A Middle Ground on Abortion

The last thing our country needs is to fan the flames of another already hot issue. But that’s what’s likely to happen when the Supreme Court issues its ruling — probably next June — on the latest challenge to Roe v. Wade.

Most legal tea leave readers that I’ve come across seem to think that the Court will gut or substantially weaken Roe, but may not explicitly overturn it. We won’t know until we see the actual ruling how much those distinctions will matter.

Like most Americans I’m a conflicted supporter of abortion rights. I support the right to choose for one philosophical and once practical reason. The philosophical reason is that the question of when life begins — between conception and viability outside the womb — can’t be answered by science. It’s a personal question that the government shouldn’t attempt to answer for us. And, in fact, that’s pretty much what Roe says. It says that before viability, with some exceptions, the government can’t interfere. That’s been settled law for a half-century and I think it’s correct.

My practical reason for supporting Roe is that abortions will happen whether they’re legal or not. Forcing women into dangerous situations isn’t a solution I’m interested in. I agree with Bill Clinton’s formulation that abortion should be, “safe, legal and rare.” That’s why I support Planned Parenthood. It’s an organization whose mission is to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

But notable here is that I do not agree with the common rhetorical position on the left that the question is only about a woman’s control over her own body. A fetus is not a gallbladder. It’s a separate human life at some stage of development. I think pro-choice activists start losing the debate when they ignore that.

The reasonable answer to this problem is to work together to make sure that women and men have the information and access to the services they need so that every pregnancy is planned and desired. And, in fact, we’ve been making progress on this front. Abortions are down by 20% since 2011 and it’s not because of restrictions. We should be celebrating that and trying to accelerate the trend, not retreating into heavy-handed state laws that will only force the practice into dark corners.

That position is probably where most of the American people are at. Polling has shown remarkably stable views on abortion since 1975. We’re split almost evenly between pro-choice (49%) and pro-life (47%) camps, but there’s actually more consensus then those broad categories would suggest. About a third of Americans think abortion should be legal under all circumstances while one in five think it should be illegal under all circumstances. Most of us, about half, think it should be legal in most, but not all, cases.

But, as David Brooks has pointed out, policy in America is increasingly made by one hard-headed minority or another. So, even though there is plenty of middle ground on abortion, it doesn’t feel like it because one set of zealots says that it’s murder while another set of true-believers says that it’s a personal right in all cases. When we reduce everything to fundamental rights, compromise becomes treason. In most cases it’s healthier and more productive to look at issues from a practical, even technocratic, point of view than an abstract, philosophical and passionate one.

This is an issue that will most likely tear an even deeper gash into an already fissured society. But that’s because those of us who don’t see everything in stark black and white aren’t much in the conversation. All the more reason for those of us who believe in moderation and cool reason to step up and speak up. We should start doing that now, but reason and moderation will be in much greater demand after the Court issues its ruling next year.

And another matter… last week I urged readers to consider running for the Madison School Board. Let me amend that appeal. For the love of God people, please someone, run for the School Board! Two candidates have announced their intention to run for the seat being vacated by Cris Carusi. One says that she wants to make school safety a priority, which is good, except that position will be over-shadowed by some negative comments she made about transgender people. In response, a transgender activist announced that she will run. We do not need a debate about transgender issues. In Madison that debate has been settled in favor of transgender rights and that’s fine with me. What we need is a serious debate about how best to provide students with basic safety and orderly classrooms, and how to help under-achieving students while providing a great education for average and high achievers as well. If you want to focus on those issues — and want to avoid side-shows — please think about tossing your hat in the ring.

Welcome to the 291st day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

One thought on “A Middle Ground on Abortion

  1. Thank you. I agree with your post and appreciate the clarity with which you present this point of view. Especially “When we reduce everything to fundamental rights, compromise becomes treason. In most cases it’s healthier and more productive to look at issues from a practical, even technocratic, point of view than an abstract, philosophical and passionate one.”

    It seems that perspective applies to lots of contentious topics these days. We all passionately believe in our moral and logical foundational concepts. But we’re in a democracy with other people that don’t agree with our perspective and perhaps hold opposite views, and our Constitution isn’t particularly clear on quite a few topics. That necessitates compromise, which our political system has less and less room for with each passing year…

    Rather than fundamental rights, perhaps a focus on fundamental problems. What basic changes could be pursued that would create a government that better represents the will of the public? (Even if that will disagrees with me!) There are so many topics that have long standing majority consensus views but which are not reflected in our law….


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