Abortion: Would We Change Our Minds if We Only Knew ...?

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I thought that Ta-Nehisi's writing on labor and mortality last week was beautiful and moving--a reminder that we shouldn't only talk about abortion through the lens of fetal suffering, as the risks to the mother are real.  This week, he makes the same point again, in the context of a new law making it justifiable homicide to stop the killing of a fetus, and I wonder who he is talking to:

I was thinking about this in reference to Donald Trump's sudden, and surely heartfelt, transformation from pro-choice to pro-life. Whereas everyone "likes" babies, no one "likes" abortion. Moreover, pregnancy in our society is not seen with the clearest eyes. When we think of pregnancy we do not think of constant, prolonged, intensive labor which burdens virtually every organ of the body. We think of baby-showers, glowing skin and bundles of joy. It is almost as if the work of making a human being is really no work at all. A man ejaculates, and the rest is romantic comedy. Starring J-Lo, of course.

I used to say things like this in my more militantly pro-choice days . . . "If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament."  But this unfairly trivializes the pro-life movement--as, I suppose, we meant to.  There isn't a particularly stark divide between men and women; men think it should be mostly illegal by a narrow plurality (46 to 43) while women think it should be mostly legal by a slightly less narrow plurality (49 to 42).  But almost all of that is accounted for by women of childbearing age--to which you can say, well, it's easier to advocate things that don't cost you, personally.  But of course, a pro-lifer would rejoinder that this is precisely what we do with abortion: the born saying to the unborn, "Screw you, I've got mine."

What I don't think it reflects is simply that pro-lifers are wrapping themselves in some gauzy, glamorized notion of birth.  Most women over 50 have given birth, and they are split about evenly on the question of legalized abortion.  The women I know who have given birth, whether pro-life or pro-choice, do not romanticize it.  They speak, of course, of the miracle that it is.  But they also speak, often rather too frankly, of how difficult and often disgusting the process is.  If a substantial number of pro-lifers are women who have given birth--and they are--then we pro-choicers can't simply tell ourselves that it's because they haven't really thought about what birth entails.

I am struck in the debates over abortion by how firmly each side is convinced that the other side is somehow deluding themselves.  The accusations are so similar--the one side claims that we are sanitizing birth in our imaginations, the other retorts that we are doing the same to abortion.  Both sides seem convinced that if they could just rip away the veil of illusion with sufficiently gruesome pictures of dismembered fetuses, or botched back-room abortions, whatever well-meaning fools remain on the other side would finally see, and the debate would end. Yet decades of this sort of consciousness raising have only hardened the battle lines.  

And yet maybe they're right that seeing is believing.  I suspect that if we ever do resolve the debate, it will be sonograms and social change, and not slogans, that mark the decisive turn.

Update:  I imagine that commenters are going to ask me why I'm dwelling on a side question while there's a bill to legalize the killing of abortion providers in the South Dakota legislature.  The answer is that while I understand that this is what the pro-choice movement thinks the bill is for, I don't think that's the actual purpose.  There were similar arguments about laws intended to make the termination of a late-term wanted pregnancy (by, say, beating an expectant mother so hard that she lost her baby) homicide; people claimed that this would make late-term abortions illegal.  It didn't, and the supreme court wouldn't have let it stand if it had.  What it did do, that pro-lifers wanted and pro-choicers definitely didn't; was make a symbolic statement about the personhood of late-term fetuses: we said that killing them was murder, just as it would be if they were a newborn.  

The new law, according to its sponsor, would only allow justifiable homicide in the case of illegal acts that threaten a fetus; abortion is still legal in South Dakota, and will be for quite a while thanks to Roe.  So no, I do not think that South Dakota is attempting to legalize terrorism. The law may be rather stupid, but it's not a license to kill.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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