John McCain, whose voting record is mainly prolife, has been denounced for the crime of admitting that there are points to be made in favor of women's medical freedom. Al Gore, whose voting record is mainly prochoice, has been denounced for the crime of admitting that there are troubling questions about the morality of abortion. Nobody's criticizing George W. Bush, who takes the absolute prolife stand, or Bill Bradley, who takes an absolute prochoice position.
Line up with one of the standard interest groups on abortion, and you're okay. Admit that it's a complex issue with shades of gray, and you're denounced.
Meanwhile what the politicians and pundits are missing is that a reasonable middle-ground position on abortion once existed and has been forgotten. That position? The original, 1973 version of Roe v. Wade. Today's abortion rights are much less tightly regulated than Roe envisioned. Returning to the 1973 version of Roe could reduce incidence of abortion while still protecting women's freedom.
More on that in a moment. First, the political recap.
|Bradley complained that in the 1980s Gore wrote that abortion was troubling because it "arguably" represents the taking of human life. This is an objectionable statement? Only to lobbyists and fund-raisers.|
Gore, who today presents himself to voters as a tireless champion of choice, got in trouble for denying that once his voting record was mixed on this subject. In 1984, Gore voted in favor of a bill that would have defined "person" to include "unborn children from the moment of conception"--a legal change that would have outlawed all abortions, even to save the mother's life. Through his early political career, Gore received high ratings from the National Right to Life Committee and poor ratings from the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League.
When Gore tried to deny these facts in New Hampshire, a prochoice state, he made himself look dishonest: a point that Bill Bradley rapidly seized on, since the perception of duplicity is the worst weakness of the Clinton-Gore administration. Over the weekend, Gore at least had the courage to retract his denials and acknowledge, "Yes, my position has changed." The Bradley campaign came out of it all viewed as scoring a huge win.
But consider: one of the things Bradley complained about was that in the 1980s Gore wrote that abortion was troubling because it "arguably" represents the taking of human life. This is an objectionable statement? Only to lobbyists and fund-raisers. Even if you support women's choice, "arguably," abortion might indeed be the taking of life. We don't know for certain, which is why the issue is a quandary.
But we ought to encourage political leaders to ponder this question, not denounce them for any deviation from the PC line. Bradley, not Gore, is the one who should be viewed as emerging from this mini-controversy looking bad.
For his attempt to take into account that abortion dilemmas may happen to nice people, even people like your daughter, he was slammed by extremists. The National Right to Life Committee denounced him: woe onto anyone who does not toe the line of this self-righteous, mean-spirited organization. (McCain pointed out the National Right to Life Committee would be harmed by campaign finance reform, suggesting that this is the real reason it now opposes his candidacy.) Republican candidate Alan Keyes mocked McCain, asking whether, if his daughter proposed to murder her grandmother for the inheritance, the senator would convene a family conference.
This is a phony analogy, and Keyes knows it. It is established that to murder a born person is wrong: zero dispute exists on this point. There is intense, heartfelt controversy on whether an embryo or fetus is a full human life, or in some lesser status of potential life. We need to encourage discussion of that controversy, not try to shout it down, as Keyes would do.
McCain, at least, used the opportunity to show once again that he is a subtle thinker and a reflective man, something George W. Bush has yet to demonstrate. Speaking on "Meet the Press," he openly discussed abortion as an agonizing moral dilemma, lacking any easy solution. He said he believes life begins at conception and thus abortion should be banned, but that he would make exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Pressed by Tim Russert on whether, if life begins at conception, abortion in a rape case isn't nevertheless a killing, he said simply, "Yes, it would be," but went on to assert that refusing this choice to rape and incest victims would be cruelty.
|For McCain's attempt to take into account that abortion dilemmas may happen to nice people, even people like your daughter, he was slammed by extremists.|
This is the kind of complexity that extremists on both sides would rather not face. McCain also noted, "Even many people who are prochoice are opposed to abortion." That's one of the best summaries ever of the intricacy of the debate.
Now, what of the true meaning of Roe? Today people think this Supreme Court opinion conferred an unrestricted right to abortion. It did not. The decision created a system of phased rights in which a woman's access to abortion was essentially unregulated in the first trimester (when the moral questions are least troublesome, and when most abortions occur); could be partially regulated in the second trimester; and would be banned in the third trimester (except to save the mother's life), on the assumption that by the third trimester, a fetus has become a person.
If only today's abortion law were still Roe! Instead, a series of subsequent court decisions have expanded abortion into an essentially unregulated elective choice, resulting in the horror of the statistically rare but morally repellent late-term abortion, in which a viable fetus is deliberately killed. Late-term abortion (except to save the mother's life) is not only "arguably" wrong; it taints the case for early abortion choice. Roe itself contains the seeds of a middle-ground compromise on abortion, if we could only return to its original premise of allowing some but not all abortions. Presumably, any candidate who tried to discuss this would immediately be denounced.