On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position

Principled yet pragmatic, Lincoln's stand on slavery offers a basis for a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice

Twenty-two years ago abortion was made an individual right by the Supreme Court. Today it is a public institution—one of the most carefully cultivated institutions in America. It is protected by courts, subsidized by legislatures, performed in government-run hospitals and clinics, and promoted as a "fundamental right" by our State Department. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor observed in the 1992 Casey decision, which reaffirmed Roe v. Wade, a whole generation has grown up since 1973 in the expectation that legal abortion will be available for them if they want it.

Today our nation's most prestigious civic groups, from the League of Women Voters to the American Civil Liberties Union, are committed to its protection and subsidization. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education now requires that abortion techniques be taught in all obstetrics-and-gynecology residency training programs. Influential voices in politics and the media are now demanding the assignment of U.S. marshals to protect abortion clinics against violence, and a federal law passed last year prescribes harsh criminal penalties for even nonviolent acts of civil disobedience if they are committed by demonstrators at abortion clinics. Some private organizations that administer birth-control programs and provide abortions, notably Planned Parenthood, are closely tied to government bureaucracies: Planned Parenthood receives one third of its income from the federal government. Abortion today is as American as free speech, freedom of religion, or any other practice protected by our courts.

With this difference: unlike other American rights, abortion cannot be discussed in plain English. Its warmest supporters do not like to call it by its name.

Abortion is a "reproductive health procedure" or a "termination of pregnancy." Abortion clinics are "reproductive health clinics" (more recently, "women's clinics"), and the right to obtain an abortion is "reproductive freedom." Sometimes the word abortion is unavoidable, as in media accounts of the abortion controversy, but then it is almost invariably preceded by a line of nicer-sounding words: "the right of a women to choose" abortion. This is still not enough to satisfy some in the abortion movement. In an op-ed piece that appeared in the The New York Times shortly after a gunman killed some employees and wounded others at two Brookline, Massachusetts, abortion clinics, a counselor at one of the clinics complained that the media kept referring to her workplace as an abortion clinic. "I hate that term," she declared. At the end of the piece she suggested that her abortion clinic ought to be called "a place of healing and care."

The Clinton Administration, the first Administration clearly committed to abortion, seems to be trying hard to promote it without mentioning it. President Bill Clinton's 1993 health-care bill would have nationalized the funding of abortion, forcing everyone to buy a "standard package" that included it. Yet nowhere in the bill's 1,342 pages was the word abortion ever used. In various interviews both Clintons acknowledged that it was their intention to include abortion under the category of "services for pregnant women." Another initiative in which the Clinton Administration participated, the draft report for last year's United Nations International Conference on Population and Development, used similar language. Abortion, called "pregnancy termination," was subsumed under the general category of "reproductive health care," a term used frequently in the report.

Why, in a decade when public discourse about sex has become determinedly forthright, is abortion so hard to say? No one hesitates to say abortion in other contexts—in referring, for example, to aborting a plane's takeoff. Why not say "abortion of a fetus"? Why substitute a spongy expression like "termination of pregnancy"? And why do abortion clinics get called "reproductive health clinics" when their manifest purpose is to stop reproduction? Why all this strange language? What is going on here?

The answer, it seems to me, is unavoidable. Even defenders and promoters of abortion sense that there is something not quite right about the procedure. "I abhor abortions," Henry Foster, President Clinton's unconfirmed nominee for Surgeon General, has said. Clinton himself, who made no secret of his support for abortion during his 1992 campaign, still repeats the mantra of "safe, legal, and rare" abortion. Why "rare"? If abortion is a constitutional right, on a par with freedom of speech and freedom of religion, why does it have to be "rare"? The reason Clinton uses this language should be obvious. He knows he is talking to a national electorate that is deeply troubled about abortion. Shortly before last year's congressional elections his wife went even further in appealing to this audience by characterizing abortion as "wrong" (though she added, "I don't think it should be criminalized").

Sometimes even abortion lobbyists show a degree of uneasiness about what it is they are lobbying for. At the end of 1993 Kate Michelman, the head of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, was interviewed by the Philadelphia Inquirer about NARAL's new emphasis on the prevention of teen pregnancies. The reporter quoted Michelman as saying, "We think abortion is a bad thing." Michelman complained that she had been misquoted, whereupon she was reminded that the interview had been taped. Nevertheless, NARAL issued a statement a few days later declaring that Michelman "has never said—and would never say—that `abortion is a bad thing.'" Michelman, who had reason to know better, sought only to "clarify" her remark in a letter to the Inquirer. "It is not abortion itself that is a bad thing," she wrote. "Rather, our nation's high rate of abortion represents a failure" of our system of sex education, contraception, and health care. But a month later Michelman herself, testifying before a House subcommittee on energy and commerce, insisted that "the reporter absolutely quoted me incorrectly," and she later told a Washington Post reporter, "I would never, never, never, never, never mean to say such a thing." Not until the Post reporter showed her the transcript did Michelman finally acknowledge—somewhat evasively —that she had said it: "I'm obviously guilty of saying something that led her to put that comment in there."

Whatever else Michelman's bobbing and weaving reveals, it shows how nervous abortion advocates can get when the discussion approaches the question of what abortion is. Even if we accept Michelman's amended version of her remark, which is that it is not abortion but the "high rate" of abortion that is a bad thing, the meaning is hardly changed. If one abortion is not a bad thing, why are many abortions bad? What is it about abortion that is so troubling?

The obvious answer is that abortion is troubling because it is a killing process. Abortion clinics may indeed be places of "healing and care," as the Planned Parenthood counselor maintains, but their primary purpose is to kill human fetuses. Whether those fetuses are truly "persons" will continue to be debated by modern scholastics, but people keep blurting out fragments of what was long a moral consensus in this country. Once in a while even a newscaster, carefully schooled in Sprachregelungen, will slip up by reporting the murder of "a woman and her unborn baby," thus implying that something more than a single homicide has taken place. But that "something" must not be probed or examined; the newscaster must not speak its name. Abortion has thus come to occupy an absurd, surrealistic place in the national dialogue: It cannot be ignored and it cannot be openly stated. It is the corpse at the dinner party.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In