I hope that the pro-choice side is sharpening its pencils after the Supreme Court leak of a possible decision overturning Roe v. Wade. For the first time in decades it will have to argue its case, rather than shouting slogans.
For what is remarkable about all the commotion is how much rage there is and how little logic. If the existence of the Sasquatch were at stake, perhaps there would be no point in wasting our breath. Only 0.01% of Americans believe in its existence.
But scepticism about abortion is much more than 0.01%. According to the latest report from the Pew Research Center, about 60% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances and about 40% believe that it should be illegal in all or most circumstances. About 16 of the 50 states are hostile towards abortion on demand.
If Roe v. Wade is law and if abortion is a constitutional right, there is no need for reason and evidence. But if it is overturned, and if abortion is returned to the state legislatures, the two sides will have to argue their case, not shout.
But shouting is the order of the day on the pro-choice side.
- The editorial in the New York Times focuses entirely upon “reproductive rights”. It does not mention the word “child” or “fetus” once.
- The editorial in The Guardian says that a “human rights catastrophe” is looming. It cites a United Nations official who says that deny the right to abortion could violate an international convention against torture. It does not mention the word “child” or “fetus” once.
- The editorial in The Economist frets about “accelerating the division of the country into two mutually hostile blocs”. It does not mention the word “child” or “fetus” once.
- President Joe Biden insists that he supports a woman’s right to choose – without describing what that choice is. It did not mention the word “child” or “fetus” once in his official statement on the leak.
- The editorial in the Washington Post describes the decision as “a grievous blow to freedom in the United States”. It did not mention the word “child” or “fetus” – or even the word “woman”.
This rhetoric is like Jefferson Davis insisting that the South has the right to choose – without mentioning slavery. In principle, the “right to choose” is sacred – but it depends on what is chosen. The South wanted to choose slavery; the pro-choice side wants to choose the right to kill an unborn child. Shouting “choice” without disclosing what you have chosen is mere propaganda.
In a real debate, opposing sides must attempt to engage with the substance of rival claims. Ignoring them entirely is the mark of an ideologue or fanatic. It’s precisely what Putin’s Russia is doing at the moment. A glance at the English-language website of the Russian on-line newspaper Pravda is very instructive. Its headlines range from “Ukraine sums up 30 years of its very sad and twisted independence” to “Ukraine wants to have the army of Nazi zombies”. Not a moment is wasted in testing the weight of Ukraine’s claims.
It’s just what you would expect in an autocratic regime. But not in a liberal society, which has a very different way of resolving conflicts over conflicting rights. That’s the job, ultimately, of our democratically elected legislators. Dictatorships resolve conflicts by declaring that the other side has no case at all. Since 1973 the pro-choice side has, by and large, chosen that path.
While the pro-life side has its hotheads and even fanatics, most pro-lifers understand the appeal of women’s rights. They realise that women have been historically oppressed. But they believe not in the right of women to have abortions, but in the right of pregnant women and their children to receive empathy, care and support.
Long before the leak, pro-life groups were working to support women who faced unwanted pregnancies. And after it, they have renewed their commitment. As Professor Robert George, of Princeton University, wrote a few days ago:
the movement needs to extend the protections of law on terms of fairness and equality to mothers and children alike. Going still further, it needs to work in both the public and private spheres to provide necessary support for mothers and children, never allowing their interests or well-being to be pitted against each other. To its great credit, the pro-life movement has been doing this since before Roe v. Wade—again, in the face of hostility from the most powerful forces. We will need now to do more and better. We can and we will.
The pro-choice side will have a lot of heavy lifting to do. It will have to prove that the unborn child is not human and that even if it is human, it has no rights. It will have to prove that it is reasonable to abort Down syndrome children or to select the sex of the child. These are steep hills to climb for people who have relied on slogans and sound-bites for 50 years.