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The political debate on abortion has for several decades focused on the wrong moral question: Does life begin at conception? Those who believe it does, oppose abortion. Those who don’t, or think the question is unanswerable, believe the pregnant woman should make that choice.
Yet consider this statistical couplet. According to a 2007 survey commissioned by a progressive think tank called Third Way, 69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the “taking of a human life,” but 72 percent believe it should be legal.

Let that soak in. Most people think abortion is taking a human life and yet favor the procedure being legal. How grotesque! Are we Americans utterly immoral?
Actually, what the data proclaim is something that politicians and activists can’t: Most Americans believe there are gradations of life. Some living things are more alive than others, and so the later in the pregnancy it gets, the more uncomfortable people become with the idea of ending it. But in reality they believe both that a life stirs very early on and that a one-week-old embryo is more “killable” than a nine-month-old fetus. For them, determining whether “life” begins at conception really doesn’t determine anything.
A handful of surveys get at this. According to a 2003 Gallup poll, 29 percent of the people surveyed believed abortion should be illegal in the first three months of pregnancy, 68 percent thought it should be illegal in the second trimester, and 84 percent in the third trimester.
Many women who have had abortions wished they could have the procedure earlier. In a 2006 survey of 1,209 abortion patients by the Guttmacher Institute (a pro-choice but widely respected nonprofit group that researches reproductive health issues), 58 percent said they would have preferred to have done it earlier–including 91 percent of those who had abortions in their second.
Surely part of the reason for this preference is that later abortions are more complicated, dangerous and expensive. But that’s not all. Consider the reasons offered to researchers in that study by this 21-year-old, low-income woman:

“I do [wish I had had the abortion earlier] because when I came here last Friday and they told me, like, ‘You’re in your second trimester,’ and I’m like…’Goodness, now what am I going to do?’ Because I didn’t want to go into my second trimester, because it’s like, basically, really becoming a baby, you know. I just really didn’t want to do it that late.”

She did have the abortion. Her failure to get the abortion right away didn’t lead her to carry the pregnancy to term but rather to end it-uncomfortably-when her fetus was, in her own eyes, “basically, really becoming a baby.”
The basic hunch that what’s growing in the womb becomes more human as days roll by comports with what we know, or think we know, about human development. An embryo is a clump of undifferentiated cells. At week six, the heart is no bigger than a poppy seed but has begun beating. At 12 weeks, the fetus is just 2.5 inches long, but can wiggle toes and fingers; the brain is developing. At week 20, the fetus is exercising its lungs. At 22 weeks, some babies could survive if delivered prematurely. And any time in the third trimester, they’re practicing breathing, listening and reacting to stimuli, doing many things a post-birth baby does but doing it indoors instead of out.
This belief that life within the womb is on a continuum is not explicitly reflected in the political debates about abortion. We debate whether we should have parental notification–not when we should have it. We question politicians on whether they’d provide government funding for abortion, not ever asking whether subsidies should be provided for early abortions but not late.
The debate has evolved that way in part because of the fundamentally religious nature of the pro-life activist position. The essential point about the position of pro-life activists– including the Catholic Church and conservative evangelicals–is not that they believe “life” begins at conception. It’s that they believe a life that God creates on Day One is morally equivalent to a life at month one or month nine or 18 years. “The whole point of pro-life reasoning,” says Charmaine Yoest of Americans United for Life, “is to encourage people toward intellectual, ethical and scientific consistency: A life is a life, no matter how small.”
Meanwhile, many pro-choice leaders have embraced a mirror image of this approach. The woman has a right to choose, whether the pregnancy is in its first day, first month or ninth month.
Even the moderate new coalition emphasizing “abortion reduction” doesn’t fully operate from the same premise as most Americans. President Obama and a collection of religious Democrats have emphasized the need to reduce unintended pregnancies and the number of abortions, not the timing.
Instead, an abortion policy matching the values implicit in the polls would focus less on rights or numbers and more on timing. Success would be measured on the basis of moving abortions earlier in the gestational cycle–even if that conceivably means more overall abortions. It would be not about whether, how or how many, but when. Not “safe, legal and rare” as Bill Clinton once said, but “safe, legal and early.”
Do Pro-Life Policies Lead to Later Abortions?
Pro-lifers work diligently to reduce the number of abortions through a variety of means. But what’s never acknowledged is that some policies they advocate actually push abortions later into the cycle, ensuring that fetuses have more time to develop–at which point they’re sometimes aborted.

For instance, most pro-lifers oppose “emergency contraception,” or Plan B. These pills are taken after intercourse when someone fears she might get pregnant. But many women who don’t take emergency contraception will end up getting regular medical abortions later on. At least one study by the Guttmacher Institute found that in the year 2000, emergency contraception in the U.S. prevented 50,000 medical abortions.
Or take RU-486, also known as mifepristone. Pro-lifers oppose this because it is an abortifacient, causing an embryo to abort soon after fertilization. But in Europe, where RU-486 is more widely available, studies showed its proliferation prompted an increase in the proportion of early abortions compared with later abortions.
Parental notification also sounds reasonable if your goal is reducing the overall number of abortions. But these policies may have a secondary effect: increasing the number of abortions that happen later.

The 2006 Guttmacher survey found that among women who said they wished they could have had their abortions earlier, the most common reason they cited for delay was that it took a long time to make arrangements. Therefore, efforts to reduce the number of abortion clinics, cut off government aid to women who want abortions, or otherwise delay the decision may reduce the number of overall abortions but also make it more likely that those abortions that do occur will happen later. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, a requirement in Mississippi that a woman wait 24 hours between realizing she’s pregnant and an abortion decision led to both a decline in the overall number of abortions and a rise in abortions performed after 12 weeks.
If a one day old is morally equivalent to a nine month old, then strategies of delay make great moral sense. Indeed, they figure, women who wait may come to think of the fetus as more human–a key reason why pro-life forces are pushing for greater use of ultrasound. And if a woman delays decision-making but ends up still having an abortion, there’s no additional moral harm; a murder occurred a few months later than it would have, but as part of a larger strategy to reduce the overall number. But if you believe that the later an abortion happens, the more fully human the fetus has become then a strategy of delay is immoral.
Have Pro-Choicers Abandoned the True Spirit of Roe?
Rhetoric from both sides has led to the impression that Roe v. Wade gave universal and sweeping rights to abortion up to birth. It didn’t. It gave an inviolable legal right to abortion in the first trimester, allowed for certain restrictions in the second trimester, and actually allowed states to ban abortion in the third trimester.
“Appellant and some amici argue that the woman’s right is absolute and that she is entitled to terminate her pregnancy at whatever time, in whatever way, and for whatever reason she alone chooses,” Justice Harry Blackmun wrote. “With this we do not agree.”
In that sense, Roe v. Wade would seem to embrace the life-on-a-continuum view. But over time, pro-choice activists have come to view the right to choose as an unfettered right and become fearful that any regulation will lead to more restriction. They often successfully oppose regulation of even third trimester abortions, whether “partial birth abortion” or the “born alive” abortions that became notorious during the recent presidential campaign after President Obama’s position on the issue became the subject of a controversy.
Ironically, European countries–though more liberal on many social issues–often couple their “pro choice” policies with limits tied to gestational period. France, Germany and Denmark allow abortions up to 12 weeks; major restrictions are imposed after that. The United Kingdom and Finland put limits after 24 weeks, Sweden after 18 weeks.
In fairness, many pro-choice advocates would agree that earlier is better, but still argue that making the moral judgment calls about abortion, even in the later months, should always be left up to the woman. But that was not the principle of Roe vs. Wade, which argued that a woman’s control over her body became less and less absolute as the clock ticked.
What about those currently advocating for a “common ground” approach to abortion?
President Obama has called for reducing the “need for abortion” and Vice President Joe Biden said their policies would “reduce considerably the amount of abortions.”
Some of the approaches Obama and his religious allies promote–birth control, family planning, economic support for pregnant women and policies to promote adoption–could reduce abortions. But focusing on the number of abortions rather than the timing, may sometimes take them down the wrong policy track.
For instance, abortion reducers would likely oppose making RU-486 readily available on the grounds that it could lead to a dramatic growth in what is technically an abortion. But if the goal is have fewer late abortions, then promoting RU-486 makes great moral sense.

A New Agenda

What else would a “safe, legal and early” agenda include?
First, it would aggressively promote not only barrier method birth control, but also emergency contraception. Women would be able to easily buy Plan B at the drug store just as they can buy condoms. Even if one accepts the (disputed) notion that Plan B may sometimes cause abortions, for most people that’s a risk well worth taking to reduce the number of medical abortions later in the cycle.
Government funding would no longer be driven by either pro-life or pro-choice activist sensibilities. Instead, Medicaid funding would be generous for first trimester abortions, minimal for second trimesters, and non-existent for the third.
Same with parental notification. Teens could get abortions on their own in the first trimester and require notification in the third.
Late abortions are already quite rare. (Only 1.5 percent of abortions occur after the 21st week and less than .5 percent after the 24th week). But this approach would virtually eliminate third trimester abortions, including “partial birth” and “born alive” procedures, providing exceptions only when the life of the mother is genuinely in jeopardy. For women who decided late in pregnancy that they didn’t want to raise the child, society would offer a generous set of incentives to put the baby up for adoption – full health care coverage and credits not only for the family adopting but the woman carrying the baby to term.
By pushing toward earlier abortions, policy could indirectly limit one of the most ethically problematic types of abortions: those done to select for factors like gender or fetal abnormalities. It’s difficult to find out many characteristics of the child if it’s being aborted in the first week. These policies would therefore push away from eugenically oriented abortions.
All in all, birth control would be more available, early abortions would be easier and might increase, second trimester abortions would decline and third trimester abortions would virtually disappear. There would be more abortions before the baby’s heart starts beating, fewer after.
My Fantasy of a Less Toxic Abortion Debate
In my fantasy world, one more thing would happen. Some of the toxins would be drained from the abortion debate. It’s often said by people in the middle, like myself, that those on the “extremes” are unreasonable or irrational. I disagree. As Editor-in-Chief of Beliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality site, I’ve had the privilege of spending much time with pro life and pro choice activists. My experience has been that pro-life and pro-choice activists are usually rigorously logical and morally consistent. They just operate from different premises–and everything else flows rationally and compassionately from those positions.
My fantasy is that if the political system embraced the safe-legal-early doctrine, a few activists might even accept the legitimacy of part of their opponents’ argument. Pro-choicers who accepted this framework would be implicitly conceding that, for at least part of the pregnancy, there’s a “baby” in the womb–and the woman’s right to terminate that life is neither absolute nor nine months in duration. With early abortions not only legal but easier, pro-choice activists could then have the confidence to accept what many of them have publicly avoided but privately wanted: reasonable, tightly written prohibitions on third trimester abortions while genuinely protecting the life of the mother.
Open minded pro-lifers would take note of these concessions from their “enemies,” viewing them as a sign that these pro-choicers–far from being hideous baby killers–fully embrace a moral dimension to the abortion decision.
Meanwhile, any pro-lifers who accept this framework would be making a concession, too. They’d be saying, in effect, that if the other side can concede that something precious is alive – and becoming more alive with each day – then they could, in turn, acknowledge that reasonable people, of different faiths, can disagree about when exactly that baby becomes alive enough to have legal rights.
Open minded pro-choicers would take note of these concessions, feeling less condemned and more respected.
And in the great likelihood that my fantasy turns out to be just that, and most activists concede nothing, at least something else would have happened: the large majority who view life within the womb as on a continuum would now set the terms of the debate.
The questions would change. The focus would be not “when does life begin?” but “what steps will you to take to make early abortions easier and later abortions harder?” Insurance companies and government policy makers would examine financial incentives not only in terms of rights but timing. Researchers – instead of studying whether state abortion restrictions reduce the numbers of abortions – would look at whether government policies make abortions earlier or later.
Politically, the battle would shift away from the third trimester (pro-lifers having largely won) and the first trimester (pro-choicers having largely won) and toward the second trimester – what most Americans view as the true moral gray zone. Both sides could use a mix of science, libertarian philosophy and theology to argue for more, or fewer, restrictions during this period.
And women who felt that they must have abortions would encounter a health care system that helps them do what many of them wanted all along: to have their abortion as early as possible.
First printed from AOL’s PoliticsDaily.
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