The Promise and Limits of Finding the Common Ground on Abortion

A common refrain among Catholics who believe that abortion should be legal is that “no one is pro-abortion.” That’s just not true. This is not a disagreement between culture warriors and those who prefer a different approach. It is between those who can accept reality and those who won’t. Some people simply have no moral qualms about aborting a child, just as some people had no problem with one human being owning another. There were pro-slavery tracts that defined it as a positive social good. And now, with the release of Katha Pollitt’s Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights and articles praising it, we are seeing similar positive affirmations of abortion’s positive role in society and the rejection of the idea that it is negative in any way.

Just look at the rhetoric being used:

They have landed us in the era of the “awfulization” of abortion, Pollitt writes, where even pro-choicers are “falling all over themselves” to use words like “thorny,” “vexed,” “complex,” and “difficult” instead of doing what they should be doing, which is saying out loud that abortion is a positive social good….

“Safe, legal and rare,” “Permit but discourage”—these updated slogans have left the pro-choice side advocating the neurotic position that you can have an abortion but only if you feel “really really bad about it,” Pollitt writes.

And here, as well:

Most people, no matter their politics, have absorbed some aspect of the right-wing narrative that abortions are uniformly harrowing and traumatic, when for many women they are brief events that leave no lasting mark….

The fact is that almost everyone probably knows someone who has had an abortion, and we all need to talk about it more honestly. This applies, most of all, to politicians who officially support reproductive rights and yet defend them in such sluggish and spiritless terms—think of Hillary Clinton’s characterization of abortion as a “sad, even tragic choice,” or John Kerry’s vow to make it “the rarest thing in the world.”….

They should be advocating for abortion as a fundamental, safe, and accessible medical option. The immorality, these representatives should make clear, is not in ending pregnancies, but in deepening inequality by denying poor women federal funding for legal abortion via the Hyde Amendment.

I am from the wing of the pro-life movement that refuses to call people pro-aborts or baby killers. When writing, I often use ‘pro-abortion rights,’ which is the standard term for those who aim to be objective when presenting facts in terms of identifying people who support legal access to abortion. In private conversations with supporters of legal abortion, it is not uncommon for me to use the term “pro-choice”, a term that I think is a fairly absurd euphemism, but the preferred language of those with whom I am trying to engage in dialogue. So my aim is not to demonize everyone who identifies as pro-choice or opposes the rights of unborn children.

It is merely to highlight the simple inaccuracy of the claim that no one is pro-abortion. Some people simply do not see abortion as a tragedy, let alone a morally questionable act. And the truth is that this extreme mentality is disproportionately concentrated in those with power, influence, and wealth. Key Democratic Party fundraisers and elites are far more likely to embrace “abortion on demand and without apology” than the average Democrat. These voices are also more common in the media and academia than among the public. That is why this extremism cannot simply be ignored.

A second important reason why recognizing what people actually believe matters is because it allows one to see who is open to dialogue and compromise. You cannot find common ground when it does not exist. If someone thinks abortion is a tragedy, but remains pro-abortion rights, opponents of abortion can still try to find ways to work together with this person to drive down the abortion rate. If someone sees it as a legitimate form of birth control to be used for any reason without any qualms, there is little likelihood of finding common ground.

I wish it was true that “no one is pro-abortion.” But it is not. If we want to work across the abortion divide to drive down the abortion rate, we must start by coming to grips with this reality. Only then will we be able to find dependable partners in assisting pregnant women and saving unborn lives.