A Tragic Conflict of Competing Goods

Searching for nuance at a pivotal moment in the abortion debate

Police use metal barricades to keep protesters, demonstrators and activists apart in front of the U.S. Supreme Court
Chip Somodevilla / Getty

About the author: Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Up for Debate newsletter.

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Conversations of Note

Abortion has been discussed intensely this past week due to oral arguments in a Supreme Court case that could significantly alter the constitutional right to the procedure in the United States. At issue is a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy, contra current precedent. If upheld, the law will likely inspire new abortion restrictions in many red states.

The Legal Fight

We begin with the law’s sponsor, Becky Currie, a Mississippi state legislator and registered nurse. “I pray my bill will save millions of babies,” she wrote in Newsweek, where she explained that she’s helped to deliver many, including a 14-week-old born too early to survive. “I stayed with the mother and baby, watching his heart continue to beat in his tiny chest for about 20 minutes,” she recounted. “Preborn babies can feel pain by 15 weeks,” she argued, noting that many countries protect them at 12 weeks. She wants SCOTUS to take what she characterizes as “a monumental step to limit abortions and protect preborn life by restoring the constitutional protections that long existed in our nation until the disastrous decision in Roe v. Wade.”

The Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen framed the law differently. In her telling, it is not an attempt to restore a right to life; it is an attempt to abrogate a constitutional right to privacy and bodily autonomy. “The conservative Justices seemed eager to ‘return’ the question of abortion to the people,” she wrote after listening to oral arguments in the case. “But the point of a fundamental constitutional right is that it shouldn’t be at the people’s mercy, particularly when the composition of the Court itself has been shifted through political means for this purpose.”

What’s more, she argued that the Supreme Court would undermine its own authority by overturning a long-standing precedent in response to a state law that ran afoul of it. As she put the argument: “The spectacle of states brazenly flying in the face of the Court’s constitutional precedents, shortly followed by the Court’s discarding those precedents to make illegal actions legal after all, would effectively communicate that the Supreme Court is not, in fact, supreme.”

The journalist Cynthia Gorney’s reported essay “Gambling With Abortion,” originally published in Harper’s, evenhandedly captures an earlier era of debate about so-called partial-birth abortion.

[Caitlin Flanagan: The dishonesty of the abortion debate]

The Moral Debate

Ross Douthat recently made the straightforward case against abortion. Bill Scher attempted to rebut it, focusing on what he sees as the necessity of abortion rights if women and men are to be equal.

In a winding, sometimes graphic, carefully considered Boston Review essay, “Why I Provide Abortions,” Christine Henneberg wrote that she tries to preserve “the woman’s contextualized autonomy.”

I trust that my patients can take the facts I offer and make their own well-informed decisions, even if it is difficult. And it is often very, very difficult. When a woman asks to see a copy of her ultrasound image, I show it to her. When she asks to see the fetus after I’ve removed it (some women do), I will bring it into the room afterward in a small dish. One twenty-five-year-old mother of five asked if she was allowed to take the fetal tissue home to perform a funeral for it. In our clinic, this isn’t permitted; the consent she’d signed specified that all fetal tissue would be disposed of with biomedical waste. So instead she bowed her head toward the dish in my hand, closed her eyes, and whispered, “I love you. And I’m sorry.”

The real secret is that abortion is difficult. It is difficult because in a pregnant woman, there are no clear physiologic boundaries, no clean line showing what belongs to whom. Also—and this might sound shocking, coming from someone on this “side” of the debate—it is difficult because mothers love their children, and they often don’t know exactly how to think about, or whether they are allowed to love, an unborn child. Every woman has her reasons for seeking abortion. She may not view her reasons as tragic—probably very few women do. But I am always aware of the tragedy in the shadows, the silent gray area: all the things she will never say outside of that room, the messy truths no one else wants to hear; all the ways we, as women, are squeezed into impossible choices by a society that decontextualizes our autonomy, devalues our work, and disregards our equality.

New York once published vignettes by 26 women describing their abortions. One example:

When I got pregnant with my son, my very controlling boyfriend had convinced me that birth control poisoned my body. We usually slept in the car. I took a pregnancy test peeing over the kind of bucket you mix concrete in outside a dilapidated, vacant house. I decided I couldn’t abort a baby based on a stupid decision I made. They tell you that you love the baby automatically, but it’s not true.

Then, in 2008, I was pregnant by my boyfriend Steve. We worked together at Target. He wanted to get married and have the baby. I was barely supporting the son I had, still living with my parents. I didn’t want to be tied to Steve forever. My mom and I went to Planned Parenthood. It was pouring rain. The picketers met us at the car with disgusting pictures. I was quite emotional, but I was so scared that if I showed any emotions, they wouldn’t let me do it. I told them I already had a baby. The doctor acted like it was assembly-line work. I told Steve I miscarried. We dated another year. The secret was devastating. People might be more understanding if I’d had an abortion when I was living in a car in an abusive relationship. This time, I was on birth control, with a full-time job, a boyfriend.

People might think I should’ve kept it, but I couldn’t.

Caitlin Flanagan argued in 2019 that the abortion debate is often dishonest because neither side wants to grapple with the most powerful arguments for the position that they hope to defeat.

She wrote:

The argument for abortion, if made honestly, requires many words: It must evoke the recent past, the dire consequences to women of making a very simple medical procedure illegal. The argument against it doesn’t take even a single word. The argument against it is a picture.

This is not an argument anyone is going to win. The loudest advocates on both sides are terrible representatives for their cause. When women are urged to “shout your abortion,” and when abortion becomes the subject of stand-up comedy routines, the attitude toward abortion seems ghoulish. Who could possibly be proud that they see no humanity at all in the images that science has made so painfully clear? When anti-abortion advocates speak in the most graphic terms about women “sucking babies out of the womb,” they show themselves without mercy. They are not considering the extremely human, complex, and often heartbreaking reasons behind women’s private decisions. The truth is that the best argument on each side is a damn good one, and until you acknowledge that fact, you aren’t speaking or even thinking honestly about the issue. You certainly aren’t going to convince anybody. Only the truth has the power to move.

Similar conflictedness once led George McKenna to posit that “we can find in Lincoln’s anti-slavery rhetoric a coherent position that could serve as a model for pro-life politicians today.”

Here’s what he advised such a politician to say, in part:

If elected, I will not try to abolish an institution that the Supreme Court has ruled to be constitutionally protected, but I will do everything in my power to arrest its further spread and place it where the public can rest in the belief that it is becoming increasingly rare. I take very seriously the imperative, often expressed by abortion supporters, that abortion should be rare. Therefore, if I am elected, I will seek to end all public subsidies for abortion, for abortion advocacy, and for experiments on aborted children. I will support all reasonable abortion restrictions that pass muster with the Supreme Court, and I will encourage those who provide alternatives to abortion. Above all, I mean to treat it as a wrong. I will use the forum provided by my office to speak out against abortion and related practices, such as euthanasia, that violate or undermine the most fundamental of the rights enshrined in this nation’s founding charter.

As he saw it, the “permit, restrict, discourage” position “is unequivocally pro-life even as it is effectively pro-choice,” because “it does not say ‘I am personally opposed to abortion’; it says abortion is evil. Yet in its own way it is pro-choice … it does not demand an immediate end to abortion … it concludes that all those who oppose abortion can do right now is to contain the cancer … It thus acknowledges the present legal status of ‘choice’ even as it urges Americans to choose life.”

Question of the Week

“A striking thing about the American abortion debate,” Douthat wrote in his column, “is how little abortion itself is actually debated. The sensitivity and intimacy of the issue, the mixed feelings of so many Americans, mean that most politicians and even many pundits really don’t like to talk about it. The mental habits of polarization, the assumption that the other side is always acting with hidden motives or in bad faith, mean that accusations of hypocrisy or simple evil are more commonplace than direct engagement with the pro-choice or pro-life argument.”

The late Christopher Hitchens once wrote, “The only moral losers in this argument are those who say that there is no conflict, and nothing to argue about. The irresoluble conflict of right with right was Hegel’s definition of tragedy, and tragedy is inseparable from human life, and no advance in science or medicine is ever going to enable us to evade that.”

I’m eager to read anything you have to say about abortion that honors the spirit of either of those quotations, whether you’re hopelessly conflicted or a strong proponent of any position.

Email conor@theatlantic.com.

Provocation of the Week

Barton Gellman, who anticipated Donald Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in the 2020 election in the November 2020 articles “The Election That Could Break America” and “How Trump Could Attempt a Coup,” has a new article up, “Trump’s Next Coup Has Already Begun.” It argues, in part:

For more than a year now, with tacit and explicit support from their party’s national leaders, state Republican operatives have been building an apparatus of election theft. Elected officials in Arizona, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states have studied Donald Trump’s crusade to overturn the 2020 election. They have noted the points of failure and have taken concrete steps to avoid failure next time. Some of them have rewritten statutes to seize partisan control of decisions about which ballots to count and which to discard, which results to certify and which to reject. They are driving out or stripping power from election officials who refused to go along with the plot last November, aiming to replace them with exponents of the Big Lie. They are fine-tuning a legal argument that purports to allow state legislators to override the choice of the voters.

By way of foundation for all the rest, Trump and his party have convinced a dauntingly large number of Americans that the essential workings of democracy are corrupt, that made-up claims of fraud are true, that only cheating can thwart their victory at the polls, that tyranny has usurped their government, and that violence is a legitimate response.

That’s concerning.

End Notes

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