The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion What the conservative arguments against abortion get all wrong

Abortion rights and antiabortion protesters outside the Supreme Court on Dec. 1 in D.C. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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The leading cause of death for children in the United States is motor vehicle accidents. A study by the SWOV Institute for Road Safety Research in the Netherlands determined that virtually all car-related fatalities occur at speeds above 40 kilometers per hour, or about 25 mph.

In other words, the leading cause of death in children could be eliminated overnight by requiring a simple device on every automobile to cap its speed at 25 mph.

Of course, that’s never going to happen. Such an idea doesn’t even come up in conversation, let alone as legislation. I mention it only to illustrate a rather chilly fact about coexisting in human society. Even in matters of life and death — even when the lives belong to innocent children — society weighs protection of life with other, competing interests.

Indeed, some government regulatory agencies, including the Environmental Protection Agency, are required to make formal calculations of preventable deaths compared with identifiable costs of preventing those deaths. Presumably, if the cost is too high, the lives will not be protected. Such choices are made all the time by governments. In a very real sense, such choices are a prime justification for governments.

We are surrounded by hard choices constantly: preventable disease that is too taxing to prevent, identified risks that we choose not to eliminate. Ask the men who were drafted for the Vietnam War whether government always protects life from violence.

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Writer Ross Douthat nevertheless asserted in the New York Times recently that, “at the core of our legal system, you will find a promise that human beings should be protected from lethal violence. That promise is made in different ways by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; it’s there in English common law, the Ten Commandments and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

A more accurate statement would be that protection of human beings from violence is an important value weighed against other values in our system of laws — and that the process of weighing can create difficult, even agonizing, moral choices.

Marc Thiessen

counterpointWatch out, Democrats. The abortion ruling may help Republicans.

Douthat’s claim was in service of another fallacy: “A striking thing about the American abortion debate is how little abortion itself is actually debated,” he declared, as if the past 50 years never happened. In truth, abortion has been debated so thoroughly, so effectively, for so long that the crux has been accurately reduced to pithy essentials. On one hand, “abortion stops a beating heart.” On the other, “my body, my choice.” It’s all there, ready to be unpacked.

Shooting doctors and screaming at frightened girls ill served the antiabortion movement — which has turned to using police and legislative powers to force people to carry pregnancies to term. The new rhetorical style is a pseudointellectual approach, as Americans observed Wednesday, when the Supreme Court took up the matter of abortion anew. Douthat’s curtain-raising essay was typical, as were several attention-grabbing statements from the bench.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. gravely noted — as if the idea had just then catalyzed within his massive brain — that a developing fetus has a potentially cognizable legal interest in its future. Actually, this interest is discussed extensively throughout the Supreme Court’s abortion opinions going back to Roe v. Wade in 1973, when Alito was 22. It is the essential fact underlying Roe’s trimester analysis.

Justice Amy Coney Barrett didn’t pretend to discover a lightning bolt. She suggested instead that the issue has magically gone away: Women are more integrated into the workforce than they were 50 years ago and needn’t worry about taking time to have a baby. As for pregnant people who don’t have tenure or lifetime appointments — overwhelmed 13-year-olds, say, and the recent high school grads struggling to begin a life that will eventually strengthen them to be good parents — well, after a few months of physical pain and exertion, can’t they just drop their babies at the nearest police station?

In the long term, the end of legal abortion in large parts of the country would hurt the right and help the left by breaking the liberal addiction to court-ordered victories. Having lost the courts, progressives will turn to the grass roots, where sustainable victories are grown. But that’s the long term.

In the near term, where most people live their lives, unwelcome pregnancies will continue to happen. Pregnant individuals and their families will continue to wrestle with moral choices, will continue to weigh alternative futures, will continue to balance the interests of the fetus against the person carrying the fetus when those interests are all too murky for perfect knowledge.

The new court majority will do what it will do. It’s unseemly, however, for the majority and its friends to pretend a difficult issue has suddenly been made simple, and they’re just trying to help us see.