Abortion - A 23rd Century Perspective
I did not plan to write a commentary about abortion this week, but a partisan leaker stole a draft opinion that the US Supreme Court was thinking of issuing on the Alabama abortion law that would overturn Roe v. Wade. That stolen document was published by Politico generating a welter of op-eds, tweets and protests. I had planned to write about free speech, which is also timely, but I think Roe v. Wade will be on everybody’s minds, so, let’s take a whack at it.
First of all, abortion is a horrible thing. It is the killing of a potential human. It is as much a straight-forward medical procedure lacking a moral or ethical impact as Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a special military operation. Using my 23rd century Star Trek frame of reference, I believe that our future descendants will look back in horror at our callous disregard of human life (recalling that Dr. McCoy considered twentieth century medicine barbaric).
You cannot portray abortion as a good thing, or even a neutral thing. But even if it is a bad thing, might it also a necessary thing? Abortion and infanticide have existed throughout our history and prehistory. Anthropologists cited in Wikipedia have asserted that up to 50% of the children of our pre-historic ancestors were killed by their parents. And we remember Oedipus who was ordered killed by his father, King Laius, as well as Romulus and Remus, who were ordered killed by King Amulius (the actual father being supposedly Mars, the God of War). And induced abortion can be traced back to ancient China, Vedic India and Pharaonic Egypt.
But just because abortion and infanticide were not uncommon in the time of our ancestors does not justify the continued practice of this abomination. Our ancestors did a lot of things that are abhorrent to us now, human sacrifice, cannibalism, slavery, sati in India and many other depraved practices too gruesome to mention (where we get to use a Star Trek frame of reference on our ancestors). But prohibiting abortion by law, without making the cultural adjustments necessary to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies will not solve the problem but only drive it underground. The Emancipation Proclamation freed American blacks by law, but it took another century for the American people to accept the idea that resisting the equal civil rights of American blacks was not in line with our founding ideals and principles.
Like immigration and many other political issues that we face each day, abortion has been taken up by the political parties as one of the most divisive issues we face. Hard right Republicans want to ban abortion completely while progressive left Democrats want to permit abortions up to the moment of birth. The American people appear to be in between these extreme positions. A Gallup poll reports that about 60% of Americans support abortion in the first trimester, but that support falls to only 28% in the second trimester and collapses to only 13% in the third trimester. And these ratios are virtually unchanged over more than twenty years of Gallup surveys. And Politico cites poll results that show 50% of American oppose overturning Roe v. Wade while only 28% support such action (the remaining 22% are undecided).
Democrats finally feel that they have an issue that can slow the Republican juggernaut in the November elections (which is why the leaker stole the document in the first place). But it appears that both political parties are out of touch with their constituents. American public opinion is much more nuanced than the extreme positions of the political parties.
Eliminating Roe v. Wade will not eliminate abortion in the United States. What it does is to return the right to determine the legal structure of abortion to the states. The Constitution makes no mention of abortion or of the right to privacy which is the basis of Roe v. Wade. I am no legal expert, but I have read that Roe v. Wade is considered to be bad law. That makes sense to me because it appears that Roe v. Wade is creating law, not judging if a law passed by the Congress is constitutionally sound. In Roe v. Wade the Supreme Court usurped the responsibility of Congress to make law. Many progressives don’t care about how social justice is achieved as long as the outcome fits their agenda, but principled procedures and trusted institutions are essential for a functioning democracy.
Women have rights and it is reasonable to give women the ability to end an unwanted pregnancy as is the consensus opinion of the American people as confirmed in numerous Gallup polls over many years. But if a one-day old baby has a right to life it is incomprehensible to me that a viable baby still in the womb one day prior to delivery should not have very similar (if not identical) rights. The problem is how does this right to life change as the days to delivery increase? The preferred solutions of the political parties are simplistic, all or nothing. A real solution would be to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.
Like many other problems we are faced with in 21st century America, politicians believe that they can just pass a law (or more likely issue a presidential executive order) and the problem will be solved. Nothing could be further from the truth. Politicians try to address outcomes (by law or executive order) without addressing the underlying causes that created the problem. This means not only that such policies are ineffective, at best, they are also likely to create unintended consequences that are as bad, if not worse, the original problem.
The cause of the abortion problem is the number of unwanted pregnancies. The sexual revolution of the 1960’s coincided with the development of the contraceptive pill to prevent pregnancy. Prior to that revolution American society (and the people of most other countries) disapproved of pre-marital sex. But despite the advances in the ability to prevent pregnancy the number of unwanted pregnancies rose as did the number of children in single parent households. This change in societal attitudes has actually done great harm to many people. And not just to people but to our society as a whole.
With the decision on Roe v. Wade in 1973, the recorded number of abortions in the US leapt from 295,000 to 716,000 the following year, reaching over one million by 1977. Of course, before Roe, many abortions went unrecorded. In a relatively short period of time not only did the rules against abortions change, but so did society’s attitude to premarital sex as well as to abortion. The good news is that the number of abortions in the US has decreased substantially in recent years, but that improvement has been offset by the growth of the number of children in single parent families in the US (which at 23% is the highest in the world). Children in single parent households suffer from many problems including lower school achievement, discipline problems, high levels of incarceration (for boys) and more likely to become single parents (for girls).
The revolutionary changes to American society in the 1960s, led by my Baby Boomer generation, accomplished many good things such as the advancement of civil rights, the end of segregation and a more free and open society. But it also led to many unfortunate (and unintended) outcomes like the increase in abortions and the number of children in single parent households. These and other societal changes have led us to our current state of rancorous division in America. We have lost sight of the ideals and principles that made America great in the first place. Not only devotion to liberty and free market economics, but also to hard work, delayed gratification, belief in meritocracy and the importance of education – all those attributes that the National Museum of African American History and Culture described as Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States in a brochure that has since been withdrawn. But these are not white attributes, these are universal attributes that can apply to any people. These attributes are the foundation for the success that our social contract, based on Enlightenment values, has achieved. The Baby Boomer led social revolution has disparaged and undermined our belief in these principles and the high number of abortions and the children in single parent households are symptoms of this decline in our adherence to our founding principles.
So, I have gone very far afield in this discussion that began with a draft opinion overturning the Roe v. Wade ruling that asserted that the constitution confirmed a person’s right to have an abortion. But abortion, and the highly related problem of children in single parent households, are just symptoms of the attack on our American principles. We are unlikely to be able to go back to the supposedly idyllic 1950’s that both the MAGA crowd and the progressive left yearn for (the MAGA crowd for the good paying factory jobs and the progressive left for the incomprehensibly high tax rates). But we must be able to find a way to reinvigorate our American founding principles into the 21st century in order to be able to confront the myriad challenges we face.
It is indicative of our broken political system that we have a broad consensus among the American public that accepts abortion in the first trimester but with increasing restrictions thereafter, but that our political leaders cannot codify that consensus into law because they are in thrall to the extremists in their parties. Such a law would not reduce abortions very much because most abortions already occur in the first trimester under Roe v. Wade. However, the Guttmacher Institute points out that the current rate of abortion is already below the rate prior to Roe v. Wade. But passage of such a law would allow us to focus on lowering the incidence of unwanted pregnancies and that would help to further lower the abortion rate. While we can sympathize with single parent families we should not glorify or incentivize single mothers. DNA testing can determine who the fathers are, and we can make sure that they at least are responsible for the financial well-being of their children. We can reject the Black Lives Matter Movements antipathy to the nuclear family and support policies that incentivize parents to stay together and take responsibility for raising their children, hopefully reducing their use of drugs, gangs and sex to fill up the emptiness of their lives. Maybe then future generations of Star Trekkers will look back at what we did and agree that, at least, we started to move in the right direction.