Twelve boys and their adult coach trapped in a dank, oxygen-deprived cave in Thailand riveted the world’s attention for two weeks. Why, people ask at times like this, are we so focused on these individuals when half a million Rohingya refugee children are in danger of starving on the Bangladesh border, or when 400,000 Yemeni children are severely undernourished?
The answer is drama. We saw images of these particular boys crouched in that cave. We learned of the long odds against a successful rescue — their debilitated health after so many days without food and water, the sharp rocks, narrow passages, and nearly complete darkness of the cave, and waters that challenged even experienced divers (as the death of a Thai Navy seal underscored). Some of the boys didn’t even know how to swim, far less scuba dive.
As for the thousands of abused, terrorized, and starving children in the world, they remain mostly an abstraction. That is, for better or worse, the way our brains operate. We saw those boys as individuals and thus our sympathy was engaged.
Something similar is happening with regard to the way we see unborn babies. When Roe v. Wade was decided in 1973, ultrasound technology was not in common use. By the end of the 20th century, most pregnant women were having at least one scan. As Malcolm Nicolson, author of a history of ultrasound, told LiveScience, “Overwhelmingly, pregnant women expect to be scanned, and are moved and excited by seeing the fetus. And some women report not feeling pregnant until they’ve seen the ultrasound image.”
Once grainy and hard to interpret for non-experts, ultrasound images are now clear and unambiguous. They reveal that fetuses as young as 15 weeks old will move to avoid a bright light shined on the mother’s belly. They reveal fetuses placing their hands in front of their faces, palm out, sucking their thumbs, getting hiccups, and smiling. Some interpret these smiles as random muscle movements rather than true smiles since born babies rarely smile until six weeks old. But try telling the besotted parents who glimpse a smile on a sonogram that it means nothing. That’s the way we’re wired. Ultrasound is like those cameras in the cave. It reveals the humanity of those inside a dark, inaccessible place.
We are now poised to have the national debate on the legality of abortion that has been thwarted by the Supreme Court for 45 years. If Judge Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed, and if Roe v. Wade is overturned sometime in the next several years (a big if), individual states will be forced to confront the morality of terminating pregnancies instead of hiding behind the Supreme Court to manage our most fraught controversies.
Some Republican lawmakers who have been fundraising and campaigning on opposition to Roe will doubtless be revealed as towers of Jello when the issue is finally confronted. Despite recent hyperventilating about politicians’ enslavement to donors or “special interests,” the pedestrian reality is that they are much more in thrall to public opinion. And the public is conflicted. As polling analyst Karlyn Bowman has pointed out, the same Americans will say that they believe abortion to be murder, and that it should be a personal choice made by a woman and her doctor.
Most Americans favor restrictions on abortion like parental and spousal consent, limits on late term abortions, and also favor exceptions in cases of rape or incest.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, four states have laws on the books that would outlaw abortion if Roe were overturned. Another ten retain their pre-Roe abortion bans, obviously unenforced, on the books. Nine states affirm the right to abortion prior to viability or to protect the life or health of the mother.
If Roe were overturned, all of those laws and many more would be up for debate. How 50 state arguments would turn out is anyone’s guess, but even leaving the merits to one side, it would be a very healthy thing for our democracy to grapple with tough questions instead of bowing to the nine lawyers on the court. Even Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg acknowledged in 2013 that by taking the question out of the hands of legislatures (and thus of voters), the Supreme Court did a disservice to the nation. “That was my concern,” she said, “that the court had given opponents of access to abortion a target to aim at relentlessly. . . . My criticism of Roe is that it seemed to have stopped the momentum that was on the side of change.”
I believe that abortion is a moral wrong. But above all I believe that Americans deserve to be heard on the subject, and that is now a true possibility for the first time in decades.
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