The Sanders-Scott Debates Episode 1: Abortion

My first post in the Lincoln-Douglas II: the Sanders-Scott Debates series. We’ll both be following up in the other’s comment sections. Cross posted at Virginia Right. You can read Sandy’s initial entry here.

I’ve written in the past about existential issues – policy questions that settle the political debate for many Americans. Some focus on Second Amendment rights, others on taxes or religion. Abortion – reproductive health care – is one of the big ones.  

Most activists frame the abortion discussion in terms of rights. The pro-life side privileges the right to life for the fetus. Others fight for a woman’s right to reproductive choice.  Advocacy coalitions on both sides privilege the freedom of the individuals they wish to protect.

Rights often conflict in a democracy, and the adjudication of these conflicts forms the core of politics. Madison expected factions to argue and fight and try to convince others they’re in the right and should form policy. Today we’re so polarized that these existential issues divide us in ways Madison didn’t expect. So even when one side or the other wins power and acts to implement policy, the other side rejects its legitimacy. Abortion is, after all, murder if you accept the personhood of a fetus. If you don’t, the pregnant woman’s health and personal freedom take precedence. She is, after all, the only human being involved.

Settling the abortion debate then depends in part on settling the question of when life begins. But even if one side won the argument, and its opponents accepted the legitimacy of the policy they seek to implement, this victory probably does not lead to optimal policy outcomes

This is because the competing freedom claims of fetuses and pregnant women cannot be resolved without an answer to the question of when human life begins.  If you think a zygote is a person with rights, then abortion is by definition murder, and both the women who get them and the doctors performing them should be prosecuted.  If not, you naturally wish to privilege the freedom of the only person involved: the pregnant woman.  Unfortunately, there is no satisfactory answer to this question, since science and religion can’t agree.

The problem with abortion is that even resolving this dispute would not lead to a policy that reduces the number of abortions. A pro-choice win certainly wouldn’t have this effect if it means “abortion on demand.” But a “pro-life” victory in this debate and the resulting expansion of restrictions on abortion and interference in the relationship between doctors and patients only establishes the legal and medical regime for getting them.  Women who want them – even anti-choice women – will get them.  The question is how and where.  In other words, prohibition would simply create a new black market and a new criminal class–it would not eliminate abortion.

A far better solution depends on mitigating the circumstances that increase the incidence of unwanted pregnancy.  This requires a robust regime of broad health education that begins at a young age and includes discussions of the moral, physical, and emotional consequences of sexual activity in its various contexts with a focus on the real-world problems young people face (e.g., bullying and peer pressure).  Such discussions must include mitigation techniques such as abstinence and birth control, and the pros and cons of each.  Conservatives worry that this might lead to increased sexual activity, but replacing “don’t worry about what it is, just don’t do it” with comprehensive sex education might increase reliance on abstinence. What we need is comprehensive education for young people in a values-based framework. We should avoid shaming sexual activity while connecting the desires and internal conflicts sexuality drives in all young people with broader mental and physical health. Parents and grandparents and educators should give kids this support and teach them to make good decisions. Most will.

This is a sticky dispute, with probably irreconcilable differences between the two sides.  It’s a religious question for many, after all, and personal religious views on this deserve respect. 

Framing the reproductive choice discussion in terms of freedom might lead to changes in current policy.  But none of the policies likely to result therefrom–completely legal abortion, abortion prohibition, or limiting reproductive choice at the margin will have the maximum possible harm reduction effect. It won’t reduce abortion. Education will.

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