As someone who goes to political dinner parties on both sides of the Atlantic, I have the following two experiences on a regular basis:
American Liberal: “Mr. O’Sullivan, our American obsession with abortion is so embarrassing. Why can’t we be like Europe? They’re much more sophisticated. It’s not even a political issue there. Please pass the blue sweetener.”
Myself: “Well, that may be because the laws in most European countries are much stricter than those in the U.S. Women have no constitutional right to an abortion. In Britain, for instance, except in cases of severe handicap, abortions are not permitted after the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy.”
American Liberal: “What! That’s barbaric.”
European Sophisticate: “My dear John, you Americans are too absurd. This sexual abstinence, your fundamentalist Christians, all this political fuss about abortion. How do you explain such an obsession? This Armagnac is delicious, no?”
Myself: “Yes. Well, that may be because the courts have ruled that there can be no restrictions on a woman’s right to an abortion. An abortion can be performed on a fully viable fetus–even, in the case of partial-birth abortion, as the baby is leaving the womb.”
European sophisticate: “What! That’s barbaric.”
In other words what people think about abortion is strongly influenced by what they know. But the ignorance of most people, including usually well-informed people like my dinner-party companions, about a topic that has been as controversial for as long as abortion does seem to call for explanation.
Ramesh Ponnuru provides one in his new book, The Party of Death , about the politics of abortion, stem-cell research, and cloning. He deals, first, with the nature of people’s ignorance. Most Americans, let alone most European sophisticates, have no idea that the landmark Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, establishing a constitutional right to abortion, means that a woman can obtain an abortion right up to the moment of her baby’s birth. When this claim is advanced, they point out that Roe specifically insists that states may regulate abortion in the second trimester and prohibit it in the third trimester.
But Roe also states that states can neither ban nor regulate abortion in cases where a doctor certifies that a woman’s life or health would be adversely affected. And in a second Supreme Court judgment, Doe v. Bolton, delivered that same day, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that the doctor’s medical judgment should be exercised “in the light of all factors–physical, emotional, psychological, familial, and the woman’s age–relevant to the well-being of the patient.” In brief: unfettered choice posing as a clinical decision.
Roe and Doe together allow a woman and her doctor to have a legal abortion for any reason at any time before birth and arguably even during birth. The courts have confirmed this in countless cases but especially in those striking down state and federal laws to prohibit or regulate “partial birth abortion”–i.e., the procedure in which a baby is partly delivered and, while in the birth canal, has his or her skull crushed and his or her brains sucked out.
Most Americans don’t know this is legal. If they did, they would oppose it. We reasonably infer this from the 2003 Gallup poll that 68 percent of Americans thought that abortion should be “generally illegal” in the second trimester, let alone the third. This popular opposition has grown slowly but steadily for at least the last decade.
Today the single most accurate way of describing the opinion of the American people is as follows: “Most Americans oppose most abortions.” On the one hand they favor such regulations as parental notification laws and information about alternatives; on the other they insist that a woman should have a right to an abortion in cases of incest, rape or a genuine health threat.
Their position is a great deal more decent and moral than either the law or the “pro-choice” campaign–and more balanced too.
But this apparent balance conceals a heavy weight of doubt and ambiguity. Except for extreme pro-choicers, Americans seem distinctly uneasy about abortion per se. They are unhappy talking about it, not anxious to learn more about the practice, eager in fact to remain ignorant. What is the source of this moral queasiness?
If the thing in the womb is indeed a baby, then the debates over restrictions and exceptions are manifestly secondary. As Ponnuru outlines clearly in a book that is consistently fair-minded and closely-argued, “the fundamental question in dispute . . . [becomes] . . . whether all human beings have a right not to be killed . . . [or] . . . whether we accept the existence of a category of human non-persons.”
When technologies increasingly enable parents to see their baby in the womb at ever-earlier stages and thus to recognize it as a baby and not as “a clump of cells,” they are faced with a choice on which the usual regulations offer no guidance. They must choose either to kill or to let live. All debates come back to that central choice.
More and more Americans, informed by technology, choose to let live. That is why the number of abortions is going down. Some Americans who find a pregnancy inconvenient choose to believe in the existence of a category of human non-persons. Most Americans, since they are not compelled to face an immediate choice by pregnancy, fall back upon the strategy of not learning too much about it.
After all, they can imagine circumstances in which an abortion might seem necessary for their own lives, and they don’t want to foreclose that option by discovering it to be morally intolerable to them.
A very similar evasion lay behind the extraordinary and otherwise inexplicable outrage of liberal America at the campaign to keep Terri Schiavo alive. As Christopher Caldwell pointed out in the Financial Times, if doctors and medical ethicists were watched too closely, they might be discovered snuffing out the last years of senile Uncle Fred as well as of those of young accident victims such as Ms. Schiavo. Such a discovery would force an intolerable choice upon us–either paying to keep Uncle Fred alive indefinitely or agreeing to his euthanasia and feeling bad about ourselves.
In these circumstances, ignorance was bliss and those who threatened to disturb it were excoriated.
But if Americans can be as hypocritical as anyone on these “life issues,” what explains the vitality and influence of the pro-life movement in the U.S. almost alone in the world? Ponnuru thinks that Americans, being the heirs of a revolution grounded in moral truths (“We hold these truths . . . “), are driven by their public moral logic to be more tender towards the rights of the helpless than Europeans sunk in a moral realpolitik.
But there are reasons for doubting that. Ponnuru himself concedes in detail that abortion in Europe faces more legal restrictions than in the U.S. (Hence the surprise of European sophisticates when they learn of the much looser U.S. laws.)
That is not the whole picture. Though more restricted in law, abortion in Europe has in practice developed along lines almost identical to the U.S. experience: By massively expanding “exceptions” for the health of mother, doctors and courts created something very like abortion on demand. Just recently in Britain, for instance, the courts allowed an abortion because the fetus was diagnosed with a cleft palate even though such a disability is now curable. And expectant mothers routinely come under strong medical pressure to abort fetuses diagnosed (sometimes inaccurately) as having Down Syndrome.
Just as the Europeans followed the U.S. pattern in developing an effective right to abortion on demand, so they now seem to be following America in feeling increasing doubt and ambiguity over that right.
The Downs Syndrome and cleft-palate cases, given sympathetic media publicity for the first time, have led to popular pressure for a tightening of the law to ban abortions where the fetus is viable outside the womb. The London Sunday Telegraph said in a recent editorial: “The elimination of abortion is not a practical possibility. Its reduction, however, is a moral necessity.” MPs are considering the introduction of non-government bills to achieve that.
If both halves of Western civilization are undergoing the same moral evolution on this issue, that may tell us something important. But what? Are they perhaps responding to the same moral intuition as events and scientific advances force the abortion issue on our regretful attention?
If so, that would be be, er, ironic. Some of Ponnuru’s critics have argued that he stuck too closely to scientific and moral logic in his arguments, ignoring the vital role of moral intuition. Peter Berkowitz in the Wall Street Journal argued, for instance, that Ponnuru’s argument flew in the face of a “complex intuition that seems to underlie the American ambivalence: Invisible to the naked eye, lacking body or brain, feeling neither pleasure nor pain, radically dependent for life support, the early embryo, though surely part of the human family, is distant and different enough from a flesh-and-blood newborn that when the early embryo’s life comes into conflict with other precious human goods or claims, the embryo’s life may need to give way.”
But moral intuitions are warnings rather than instructions. Only very rarely do they tell us what we must do. Generally, they alert us to the fact that we are about to do something wrong. We have taken a false turn in our moral reasoning and need to reconsider either our premises or our chain of reasoning. In order to be sure of our future ground, we have to resort to what Berkowitz called “the reductive lens of natural science . . . the bright light of pure reason . . . the cold heights of abstract theory” while listening carefully for the warning ping of a moral intuition.
In this case moral intuition has been pretty consistent through the evolution of the abortion debate. It has always glimpsed that the important point was whether the embryo or fetus was a human person with some or all human rights deserving of our respect. Scientific and moral reasoning–cold, abstract, and reductive–then sought to decide what intuition could not determine unaided, namely when the thing in the womb had what human qualities and rights. The power of Ponnuru’s book is that he pushes the point at which human personhood begins back about as far as possible in the reproductive process by such forms of reasoning.
Physical science has come to his aid meanwhile by presenting new evidence to the intuition that confirms his reasoning in the form of images of the baby in the womb and viability outside it at earlier and earlier stages of pregnancy. These scientific advances are changing attitudes on both sides of the Atlantic–the more so because the moral intuitions are being guided by new scientific information into conformity with moral reasoning rather than in opposition to it. Europe might even move more quickly than the U.S. in the direction of protecting children in the womb since its courts have less power than American courts to entrench past errors.
And where European sophisticates go, angels may fear to tread. But will American liberals be very far behind?
—John O’Sullivan is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington and editor-at-large of National Review. He is currently writing a book on Reagan, Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. A version of this first appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times and is reprinted with permission.