Ross Douthat argues that we should reconsider the conditions for legal abortion, and that stricter regulation of (restriction on) abortion, particularly after the first trimester, will lead to a more civil national debate.
He sees current discussion on abortion as limited to late-term abortions, and thus accounts for Tiller’s murder:
If anything, by enshrining a near-absolute right to abortion in the Constitution, the pro-choice side has ensured that the hard cases are more controversial than they otherwise would be. One reason there’s so much fierce argument about the latest of late-term abortions — Should there be a health exemption? A fetal deformity exemption? How broad should those exemptions be? — is that Americans aren’t permitted to debate anything else. Under current law, if you want to restrict abortion, post-viability procedures are the only kind you’re allowed to even regulate.
I think many pro-lifers would be offended by Douthat’s claim that late-term abortion is the main battleground of the pro-life movement. In a Times article on the now uncertain future of the pro-life forces that followed Tiller to Wichita, David Gittrich, development director of Kansans for Life, says of protestors:
“They’re not going to be able go out in front of Tiller’s now. But until abortion is illegal, unthinkable and unacceptable, there’s going to be plenty of things for pro-lifers to do.”
I appreciate this comment for the clarity it provides. The pro-life movement wants abortion gone not only from our health clinics, but from our memories. The movement focuses, at times, on late-term abortion because it’s easier to sensationalize and mischaracterize. For example, the PR genius who came up with the phrase “partial-birth abortion” ensured that in addition to the originally targeted procedure, intact dilation and extraction, all late-term abortions are now legally questionable. With a clever turn of phrase—calling it something that it was not—the pro-life movement attached a gruesome association to an entire set of procedures, all of which are employed to save women’s lives.
But again, the pro-life movement wants abortion gone, and it sees late-term abortions as a promising inroad. Douthat argues that our laws on abortion can avoid the all-or-nothing question, “Either a fetus has a claim to life or it doesn’t,” and can be more responsive to the many different types of abortion in America. He writes that the law is “the place where morality meets custom, and compromise, and common sense.”
While Douthat takes a well-considered, cool-headed tone in his writing, and while he implies at the beginning of the op-ed that he identifies with abortion rights supporters, his disdain for women who choose to have abortions is fairly apparent. It’s all too clear that the “common sense” he’d like to see in our abortion laws is Ross Douthat’s common sense, which makes little room for experiences that aren’t his own.
Douthat cites a 2006 investigation suggest that Tiller may have been a criminal. Again, he feigns impartiality—“We may never know how many of George Tiller’s abortions were performed on healthy mothers and healthy fetuses”—but the “investigation” he cites was alarmingly devoid of the standards we expect from the American legal process. As the Times article on pro-lifers in Wichita explains, Tiller’s foes
turned to the courts, gathering citizen petitions (allowed by an obscure, century-old Kansas law) that led to two grand jury investigations against Dr. Tiller . . .
This kind of mob justice is very disturbing. I shudder to think of what our country would look like if all Americans could bring investigations through petitions. Such a “democratic process” leads, very clearly, to persecution of unwanted groups. That Douthat, who should know better, cites such an investigation reveals his bias toward Tiller and toward abortion in general.
Douthat invokes a misguided notion of democracy again in the most deeply flawed argument in the piece:
If abortion were returned to the democratic process, this landscape would change dramatically. Arguments about whether and how to restrict abortions in the second trimester — as many advanced democracies already do – would replace protests over the scope of third-trimester medical exemptions.
The democratic process, by which I assume Douthat means either state legislation or popular vote (ballot initiatives, maybe?), works much of the time. But there are certain things which “the people” do not do a good job of legislating, and these are generally issues of privacy. Sexual freedom, the right to marry, and reproductive rights have, historically, not been well-managed by the public or by legislatures. This is why we have the Supreme Court, made up of (relatively) impartial persons who never have to run for re-election. In the fifties and sixties, furthermore, our country could not wait for state legislatures in the South to come around on the issue of equal rights for blacks—not only because many of these legislators were not sufficiently empathetic, but also because many of them who perhaps were empathetic were under political pressure from their constituents.
Reproductive freedom is a civil right, like marriage rights and the rights of minorities, that cannot be left up state legislatures. In these cases, the democratic process is capable of great harm, of magnifying and codifying hatred and intolerance. The right to abortion is something that some people have a very hard time understanding, as Ross Douthat demonstrates. He’s particularly hard to take seriously when he claims that allowing more restrictions on abortion would yield 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.
Allowing for greater restrictions on abortion would cause the pro-life movement to shift their focus, increasingly, towards outlawing abortion altogether. They will not be satisfied with what they view as small concessions, and these concessions should not be used as a means to quell violence. Violence will continue as long as violence is viewed as an acceptable tactic, and increasing restrictions on abortion–perhaps driving women, increasingly, to illegal abortions–has its own bloody toll.