In the days since Roe was overturned, I have spent significant time reading, thinking, and ranting as more and more states place enormous restrictions on abortion rights. In the days after the decision, I read the full opinion and countless articles commenting upon it. Even as a staunch pro-choice advocate, I found myself acknowledging merit in the idea that we need to codify abortion rights in law, yet I also agreed that overturning Roe had upset settled precedent that women had come to rely on in their decision-making.
I have continued to study both liberal and conservative views about the decision, and in opening myself to the spectrum of opinions, I started questioning the facts I had always relied on when professing my beliefs. In the past, I always dismissed the idea that life begins before birth, but I could never really explain or justify that position. I realized that the point when cells become a potential human isn’t really a scientific question; it’s a philosophical one, and as such, it’s not something one can prove and hold as absolute fact. In the process of opening myself to all points-of-view, I came to agree that a fetus is a potential life. Yet that shift in thinking didn’t change my position on abortion rights -- ironically, it only strengthened it. It also strengthened my ability to argue that I think women must have abortion rights to be able to participate fully in adult life, as well as how I now think about the level of abortion rights that are reasonable to codify into law.
My view today is that abortion rights are about balancing competing interests. And in this way, abortion rights become just like other rights we grant and justify in our country. We set the speed limit to balance the interests of personal freedom around expediency and fatal accidents; we set the drinking age to balance the interests of personal freedom around alcohol consumption and potentially fatal imbibing; we set gun rights to balance the personal freedom of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms and the death that comes from gun use (a balance I completely disagree with by the way…). In this vein, abortion rights are just another decision that must be made on a continuum of competing interests -- in this case, between the pregnant woman’s personal freedom about life choices and protecting a potential life in fetal form. And while we mostly read about the extreme endpoints, there’s a good argument to be made that we should settle what we legally allow for in the middle.
What is that middle? Well, a clear majority of the country thinks women should have access to abortion under the same or more moderate terms than Roe and Casey allowed for (1/2), and about two-thirds of adults support allowing some burdens like waiting periods or counseling (3). On the other hand, science tells us a fetus can feel pain as early as 12 weeks and likely by 18 weeks (4/5). At 12 weeks, the fetus is 2.5 inches; its organs are formed but not yet working, and at 18 weeks, the fetus is 5.5 inches and can hear you (6). Using other Western democracies as a guide, most western European countries allow abortion for any reason between 12-18 weeks, with most choosing a 14-week cutoff, and beyond that to save the life of the mother. All other than Malta allow abortion in the case of rape or incest (7). Middle doesn’t seem that difficult to define. So why isn’t a law which allows a pregnant woman a reasonable amount of time to abort for any reason without undue burden and also recognizes the fetus’ developing nature making its way through Congress now? Why isn’t a partner law addressing the need for contraceptive education/access and maternal/fetal health support for low-income families on the same docket to ensure we avoid abortion whenever possible?
Recently, I read the Women’s Health Protection Act (WHPA) and The Reproductive Choice Act (RCA), the latter advanced by Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski to codify Roe and Casey into law as it existed pre-Dobbs. The WHPA would enact abortion rights towards the pro-choice extreme, and the RCA would preserve the same fragile rights that existed before June 24 of this year. Neither law is going anywhere because the conservatives won’t support the former, and the progressives won’t support the latter. And while the RCA is not the best long-term answer to this issue because it just kicks the can forward on viability (which will get ever earlier as neo-natal science advances) and undue burdens, at least it would return us to a national standard from which to start working towards better laws.
I have come to be increasingly frustrated that moderation cannot seem to gain any footing in our national dialogue or in our government. I cannot find an organization pushing a moderate national abortion law; I cannot find national politicians advancing laws in that vein. And while I know we are polarized on so many issues, while I know nothing happens in Washington right before an election, women are suffering, and popular opinion is not unclear. I am outraged because I cannot figure out what to do beyond trying to alleviate the suffering of women in trigger states with enabling donations because our elected representatives can’t get behind laws that have a chance to prevail.
Recently, I sent an email to twenty friends and colleagues of different ages, religions and varying political views asking if I was crazy to invest my time towards a moderate approach – whether that be through trying to partner with someone in Congress or by trying to grow support in a grassroots way. About half spurred me on – enough that I have spent the last several weeks researching – and brooding on – what to do. And sadly, I’m still unsure. I’d like to help Collins and Murkowski pass their stopgap measure as a start, but I know the RCA not only doesn’t have the Republican votes, but it will not win progressive Democratic votes either. I’d like to gather millions of signatures in support of a moderate bill and then take that to someone in Congress, but that feels a bit like a pipe-dream, since even if I accomplished this feat through a highly unlikely viral campaign, I’m not sure who would champion a moderate approach today, and we all know there certainly won’t be such a champion before the November election. In sum, I know the most popular and most lasting answer for this country is a middle ground, and I am so frustrated that our broken government system has made me feel paralyzed and unable to make a difference in that fight.
Last week, I had an interesting call with a moderate Democratic congressional candidate who told me she wants to work on a moderate law if elected. I donated to her campaign, and we agreed to revisit how I can help if she wins. I’m already asking myself if a freshman congresswoman from upstate New York stands a chance of gaining support to advance something moderate after November. I’m trying to be optimistic, as I do think that’s a fight I would vigorously join.