Cliffs Notes -- Ross Douthat on Abortion

Hilzoy doesn’t understand Ross’s latest column. Others say the same thing. But I think I understand it, and that it does make sense, even if it is unclear to some readers in certain parts. I think this is probably due to the enormous pressure Ross must feel to both do justice to the pro-life cause he very much believes in, and write a fair, even-handed column that serves a readership that largely disagrees with him, all in 800 words or so, on the most fraught topic in America, at a terrible moment for pro-lifers.

Thus I’ve tried to restate his argument in different words, in hopes that his critics better grasp his insights. I hope I am not misstating his views. Suffice it to say that if so, the fault is mine for taking undue license.

Okay, everything that follows is my best attempt at restating what I take Ross to be saying.

George Tiller performed lots of late term abortions in morally difficult, heart-rending circumstances. Given those experiences, it’s easy to fathom why he felt himself to be doing the right thing, and why many Americans believe late term abortions should remain legal. But! Dr. Tiller also performed lots of late term abortions in circumstances that wouldn’t seen so fraught or heart rending if you heard them described. It’s very likely—though we can’t know for sure—that he aborted healthy fetuses belonging to healthy mothers. And evidence suggests he bent the rules to do so.

Anyway, those really tough, sympathetic cases you read about on Andrew’s blog don’t actually reflect most abortions in America. The average abortion doesn’t involve medical complications of any kind, lots of abortions are at the opposite end of the “sympathetic circumstances” spectrum — e.g. second, third and fourth abortions — and even most partial birth abortions are totally elective.

The argument for unregulated abortions rests on the idea that because there are these really heart-rending, morally fraught cases involving rape, incest, the health of the mother, or the health of the fetus, there shouldn’t be any restrictions on ending pregnancies. I can see how people would wrongly reach that conclusion. They erroneously figure that if their moral intuition tells them it’s okay to abort in the case of rape, for example, the fetus must not have an absolute right to life — therefore, they reason, the deciding factor ought to be the woman’s judgment, not some outcome determined by the rights of the fetus, which logically wouldn’t be affected by something like rape.

If we were engaged in moral philosophy, and our project required us to reach an internally consistent answer, we might be forced to conclude either that the fetus has a right to life, therefore we must force pregnant rape victims to carry them to term… or else it is obviously wrong to force a rape victim to carry a fetus to term, therefore a fetus must not ever have a right to life since it doesn’t in that circumstance.

But the law demands no such consistency! We can adopt a compromise that makes practical rather than principled sense!! That’s what would happen in a saner, stricter legal regime.

Instead, we’ve got this bullshit Supreme Court decision that prevents a compromise that reflects the moral intuitions of most Americans. It makes it so that pro-lifers focus all their attention on stopping late term abortions, because those are basically the only ones that they can stop under prevailing Supreme Court jurisprudence. Thus pro-lifers effectively focus disproportionate attention on even those really tough, morally fraught late term abortions — whereas if they were free to focus their energy on stopping any old abortion, they’d end up picking as their battleground not the really tough third trimester cases that Andrew’s readers described, but first and second trimester cases that are less sympathetic — they might focus, for example, on woman having second and third abortions, since to these pro-lifers a first-trimester fetus saved is just as much a person as a third trimester fetus saved, and the populous is far more likely to go along with restricting the options of women having second abortions than women having late term abortions when their kid would be born without a face or lungs or some other Godawful condition.

Thus, weirdly, the legal landscape won by pro-lifers has resulted in this perverse circumstance where hard cases in the third trimester are more controversial — read: the focus of anti-abortion efforts — more often than they’d otherwise be. And if abortion restrictions were again decided by state legislatures without the interference of the federal judiciary — which, come on, the penumbras? they just made that up — pro-lifers would be too busy opposing “abortions of choice” in the second trimester to bother spending energy fighting a losing battle against the most morally fraught, sympathetic third trimester abortions. The result would be “laws with more respect for human life, a culture less inflamed by a small number of tragic cases — and a political debate, God willing, unmarred by crimes like George Tiller’s murder.”