Conor at The American Scene has a post up trying to clarify this Ross Douthat editorial. They are both interesting reads. I find that any discussion of abortion, much like that of text editors (VIM Roolz!) and of religion, is dominated in large part by two very virulent, angry constituencies who typically try to yell down the other side, never pausing to examine the extremely subtle and difficult differences in the topic. Then there are people who fall in neither loud group who try valiantly to think through what can only be described as a horribly complex topic, a topic that can certainly have no clear resolution that says “This is the Truth”. And yet, in the case of abortion, we have Roe v. Wade saying very nearly that.
My thinking on Roe has greatly evolved over the past 10-15 years. I was once a staunch, if reasonably disinterested, supporter who believed that a woman should always have the right to an abortion because to me, in my highly simplified view, women who had abortions were 18 year old college students who had made a terrible mistake and couldn’t possibly have a baby because that would ruin two lives. Of course, nothing is ever that simple. As it turns out, 50% of all abortions are repeat abortions and as many as 25% are the third or fourth a woman has had. Many women use abortion as a form of birth control. The cases where abortion should be legal at all times like rape or great bodily danger for the woman are so rare that they would easily be legislated into law. It is interesting that the same extreme fringe on the left who say that any limit on abortion will lead to the ongoing degradation of the right are typically quite vocal about “reasonable restrictions to gun ownership” being just fine. Of course, one of those rights is in the Bill of Rights and one isn’t.
Apropos of that, the more I thought about it and read Constitutional thinking on the matter, the more I came to believe that abortion has no business being decided, pro or con, at the federal level. It just isn’t a federal matter. It doesn’t have the stature of voting rights or civil rights. It should be a state matter, like so many other rights that are enumerated in the Constitution.
There are quite a few people talking about abortion again (as if it ever really stops) because of George Tiller’s murder. Some people from both sides yell at each other as always and then there are people like Ross and Conor who try to make sense of the entire mess, trying to rationalize actions of both sides, something difficult to do in normal circumstances and probably impossible in the current irrational situation. However, it’s important to try so that maybe situations like this don’t happen again.
Here is what I see as Ross’ main argument: Because foes of abortion do not have a democratic, legislative way to air their views, some of them on the fringe see an act of murder as justifiable and in fact the only option. Because we cannot legislate a rational though messy compromise concerning abortion, abortion opponents feel helpless to change the current situation and certain fringe elements of the overall opposition decide to take what they see as the law according to God or whatever into their own hands. Hilzoy finds this to be a ridiculous argument because just because a terrorist believes they are acting in the right, they are not above the law of man and walking into a church and shooting a man in the face point blank while he hands out bulletins is always terrorism. And of course, this is true. But I don’t think that Ross is saying that Scott Roeder was justified in performing this cowardly act of terrorism. What he is trying to do is understand what might drive a man like Scott Roeder to do this.
This is where Roe v Wade has an unintended consequence and I personally think it makes some logical sense. Instead of having a legislative answer for abortion, we have a decision by the Supreme Court saying abortion should be legal. Granted, opponents of abortion could gather the required number of people to get an Amendment to the Constitution up and running to overturn abortion but let’s be honest, that is not anywhere near the same thing as getting a law passed in Congress (or even better in your own State legislature) that lays out rules and exceptions to the rule for when abortion should be allowed and when it should not.
None of this excuses the acts of one violent man. However, on a topic as controversial as ending a pregnancy, shouldn’t the rules be decided upon by the people? If it’s true that 58% of people support Roe v. Wade, then a law would be passed that reflects that majority. If in fact, fewer people support unregulated abortion depending on the trimester, a different law might be passed. Instead what we have is a situation where none of that can happen and in order to get reasonable restrictions to abortion, we have to pass a Constitutional amendment.
In the end, reality trumps theory and what has happened is that though Roe v Wade is the law of the land, one man has greatly changed a woman’s right to choose by walking into a church in Wichita, KS and murdering one of the three doctors in the U.S who perform late term (post 21st week) abortions. As of this writing, the family of George Tiller has decided to close the clinic where he carried out his life’s work.