Pro-Roe prolifers?

Abortion_sidesWilliam J. Stuntz, whose “Faculty Clubs and Church Pews” essay drew a year-end endorsement from New York Times columnist David Brooks, now lists the issues on which he believes the secular left and the Christian right may cooperate: abortion, poverty at home, poverty abroad and spreading freedom/nation building.

His thoughts on spreading freedom and nation building, like Terry’s post on Jan. 1, single out Tony Blair as defying Americans’ recent categories of polarization:

I haven’t noticed any groundswell of opposition from evangelicals to nation building in Afghanistan and Iraq. I have noticed that Tony Blair has become a hero among many evangelicals over the past couple of years, because he speaks so eloquently about the hellish suffering that the Taliban and Saddam Hussein inflicted on their peoples, and about the moral obligation of the rich world to do what it can to stop that suffering. Blair is a man of the left. He also appears to be a more-than-nominal Christian. That combination sounds contradictory only because we are too accustomed to the usual political categories. If the categories change, we might see a good many Tony Blairs — on this side of the Atlantic.

His proposals for fighting poverty at home are attractive . He emphasizes creating more wealth rather than transferring it, and fighting crime by decrease the frequency of punishment for certain crimes:

There is a kind of Laffer curve to criminal punishment — at some point, more bodies in the state penitentiary mean less deterrence. When a prison sentence is a rare event, it carries great stigma. Make it common, and it becomes a rite of passage, even a badge of honor. That does nothing to lessen the allure of crime and drugs for the young men who still live outside prison walls.

Stuntz admits that abortion is the most difficult topic on which to find common ground, and his proposal would ask the most of prolifers:

Pro-life Christians want to see fewer abortions. That is already happening: the abortion rate has been falling since 1981; from that year to 2000 the rate fell by 27 percent, according to census data. Among teenage girls, the decline is greater still. The abortion rate is probably lower today than in 1975; it might be lower than in 1972, the year before the Supreme Court legalized the practice nationwide. What lies behind these trends? Strangely enough, the answer has a lot to do with the law being pro-choice. When the culture is sharply divided on some kind of behavior, the side that wins the law’s endorsement tends to lose ground, culturally and politically. Roe v. Wade has been the pro-life movement’s friend. Those who want abortions to be rare would do well to keep them safe and legal.

. . . A lot of pro-lifers understand this, and their number is steadily growing. For the near future, the movement is likely to keep doing what works — finding ways to encourage young women to “choose life.” The old Clinton slogan — safe, legal, and rare — may actually become a reality. The compromise here is simple: let’s agree to leave Roe alone, at least for now, and to fight this cultural battle on a cultural battleground. Not a legal one.

In one sense his proposal is easy: It’s not as though Roe will be the subject of a national referendum or even state-by-state debates anytime soon. Most prolifers who looked to Congress to pass a Human Life Amendment probably began realizing by the mid-1980s that they had better become accustomed to disappointment. Further, at Stuntz argues, 30 years of legal abortion has changed the focus of the debate:

Today, abortion is a constitutional right. Back-alley abortions are no longer a story; partial-birth abortions are. And since the pro-life movement stopped focusing all its energies on changing the law, the culture has moved steadily in its direction. Few medical-school students learn how to perform the procedure, not just because they fear protests but because they have qualms about it. So do millions of young women. When I was a college student in the 1970s, abortion was talked about, and often done, casually. I don’t think that’s true today. But if the Supreme Court overruled Roe and a couple dozen states criminalized early-term abortions, those trends would quickly reverse. Abortion would become not a moral question, but a civil liberties question — just as it was in the 1960s and 1970s.

The idea of finding common ground in the abortion debate is not new — the Common Ground Network for Life and Choice began in 1992. But I find it difficult to imagine that movement will gain critical mass, unless one or another edge of the abortion debate is suddenly willing to sacrifice its core convictions.

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  • dlw

    sounds mighty specious.

    Making abortion legal is what has reduced abortions?

    And the man totally ignores the fact that the root issue in the abortion debate is the potential legal redefinition of when human personhood begins and the clarification of what the broad guidelines for the delineation of an elective and non-elective abortions are.


  • dlw

    Roe only guarantees the woman’s right to elect an abortion in defined circumstances and effectively guarantees that these defined circumstances must include the first trimester of gestation.

    There is plenty of room for theoretical compromise on the issue within the existing constitutional law.


  • Richard


    Which is more immoral, an abortion or bringing an unwanted child into the world and all of the possible implications that decision brings along with it? What difference does it really make as to when someone’s “personhood” is established?

  • Paul Barnes

    Richard, which is worse, rape or murder?

  • Tom Harmon


    Um, an abortion? is this a trick question? You’re asking, in essence: What’s better? To allow someone to live, or to kill him or her because life is often unpleasant and hard? Pretty easy answer, I think.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    “Making abortion legal is what has reduced abortions?”

    The original author is making the point that having an abortion in the early 70′s was considered by some to be a civil-liberties statement. Now that abortion has been legal for 30+ years, this is no longer the case. Putting it rather crudely, the “novelty” of the situation is over.

    Sounds very much like the argument that legalizing certain drugs will reduce drug use due to the elimination of a black market.

  • dlw

    If a pregnancy is unwanted it should be ended as soon as possible, preferably the morning after.

    I think we should be loathe to play God.

    If you view my idea for depoliticizing and preventing abortion, I include an advocacy of the Basic Income Guarantee plan, which will serve to reduce the level of hardship in people’s lives as well.

    We can’t kill infants because we think their lives will be too hard. Birth is an arbitrary point to define the beginning of life. For too many people, autonomy is not the end-all-be-all of what makes us persons. Hence, the potential legal redef’n of when personhood begins is upon us.


  • Jill

    If pregnancy is unwanted then fertilisation should be prevented, preferably by abstaining from sex. (Sounds like a no-brainer to me!)

    I, too, think we should be loathe to “play God.”

    Putting aside for now what the Bible says about life before birth, almost any woman who has ever been a mother will tell you that her child’s life began way before he or she came down the birth canal. Maybe some of us need a refresher course in the development of human life in the womb?

  • dlw

    The Bible only supports the belief that we are human beings before birth. It doesn’t specify when and there has been disagreement among devout Christians on the issue. I’ve been debating another Christian here… over my own position, which is that we should consider when we become human beings as at 48th day of conception.

    I am personally conservative in this matter, but have no problem with people taking morning after pills, particularly in the case of rape. I also do not have a prolem with artificial insemination, fetal stem-cell research. All because I don’t believe the human embryo prior to implantation is a human being. It certainly isn’t a human organism, since it doesn’t have organs, yet.

    But I think we need to bear in mind that politics is the art of the possible and accept that it is highly unlikely that human personhood will be redefined to during the first trimester of pregnancy. I have a link to my own ideas for how we can prevent early abortions indirectly above.


  • jeff

    Well-written. One question: how is it possible to make anything but a guess as to the abortion rate before 1972?

  • dlw

    By making reasonable assumptions…There are indirect statistics that help us to intelligently guess the number of abortions taking place at that time.

    The exact statistics escape me at this moment.


  • Tom Harmon

    DLW, I think you ned to check out that definition of “organism.” Here’s the biology dictionary’s relvant entries:


    Any individual living thing, whether animal or plant.


    Any living thing that exhibits living characteristics and is composed of one cell or more.


    A living thing that has (or can develop) the ability to act or function independently.” (

    A human conceptus fits all three definitions. It is an individual living thing, separate from its mother because it metabolizes at a different rate and with different purposes. It certainly exhibits living characteristics (cell multiplication, metabolism of food, etc.), and it certainly can develop the ability to function indepentently, as when it matures into an adult. It is also human, because it is an organism as described above and has human DNA, and is actively in the process of maturing into an adult human being.

  • dlw

    Thankyou for the def’ns. I was going by the def’ns found in Merriam Webster for organism. I don’t per se trust many other internet dictionaries, though they no doubt do reflect common usage of the word among many.

    Webster’s def’ns were:

    1 : a complex structure of interdependent and subordinate elements whose relations and properties are largely determined by their function in the whole

    2 : an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent : a living being

    By these def’ns our blood cells are human organisms, but the newly-formed zygote is not. But that is not the main issue. I mean I agree with you that the newlyformed zygote is a living thing and that it is human by virtue of its dna. More at issue in abortion debates is whether its potential to develop into an adult human being make it a human being.

    I agree that we humans should be future-oriented beings. I believe that such potential is a necessary but not sufficient criterion for a human organism to be a human being. I argue for treating the 48th day of pregnancy as more or less of a cut off value, because the fetus has rudiments of all organs, some brain-activity, a high probability of surviving to term under normal circumstances, and begins to evince the human form. The last one is significant for me, because I associate what makes us human with our ability to recognize ourselves in the other. To have human dna does not qualify in this regard, since all of our living cells would qualify as human beings by that regard. The same can be said for potentiality, since our cells could theoretically be used to make clones of ourself. I’m not arguing for cloning here. I’m just making a point about the elasticity of the criterion of potentiality and why it cannot in my view be used as the end-all-be-all criterion for what makes us human beings.