Wednesday, November 17, 2010

False Compromise

This week, Slate columnist William Saletan has been writing about a conference that took place at Princeton University last month. The aim of the conference was to encourage dialogue between pro-choice and anti-choice activists, in the hopes of finding common ground that would benefit both sides. Reaction to the conference, both from attendees and the organizers, was mixed, with some saying that one side was favored over the other. Saletan has taken it upon himself to offer each side suggestions on what they can learn from the event.

In today's column, he suggests that pro-choicers "reconsider the legality of second trimester abortions." Springboarding off a comment made by David Garrow, a historian who has written extensively about pro-choice issues, Saletan suggests a compromise in which pro-choicers accept restrictions on abortions performed after 12 weeks, and anti-choicers support contraception. In his view, enforcing a deadline on elective abortions means that women would have better options for morning pregnancy in the first place.

The problem with Saletan’s compromise is that pro-choicers are being asked to give up on a core belief, while in exchange antis are being asked to embrace something that, logically, they should support anyway. Most anti-abortion activists genuinely want to reduce the number of abortions. Increasing access to birth control accomplishes that goal by preventing pregnancies. The only reason why this even seems like a compromise is that a strident minority of the anti-abortion movement, usually represented by celibate Catholic priests, also opposes any form of birth control other than abstinence-only education. Yet as numerous studies in America and abroad have shown, abstinence-only education fails to have any practical reduction in the number of unplanned pregnancies, while easy access to contraception does – and by so doing, helps reduce the number of abortions. So why should the pro-choice side have to give up anything to work towards a goal that the reasonable majorities on both sides of the debate want?

Even for those like me who hope that there are issues where both sides can compromise, the legal right to second-trimester abortions should not be tossed around lightly as a bargaining chip. Saletan does not offer any specifics on what restricting abortions after 12 weeks would entail -- except to highlight Garrow's statement (which Saletan has edited, so it's difficult to know the exact context) that he can imagine entertaining the question of if post-12 week abortions should be subject to the kind of hospital committee process used in the decades before abortion was legalized. As Garrow himself noted, this is a "potentially dangerous slippery slope."

And even greater concern is the impracticality of enforcing such a system in a manner that would actually help women. I can't help but be concerned that adding another layer of bureaucracy to obtain a legal medical procedure would result in delays, and unnecessary stress for all involved. Furthermore, this compromise seems predicated on the idea that there is something wrong with having an abortion after 12 weeks. It fails to take into account the myriad reasons that a woman might have to wait until the second trimester to seek care. What about the women who honestly did not know that they were pregnant until the 12th week? This is not as uncommon as one might suspect. And what about women who decide to terminate for a medical reason? Often fetal abnormalities are not able to be properly diagnosed until the second trimester. Does Saletan think that forcing a woman who chooses to terminate her pregnancy for medical reasons to get permission for a necessary procedure is really in anyone's best interest?

I am all for finding common ground with anti-choice movement. Unlike many of my colleagues, I actually do think that it is possible. However, achieving this by sacrificing women's choice is not an acceptable compromise. There is a difference between using common sense to find common ground, and willingly giving up freedom of choice. I refuse to believe that compromises such as the one that Saletan proposes are the only valid ways to find this seemingly elusive common ground.

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