In the year since the Supreme Court restored abortion policy to the status of a state’s political choice, the issue that for some 50 years poisoned political discourse has actually become ameliorative. By overturning Roe v. Wade, the court ignited a nationwide debate about a subject that, until last June, had seemed incompatible with a temperate politics of splittable differences. The result has been a partial healing of the nation’s civic culture.
Democratic persuasion demands patience regarding the meandering path of public opinion, which often changes in fits and starts. The 11 months of political fermentation since the overturning of Roe have revealed the necessity of politics, which is the business of accommodating differences.
Republicans ascribed their 2022 midterm election disappointments partly to voters’ misgivings about Republican aspirations to severely restrict abortion. This year, political anxieties have caused Republican opponents of abortion rights to trim their sails: Restricting abortions to within 15 weeks of gestation (when more than 93 percent of abortions occur) is now discussable, even palatable.
The loudest voices on both sides have been loud throughout the five decades when voters’ voices did not matter because the judiciary rather than legislatures made abortion policy. But the loudest voices have never been the most numerous. An ambivalent majority is permanently troubled by the irresolvable tension between a woman’s claim of personal autonomy and the inviolability of personhood.
A life that is human begins at conception. This is a tenet not of abstruse theology but of elementary biology. This life, with a distinctive genetic imprint, will reach adulthood, absent a natural mishap or a deliberate intervention to end it. The vexing question is: When, if ever, should personhood be ascribed to that life, with legal protections enveloping it, regardless of the woman’s preference?
Robert Nisbet (1913-1996), an eminent definer of 20th-century conservatism, writing a few years after Roe, supported abortion rights: “The surest sign of despotism in history is the state’s supersession of the family’s authority over its own.” But he regretted what the 1973 decision did in radicalizing crusaders for and against abortion rights, and making a middle ground difficult to define, let alone occupy.
Abortion, he said, has been “bathed in the pitiless glare of the apocalyptic,” with some abortion rights advocates deeming abortion “desirable merely as a symbol of woman’s escape at last from the tyranny of family role.” And some abortion opponents saying that after sperm and egg unite, any intentional termination of gestation is the moral equivalent of murder.
In the year of states’ debates that the court ignited last June, an American majority seems to have reached apocalypse fatigue. And the majority has begun to find its voice.
Many common-sensical Americans probably are visual rather than philosophical concerning abortion. They share this much of Nisbet’s thinking: To refer to a fetus very early in gestation as a “baby” is, Nisbet said, akin referring “to an acorn as an oak tree.” And abortion thinking has been shaped by technology as well as by philosophy: Improved technology provides strikingly clear images of 15-week-old fetuses that look like babies. Many Americans say: Draw a line near there so we can turn to other matters.
Turning will be easier for some than for others. Addressing a right-to-life gala last weekend, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis emphatically reaffirmed — and more firmly impaled himself on — the bill he signed banning abortion after six weeks, a point at which many women do not know they are pregnant. He called it “landmark” legislation that he was “happy” to sign.
This might please a plurality of those Iowans who will participate in their state’s Republican nominating caucuses (perhaps 8 percent of the eligible voters in a state with less than 1 percent of the nation’s population). But in America’s suburbs, where recent national elections have been decided, DeSantis’s happiness might not be infectious.
Most Americans consider banning all or almost all abortions extreme. A perhaps larger majority believes that it is at least as extreme to permit abortions of viable fetuses (those able to survive outside the womb) up to the end of the third trimester, when abortion is indistinguishable from infanticide.
Displaying their situational ethics, progressives, most of whom are abortion rights extremists, are denouncing as “imperial” the Supreme Court that surrendered custody of the abortion issue. But the court, by doing so, might have put the nation on a winding but ascending road to widespread adoption of abortion policies that split hitherto unsplittable differences.