One of the most animated discussions involving faith communities that’s underway in the wake of November 4 is about abortion policy. To put it simply, the conservative drive to take a first step towards a national abortion ban via an overturning of Roe v. Wade by the U.S. Supreme Court has now stalled, perhaps for a long, long time, particularly if Barack Obama has the anticipated opportunity to replace three pro-Roe Justices with younger counterparts (barring major Republican Senate gains in 2010, that seems very likely).
The proposition that an Obama administration would be objectively “pro-life” by reducing the actual number of abortions through better health care and aggressive contraceptive policies will not cut much ice with Right-to-Lifers who view anything like current levels of abortions as equivalent to the Holocaust, and who typically regard many methods of contraception as representing chemically or mechanically induced abortions (not just “Plan B” but the most often-utilized regular “pills” which may destabilize the implantation of fertilized ova).
So where will the abortion debate move next?
One theory in the RTL community is that an aggresively pro-choice administration will help galvinize anti-abortion sentiment. But that may depend on a delusional view of public sentiment on this issue.
The most immediate issue will be Obama administration policy on embryonic stem-cell research. The Bush policy of banning government support for such research has been famously unpopular, even among many Republican, and some self-consciously pro-life, voters. So long as Obama links a change in policy to an explicit requirement that donors of the frozen embryos from which stem cells are derived certify that they will otherwise be destroyed without any research benefits, then it’s hard to understand why this issue will hurt him politically. But the pushback to such a policy change, from such intelligent observers as Ross Douthat, indicates that the RTL community has not yet gotten a whiff of the coffee.
Here is the real deal on abortion policy: activists on both sides of the abortion debate understand yet rarely acknowledge that a critical plurality of Americans don’t much like abortion but care a whole lot about when and why abortions occurr. That plurality position, especially from the point of view of anti-abortion activists, is morally and metaphysically incoherent; if a fertlized ovum is a full human being with an immortal soul, and putative constitutional rights, then it doesn’t much matter when or why it is aborted; the result is homicide.
The RTL movement’s focus over the last decade on restricting late-term abortions has thus been morally dishonest, but politically smart. But they’ve missed the connection between “when” and “why” concerns. Much of the popular support for so-called “partial-birth” abortion bans has flowed from a common-sense concern that unwanted pregnancies could and should have been avoided in the first place through birth-control methods that many RTL activists view as abortifacients, or through earlier-term clinical abortions. In other words, from a RTL point-of-view, the prevailing popular opinion is that women seeking late-term abortions should have instead committed homicide earlier, through either pharmaceutical or surgical means.
But there’s still another disconnect between RTL and popular opinion that goes beyond “when” questions: “why” questions. While public opinion research on this subject is terribly insufficient, I think it’s plain that Americans care as much about why as when abortions are undertaken. Abortion-as-birth-control is unpopular (again, excepting the RTL presumption that many birth-control methods actually involve abortions). So, too, are “convenience” abortions: those undertaken for “lifestyle” reasons. But short of mandatory sodium pentathol doses for applicants for abortion services, it’s very hard to legislate against the kinds of abortions that a majority of Americans would actually want to prohibit. And among the more objective measurements of intent, the “health exception” for otherwise objectionable abortions is actually very popular, as measured by polls, and more recently, by the negative reaction to John McCain’s sneering reference to the “health exception” in a debate with Barack Obama.
All in all, the abortion debate has shifted decisively, on both strategic and tactical grounds, against the RTL movement during this election year. I personally worry that some hard-core anti-abortion activists will embrace extra-legal extremism. I hope instead they will embrace theological and moral nuances on the subject, and maybe even listen to their opponents.