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Opinion Alabama shows we need a different abortion dialogue

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signs into law the state’s new abortion ban. (Alabama Governor Office Handout/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

It’s instructive that Alabama handed the antiabortion movement a great victory by passing the most restrictive ban in the country — and Republican politicians who regularly tout themselves as pro-life didn’t like it.

Abortion is cast by its opponents as a “nonnegotiable” question. Yet it turns out to be very negotiable and, indeed, a matter of “personal belief.”

Thus did House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) say he opposes the Alabama law because it “goes further than I believe” by failing to include exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel was right there with him. “Personally, I would have the exceptions,” McDaniel told CNN. “That’s my personal belief.”

And President Trump, the opportunist in chief on abortion, weighed in late Saturday night with tweets in which he declared himself “strongly Pro-Life” while endorsing “the three exceptions - Rape, Incest and protecting the life of the mother.” And he inadvertently underscored how this was really all about his own reelection by telling his partisans: “We must stick together and Win for Life in 2020.”

Deputy editorial page editor Ruth Marcus and columnist Megan McArdle debate the legal merits and value of keeping the Supreme Court decision. (Video: Adriana Usero/The Washington Post)

Of course the Alabama abortion law is outrageously extreme. But you cannot fault the consistency of the Alabama legislators who supported it. If abortion is murder, it’s murder. I suppose you can have gradations on murder charges — first or second degree, say, or voluntary manslaughter — but that’s not what McCarthy and McDaniel were talking about. Can they really think abortion is murder if they believe it’s okay some of the time?

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Writing on the conservative website the Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last explained all the agitation on the right by calling the Alabama law “the most damaging development to the pro-life movement in decades.”

Wow! Why so? “If you want to end the abortion regime, you don’t get rid of it by outlawing abortion,” he explains. “There is a teaching effect to the law, but it’s not strong enough to support a law which does not have the consent of a large percentage of the citizenry. You get rid of abortion by moving public opinion. Which is hard. It’s incremental. It’s small steps.”

Pause on Last’s thought — you don’t get rid of abortion by outlawing it . But the entire thrust of the contemporary right-to-life movement is to get rid of abortion by outlawing it. Even if it had included the exceptions, the Alabama law would still outlaw almost all abortions.

The dirty secret is that one reason supposedly pro-life politicians support the exceptions is because they poll well. But if your stand on abortion is based on a deep moral conviction, polling should have nothing to do with it.

Which is why I am among those — and I think there are a lot of us — who despise the way abortion is discussed in our politics. What is made to sound like serious moral concern is so often just posturing based on self-interested calculation. Consider that our president executed a 180-degree reversal on the issue once he decided he desperately needed the votes of abortion’s foes.

It’s long past time for a more discerning dialogue on abortion that would begin by respecting the ethical commitments of the opposing sides.

Whether or not you believe that the fetus is a human life from the moment of conception, a human being is the result at the end of nine months of pregnancy. So it shouldn’t be hard for even the most pro-choice person to understand why those who oppose abortion see it as a matter of overwhelming moral importance.

At the same time, only women bear the physical burdens of pregnancy and our society, as currently constituted, demands far more of mothers than fathers. So it should not be hard for even the most ardent pro-lifers to understand why women who advocate abortion rights see control over their own reproduction as inextricably linked to gender equality.

But opponents of abortion must also acknowledge this: Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop abortion . It does, however, make abortions unsafe for women who have them. A study by the Guttmacher Institute found that there were 22.3 million abortions between 2010 and 2014 in countries where abortion is highly restricted — and 74 percent of those abortions were unsafe.

I share the right-to-life movement’s desire to reduce the number of abortions. But I also agree with the pro-choice movement that making abortion illegal or virtually impossible to obtain will only place women’s lives in jeopardy.

A better way forward would start by reducing the incidence of abortion through better family-planning programs. We can also commit our country to giving poor women who bring children into the world the help they need after giving birth. The abortion rate is six times higher among poor women than among affluent women. This is not because the rich have more moral qualms. The poor, unlike the wealthy, live with the fear that they will not be able to give their children the life they deserve. And if we truly honor the responsibilities mothers take on — in deeds, not just words — we can make the rules surrounding work more family-friendly.

The bottom line: If you truly want to defend the right to life, support women and lift up the poor.

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David Von Drehle: This month’s abortion laws are anything but conservative

Dana Milbank: Conservatives’ junk science is having real consequences

Catherine Rampell: Can corporations save us from the attack on reproductive rights?

Megan McArdle: The Supreme Court should have never intervened on abortion

Molly Roberts: Why it’s time to retire the Handmaids