Politics should have no place in that debate, you might think, but they do. The political argument against late-term abortion, especially where it shades into infanticide, is that most people oppose it, often vehemently. Acceptance of it is higher in some states than in others—the political pressures on the governor of New York, for example, are different from those on the governor of Ohio. Abortion as a political issue is national, however, like slavery in the nineteenth century. When the governor of Virginia suggested that a child who survives an attempted abortion is not entitled to the same care that a wanted child would be, he not only walked into a political quagmire. He dragged his party with him. Democrats running for president are now more likely than they were last month to face questions about their party’s position on late-term abortion.
Moving toward the Center
“Even I have trouble explaining to my family that we are not about killing babies,” Donna Brazile, former chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee (2011, 2016–17), told a reporter for the New York Times back in 2004. If Brazile still has the ear of party leaders, she should tell them to tell Democrats across the country to stop defending late-term abortion. The pragmatic argument against what they’re doing requires only that they recognize their political self-interest and soften their abortion-rights absolutism a little accordingly.
For them to do so would be comparable to what pro-life activists and politicians do when they propose abortion restrictions that include exceptions in cases where the child was conceived in rape or incest or where the life of the mother is endangered. The exceptions contradict the logic of the proposition that the moral worth of our lives at conception is no less than at any time later in our lives, but most of us tend not to be philosophers when we have to imagine our daughter pregnant with the child of a man who raped her.
Likewise, supporters of abortion rights in general invite discomfiting questions about the logic of their position when they support any measures at all that could be seen to call into question a woman’s right to end her pregnancy, but most of us tend not to be philosophers when we have to imagine an infant struggling for life on a metal table in a hospital after, to put it delicately, a complicated delivery. Even if we disagree about what justice, medicine, or the law demands that our response to the child should be, what politics demands it to be is not up for debate: Care for the child. Put him in the intensive-care unit if necessary. Try to save his life. The response that politics demands our response to be to late-term abortion in general is proportionate: Permit abortion in the third trimester if the mother’s life is endangered but not if the only reason is to prevent the birth of a child with a mental disability. Only 20 percent of Americans, according to Gallup, think that abortion in the third trimester should be legal “when the woman does not want the child for any reason.”
The Two Sides Have a Mutual Interest
Abortion-rights idealists—or purists, rigorists, absolutists, call them what you will—might argue that the law is a teacher and that the political disfavor they suffer now is a price they’ve chosen to pay for future acceptance of the idea that abortion up to the moment of birth should be available without questions or restrictions. But is that a price that the National Democratic Committee is willing to pay? It’s in the interest of Democratic leaders first to hear the question, then to acknowledge the obvious answer, and then to act on it. The obvious answer, of course, is “No.” They’ll come to that conclusion only after they’ve heard the question.
They show no sign of having heard it. In one fell swoop, the pro-life movement can help them and its own cause by making the question audible and intelligible to them. The trick is to get an audience with them. That means identifying approachable Democrats and then approaching them, in goodwill and good faith, pointing out where the two sides have a mutual interest. “We come not to preach or to lecture. We’d like to do business with you.”
Democrats aim to win elections now. Pro-life activists want laws and policies that provide more protection for the unborn rather than less. If Democrats in their agenda and rhetoric take even a modest step in the direction of mainstream public opinion on abortion, they will soften the resistance to their national brand, and their prospects in elections where they’ve struggled in recent cycles will improve, while the pro-life cause will have been served, however modestly.
Pro-life Americans have other reasons for wanting to work with the Democratic Party. Democrats will be around, holding office, and exercising power for a long time to come, so pro-life activists who devote all their political energy to beating them should use some of it to try to win them over instead. I don’t mean try to win them over to unqualified support for the protection of unborn children from the moment of conception—not even Republicans dare to agitate for that much, in practice. I mean that pro-life activists should do what they can to show the largest political party in the United States that it could help itself by making, at least in the hard cases of late-term abortion, concessions to the conscience of the average American.