully explain it.

Yet, if one wanted to understand how nearly every Democrat in Congress – most of them perfectly kind and well-meaning people, I am sure – supported such a chillingly barbaric piece of legislation, one could do worse than to look at the unfeeling, sophomoric posturing taking hold within the “abortion abolition” wing of the pro-life movement that animates many of their Republican colleagues.

We’ve now seen a bevy of so-called “heartbeat bills” in red states, with elements of bounty-hunting enshrined to enforce their near-total bans on even the earliest term abortions.

We’ve got a Republican candidate for governor in Oklahoma, along with the Republican legislature in that state, insisting that life begins long before a fetal heartbeat is detected, and that abortion should therefore be entirely illegal from the moment of fertilization, even in cases of rape. And we’ve got people that call themselves abortion abolitionists evincing disdain for what they now call “pro-life establishment conservatives” (i.e., people who are willing to work toward limitations on abortion in an incremental way, rather than treating the issue as all-or-nothing) running for (and in some cases winning) seats in state legislatures.

Given that the energy of the pro-life movement now seems centered on this kind of extremism, and that this development rides shotgun with the likely overturn of Roe v. Wade (which, incidentally, has been the work of the “pro-life establishment”), it stands to reason that the almost uniformly pro-choice congressional Democrats are horrified and alarmed.  

Heck, I am a pro-life Democrat (yes, there are a lot of us in the rank and file, even if Sen. Joe Manchin is now our lone representative on the national stage), and I am horrified and alarmed. Too many of my fellow pro-lifers just can’t seem to take “yes” (i.e., the overturning of Roe) for an answer. This makes them perfect antagonists for too many of my fellow Democrats, who seem excited to protect infanticide under the law in defiance of both basic morality and common sense, if it means that they win this round of the abortion wars.

It should horrify and alarm every rational person that the fight over abortion in America today seems like it is being waged by recalcitrant children seemingly most concerned with whether their side wins — not by adults who are fit to govern this big, diverse, complex nation, in which no one wins if either side unequivocally loses.

Sure, the abortion abolitionists have the simplicity of moral high ground on their side. Who does that heartbeat at six weeks belong to, if not an independent human being? But when approached with the kind of monistic focus that wins high school debate rounds but often doesn’t produce the same clarity in adult life, the moral high ground becomes both irrelevant and counterproductive.

It becomes irrelevant because abortions performed before 11 weeks gestation are most often effectuated with pills at home, not with medical instruments in an abortion clinic. How one could regulate omnipresent substances that can be purchased from dozens of online vendors and that are used for medical conditions unrelated to pregnancy, even if one wanted to, is unclear. Besides, many common substances can cause the loss of a pregnancy in those early, fragile weeks. Will red states ban tequila next? Will they make women take pregnancy tests to purchase second cups of dark roast coffee?

Meanwhile, it is counterproductive to the pro-life future that many pro-lifers are unwilling to acknowledge that what is essentially the induction of a miscarriage at eight weeks is so different in degree that it becomes a difference in kind from what is essentially the painful killing of a sentient, innocent human being at 18 weeks. This sends many reasonable, sympathetic people – this pro-life, Catholic mother of three included – careening away from the pro-life movement even as they believe in its fundamental tenets.

Yes, I hope that ever greater numbers of Americans come to understand that life does indeed begin – morally and scientifically – at conception. That’s part of why I state that I believe this, even in mostly progressive and secular circles.

Yet, I also understand (as should the professedly Christian abortion abolitionists) that we live in both a fallen, lower world and a big, pluralistic country. These realities combine to make maximization on any one good across the whole of the population usually impossible and always costly.

No, I do not believe, as my fellow Catholic President Biden seems to, that we should stand nearly alone among liberal democracies (and alongside fascist dictatorships) by living cheerfully in the seventh circle of hell, where babies born with disabilities (or without them) can be legally slaughtered in some cases even after birth. But neither do I think, as many of my fellow pro-lifers seem to, that we are going to create some heaven-on-earth utopia in which abortion is or could ever be unthinkable from the moment of fertilization.

The Puritans came to America in 1630 because the Church of England was too compromised for their liking. Four hundred years later, their spirit lives on in both sides of today’s debate over abortion. But at some point, even the strongest and most stubborn children have to grow up. Looking to the almost uniformly restrictive, yet pragmatic, abortion laws among more mature countries could be a start for this still-young nation.

Elizabeth Grace Matthew writes about culture, politics and religion for various publications, including America magazine and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Follow her on Twitter @ElizabethGMat.

Tags abortion Abortion debate abortion restriction Biden abortion policies Joe Manchin Roe v. Wade Roe vs. Wade

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