Most people don’t employ much clear reasoning about abortion. Purists on both sides have clear, consistent positions derived from first principles and are willing to accept the uncomfortable results of taking those principles to their logical conclusions. Non-purists are much more apt to rely on the “I know it when I see it” approach — definitely yes to abortion for 14-year-olds raped by their fathers, definitely no to adult women who didn’t bother to use contraception during consensual sex and delayed aborting until the eighth month.
As for the cases in between those extremes, it’s preferable not to think about them. Far easier to coast on benevolent assumptions: that pro-lifers will make adequate humane exceptions; that pro-choicers will opt to protect viable infants; that women won’t abort without due consideration for the potential life growing inside them. Welcome to the messy, illogical middle of the abortion debate, perhaps better called the Muddle.
Republicans have had some embarrassing moments in recent years when abortion hard-liners talked too explicitly about their purist vision, horrifying the Muddle. Now pro-choicers are having a similar moment, thanks to events in New York and Virginia.
New York state last week passed a law that would allow doctors, if Roe vs. Wade were overturned, to perform an abortion right up to the point of birth. Last week in Virginia, a similar bill proposed by Democrats was tabled in committee. During a legislative hearing, Del. Kathy Tran, D-Fairfax, admitted that, yes, her bill would allow a doctor to perform an abortion after the mother had gone into labor — a position that Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam bizarrely (and ineptly) decided to defend in a radio interview.
Northam’s defenders accurately point out that elective late-term abortions are rare. But critics ask, with at least equal merit: What medical conditions require crushing an infant’s skull rather than delivering it via Caesarean section? And if killing a baby that way would never happen, as the defenders claim, then why does it need to be legal?
No one has framed a good answer to that, because what I suspect to be the true answer risks getting them in trouble with the Muddle: Despite 50 years of “Our bodies, our lives!” chants, abortion was never primarily about a woman’s right to control her body. It was about her right to control her reproduction, which is not quite the same thing.
Consider a hypothetical: You are whisked away to a fairy kingdom that is full of magical wonders but forbids either abortion or adoption. Upon protesting to the ruler about this state of affairs, you are offered two choices for a new law you must pass: (1) Women may end pregnancies at any time, but if they do, the fetus will be magically transported to an artificial womb, where it will gestate for nine months, and then be returned to the mother’s care for the next 18 years, or (2) Women cannot terminate their pregnancies, but upon delivering the baby, they can opt to take no further responsibility for the child.
No cheating by saying you want both. Which is preferable? If you opt for the first, you are primarily concerned about the right not to be pregnant. But if you opt for the second, then your primary priority is avoiding parenthood. And as technology pushes back the date of viability, the difference between those positions is becoming more apparent.
Some pro-choice purists have always been comfortable confessing, at least in private, that their highest priority is the right not to mother. Now they are, in effect, confessing it publicly, too. But this raises uncomfortable questions, most obviously: What sort of political party is willing to cheerfully advocate destroying infants even as they’re getting ready to be born?
For those of us in the Muddle, the arguments about a woman’s right not to parent are much less compelling than the right to control her own body. Luckily, there are other ways to avoid parenthood if you’re not ready, so there’s no need to drag abortion into it. The justification for legal abortion is that pregnancy is slightly dangerous and very physically taxing, and women shouldn’t be forced to endure it against their will.
Yet like most of those in the Muddle, I find arguments about bodily control steadily less compelling as the pregnancy advances, and another body develops, which has its own claims to bodily integrity. And so, like my fellow Muddlers, I am eventually willing to say enough, you’ve gone too far.
Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter: @asymmetricinfo. Her column is distributed by the Washington Post Writers Group.