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Abortion Policy: When and Why

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.

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Your Name

posted November 17, 2008 at 6:05 pm

“All in all, the abortion debate has shifted decisively, on both strategic and tactical grounds, against the RTL movement during this election year.”
No, it hasn’t at all!
Exit polling data makes it very clear that Obama won because of the economy and that voters were NOT making a decision on social issues like abortion.
Amazingly, despite a poor economy, a hugely unpopular incumbent president, a poor Republican presidential candidate who never excited his base and worried voters because of his age, and a GOP vice presidential candiddate who 60 percent of voters felt wasn’t qualifed to be president, Obama barely won most of the swing states that gave him his electoral college victory.
Without the economic crisis and the strong anti-Bush views (not based on abortion), Obama likely wouldn’t have won.
Getting to abortion specifically, a more accurate read of voters’ abortion views is found in a pol from Marist College weeks before the election.
The Marist College Institute of Public Opinion conducted a national survey between September 24 and October 3. (
It found some 60 percent of Americans say abortions should never be allowed or only in the rarest of circumstances, such as rape and incest, that constitute less than two percent of all abortions nationwide.
The Marist survey showed 13 percent say abortion should never be permitted, another 15 percent say abortions should only be allowed to save the life of the mother, and 32 percent say abortions should be allowed in that rare case and when the mother is a victim of rape or incest.
That’s a strong majority who oppose 98 percent of the abortions done every year.
Just 40 percent took one of three pro-abortion positions and only 8 percent agreed with Barack Obama’s position that abortions should be allowed any time during pregnancy for any reason.
There is no change in the fact that polls have been consistent for over a decade in saying that anywhere from 50-60 percent of Americans oppose most abortions.
CBS News, Gallup, Wirthline Worldwide, Marist, the polling company — all have shown this pro-life majority over the years.
And so Americans elected Obama but it had nothing to do with a shift to a pro-abortion position.

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Charles Cosimano

posted November 17, 2008 at 6:20 pm

When polls don’t reflect reality there is obviously something wrong with the wording of the question.
The simple truth from all the electoral results is that the overwhelming majority of Americans are pro-choice and will not tolerate any restriction on the right of their daughters and grandaughters to have have an abortion.
Now, from a personal point of view, nothing would please me more that pro-life fanatics attacking clinics and doctors because this congress might very well respond by criminalizing pro-life in its entirety.

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Ed Kilgore

posted November 17, 2008 at 8:30 pm

Reply to “Your name”:
The Marist poll you cite is certainly out of line with virtually every other measurement of opinion on this subject, but it’s also irrelevant to the point I was making.
The big setback to the anti-abortion forces in this election was the loss of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to secure a president and a Senate that could appoint and confirm additional Justices to overturn Roe. If, as anticipated, Obama is able to appoint younger successors to three aging pro-Roe Justices, we’ll be looking at a Court where the next several retirements would probably come from the anti-Roe side. In other words, the rock may have fatally rolled back down the hill. And even if the Marist “pro-life” numbers were doubled, there’s no way around Roe to enact serious abortion restrictions, and no way to overturn Roe without a change in the Court.
Part of what I was really trying to get at in my post was that tactical support for relatively minor abortion restrictions by RTLers may now flag. After all, to a serious RTL activist, banning late-term abortions is meaningless if they are replaced by early-term abortions or “abortifacient” methods of birth control. The “when” and “why” issues that seem to matter to a lot of Americans are completely uncompelling if you belive a fertilized ovum is a human being who should be endowed with full individual rights. RTL support for such restrictions is incredibly insincere, and that has to have a psychological effect over time.
Ed Kilgore

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posted November 17, 2008 at 10:29 pm

While overturning Roe would have been legally tidy, realistically, it would not have solved what the more serious pro-life strategists see as the major problem: abortion isn’t about woman’s reproductive freedom as much as it’s a tool of political control based upon exploitation of women, their circumstances and a guilt/shame complex. Most people who defend abortion-choice do not do so because they find terminating a human pregnancy is a life-enhancing experience. They rationalize away the deliberate effort to kill a human being – their own offspring for numerous self-centered reasons.
Unsurprisingly, you repeatedly propagandize using a non-sensical term, no doubt picked up from “pro-abortion” literature, by referring to a “fertilized ovum” which redefines a zygote, or blastocyst as some sort of specially endowed egg. That’s scientifically inaccurate and disingenuous – as though the essential portion of the sperm has simply ceased to exist. That’s not the case at all.
From fundamentals of Anatomy and Physiology 7th edition by Frederic H. Martini:
“After oocyte activation and completion of meiosis, the nuclear material remaining within the ovum reorganizes as the female pronucleus. While these changes are under way the nucleus of the spermatozoon swells, and as it forms the male pronucleus (the rest of the sperm breaks down). The male pronucleus then migrates toward the center of the cell, and the spindle fibers form. The two pronuclei then fuse in the process called amphimixis. The cell is now a zygote that contains the normal complement of 46 chromosomes, and fertilization is complete. This is the “moment of conception.”
When the process of amphimixis is complete, you have a self-organizing human being. As a zygote, it’s a human being. It exists. It is flesh of it’s parents, human beings. Except for size, level of development, environment and dependency upon it’s mother, he’s just like you and I, because we were once zygotes too.
What you don’t realize is that the bright line of abortion rights has already moved outside the womb with something called induced labor abortion. It is practiced more often then you can imagine because after 16 weeks bones calcify and cause problems during D&E’s. When a baby is delivered for the express purposes of killing the child, then it’s not a matter of “terminating a pregnancy”.
You really should look into these matters.

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Asinus Gravis

posted November 18, 2008 at 12:26 pm

Chris, according to your misinterpretation of the textbook quotation, it would seem that the squirrels in my yard have been extraordinarily busy lately burying some oak trees, and eathing other oak trees. What a delight it is to see them with those oak trees firmly held between their front paws nibbling on them, while periodically looking around as if for the thunderstroke that will strike them dead for their rash act of herbiside.

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Marian Neudel

posted November 18, 2008 at 2:05 pm

I think what most Americans really believe about abortion is that the fetus, especially before what used to be called “quickening,” is not a human being, but it’s close enough to it that we should not destroy it for trivial or no reasons. Like most ordinary human beings, we also mostly believe that if I or somebody close to me wants an abortion, her reasons are probably NOT trivial or nonexistent. We want abortion to be safe, legal, rare, and closeted.

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Your Name

posted November 19, 2008 at 11:59 am

Barack Obama was absolutely right with “it’s above my pay grade” when asked when life began.____It’s clear that there are a lot of different “beliefs” around, no clear cut line on which everyone can agree, even among theologians.____The Catholic position used to be that we do not interfere, in any way, with reproduction. I’m not sure where they stand now on birth control. THey seem to not advertize their opposition to in-vitro fertilization, which makes me wonder if this is for political reasons. ____My own sense is that if the sacredness of life were truly taught and lived, abortion would become part of a much larger effort, and extremely rare. The value of human life would extend well beyond the womb.

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posted November 21, 2008 at 9:27 pm

Am very glad Obama might have the chance to replace 3 judges on the US Supreme Court. Is good, as Roe V Wade needs to stay in place. The conservatives really that all abortions will stop if it became once again illegal? They are dreamers if they think that. Women have always known how to terminate a pregnancy. Women should always have the right to a safe, clean termination if they find that is what is necssary.

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posted November 21, 2008 at 9:31 pm

Word addition: “The conservations really THINK that all abortions will stop if it once again became illegal?”

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Michael Jace

posted December 4, 2008 at 1:37 pm

If I hadn’t seen your banner at the top of the page proclaiming this was some type of religious community I would have thought I was at the dailykos. Would you consider Catholic Cardinals to be delusional? And if so would that judgement be based on the word of God or the opinion of men? If it’s the opinion of men who is to say which man is right? Because multiple Cardinals have proclaimed that your position of Obama being pro life is delusional.
In your article you fail to mention the FOCA. The Freedom of Choice Act would eliminate every restriction on abortion nationwide and would eliminate state laws on parental involvement, on partial birth abortion, and on all other protections. The FOCA would also compel taxpayer funding of abortions and force faith-based hospitals and healthcare facilities to perform abortions. IF Obama signs the FOCA as he promised to do during his campaign The Catholic Church has promised to close all their hospitals to avoid being forced to perform abortions? You still think Obama is pro life?
Also your section regarding embryonic stem cell research is disingenuous at best. You fail to mention that given the current state of research today, it is by no means yet foreseeable, whether any treatments from embryonic stem cell research can be realized BUT adult stem research has already provided visible and measurable benefits.
In reading this article and going through this site I find very little evidence of God or Christianity. I see the words pasted throughout but see very little evidence that He has much to do with any of this. What I do get loud and clear is a contempt that borders on hatred for anyone who holds traditional values. What I do see is a successful political organization but I don’t see God and unfortunately a lot of people are being confused and misinformed by this site. Congratulations on your success.

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