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Overat Beliefnet, Steven Waldman is arguing for the abortion debate to drop its central moral question—-“Does life begin at conception?”—-and begin to address the fact that “Most Americans believe there are gradations of life.”
Waldman cites a 2007 Third Way study which found that “69 percent of Americans believe abortion is the ‘taking of a human life,’ but 72 percent believe it should be legal.” Waldman attributes the statistic to the idea that most people believe that “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. . . . 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.”
The idea of “gradations of life” has not been particularly embraced by either side in the political turf war over abortion: Pro-lifers have focused on preventing all post-conception fetus elimination, while pro-choicers have underscored a woman’s right to choose at any time. But as Waldman points out, Roe v. Wade legislated specifically when women should have the right to choose, based on how baby-like her fetus has become: Roe “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.”
In Waldman’s “Fantasy of a Less Toxic Abortion Debate,” those on both side of the abortion debate would “embrace the safe-legal-early doctrine.” Here’s what Waldman’s fantasy would look like:
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.
I understand that Waldman is trying to make nice. I, too, would like to see us all find common ground on abortion. But while Waldman thinks that will come with acknowledging that there are “gradations of life” in the womb. I think it starts with acknowledging the life of the woman.
Remember her? She’s the one who’s pregnant with the thing somewhere in between a “clump of undifferentiated cells” and a nine-month-old “baby” ready to pop out into a human. The fetus is in her womb—-she knows what’s going on in there, and she takes that into consideration in deciding if and when to have an abortion. The moral question of determining the life of the fetus isn’t made in a vacuum—-it’s made in the context of another life.
In order to find common ground, pro-choicers don’t need to acknowledge that fetuses are “babies,” and pro-lifers don’t need to deny that for them, life begins at conception. Both positions are valid. A pregnant woman should be free to choose between them.