Alternative titles for this essay:
- “The natural attitude: pro-choice at conception, pro-life at term.”
- “Late-term abortions are rare and morally suspect. Compromise!”
- “I’m pro-choice, but not for late-term fetuses.”
- “A commonsense compromise on late-term abortions”
- (if I want to pick a fight): “How Pro-Choice Extremists Sabotaged the Democratic Party.”
Are you okay with on-demand abortions late in pregnancy, say in the eighth or ninth month?
The question is almost absurd, for three reasons.
First, such abortions are rare.
Second, no woman would want such a late-term abortion except for a very good reason, such as her health being at risk, or rape.
Third, the fetus is usually viable and has a highly developed nervous system, so chances are you are not comfortable with such late-term abortions.
For these reasons, and because Democrats keep losing elections, Democrats should support a grand compromise: reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions, in exchange, say, for reasonable restrictions on gun rights or, better yet, guaranteed health care for all — something that pro-life people should support.
Many Democrats and women will be outraged at this suggestion, but when you think about the facts, you realize that it’s an obvious step that would help the Democrats at very low cost.
Conservatives like to use purported examples of late-term abortions to illustrate the immorality of abortion. And Democrats seem unwilling to compromise on the issue. But late-term abortions are extremely rare.
“Of the 1.6 million abortions performed in the U.S. each year, 91 percent are performed during the first trimester (12 or fewer weeks’ gestation); 9 percent are performed in the second trimester (24 or fewer weeks’ gestation); and only about 100 are performed in the third trimester (more than 24 weeks’ gestation).” (source: Fast Facts: U.S. Abortion Statistics)Likewise, “just 1.3 percent of abortions took place at or after 21 weeks pregnancy.” (source)
Data for other countries are similar.
Only four doctors openly perform late-term abortions in the U.S.
Not only are late-term abortions rare. They’re also restricted already. According to Late-Term Abortions Are Rare and ‘Partial Birth Abortions’ Illegal. Why Do They Keep Dominating the Reproductive-Rights Debate?, in 43 U.S. state “abortion is banned—with limited exceptions, such as for the safety of the mother—after the second trimester, after the point of fetal viability (when a fetus could live on its own outside the womb), or after a specified number of weeks (generally 20-24). When exceptions are required, many states require two physicians to sign-off on the procedure before it’s permissable [sic].”
In 2013 the House of Representatives passed a bill to outlaw abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases of rape, incest, and where the health of the woman is endangered. The Senate refused to consider the legislation and President Obama said he’d veto it.
In January of 2017, the U.S. Senate failed to pass a late-term abortion ban. As the New York Times reports
The Senate rejected a bill on Monday to ban most abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, a largely symbolic vote aimed at forcing vulnerable Democrats to take a stand that could hurt their prospects for re-election in states won by President Trump.
By a vote of 51 to 46, the measure fell well short of the 60-vote threshold required for the Senate to break a Democratic filibuster. The outcome was not a surprise, and the vote fell mostly along party lines.
But the article goes on to report: “The United States is one of just seven countries — including China and North Korea — that permit elective abortion after 20 weeks, a fact that backers of the failed measure brought up repeatedly on Monday.”
The Supreme Court ruled that while abortion is a constitutional right, the right is not absolute and states can restrict late-term abortions provided they make exceptions for the life and health of a woman and provided the doctor gets to decide what constitutes health, including mental health. “Although the vast majority of states restrict later-term abortions, many of these restrictions have been struck down….Nonetheless, statutes conflicting with the Supreme Court’s requirements remain on the books in some states.” (source)
Because late-term abortions are so rare, because late-term fetuses are viable and presumably have feelings, because late-term abortions are already highly restricted, because tens of millions of voters think abortion is a sin and so vote Republican, abortion rights supporters should be willing to accept national restrictions on such abortions, provided there are exceptions for the health of the mother and for rape and incest.
One can and should quibble on whether 20 weeks was the correct cutoff — 24 weeks might be more reasonable — and one can quibble over whether pregnancy is measured from the last menstrual period or from the date of likely fertilization. And one can quibble about what constitutes the health of the woman. But it sure seems that compromising on this issue would be a reasonable choice, given all the other issues and seats that are at stake in elections, and given the fact that there are so few late-term abortions.
I’ve spoken to conservatives who say they’d gladly vote for Democrats but for this one issue: abortion.
In Why Abortion isn’t Murder I argued at length that until the embryo has a highly developed nervous system, there’s “nobody home” — no consciousness — and so abortion is not the destruction of a person. When I showed that article to some abortion rights activists, they were skeptical. They were uncomfortable with an argument based on consciousness because, they rightly saw, it logically leads to a position in which there are restrictions on late-term abortions. Abortion rights activists prefer an argument based on privacy rights: a woman should have absolute control over her own body.
According to a 2012 Gallup poll, only 14% of respondents think that third-trimester abortions should be legal.
What are the risks for Democrats of compromising on this issue? First, the haggling over the cutoff date — 24 weeks? 20 weeks? — could be ugly. Second, it’s unclear how many votes it would win in elections, because voters are so brainwashed and uninformed. (For example, they blame Democrats for the deficits when it’s the Republicans who are much more responsible.) Third, conservatives may use the compromise as an excuse for demanding tighter restrictions on abortions.
Perhaps some of my feminist friends will be upset with me because of this stance. Besides, they may say, I am not a woman, so I have no right to state my opinion.
But face the facts. Trump won; a majority of white female voters voted for him. Republicans control the House, the Senate, and a majority of legislatures and governorships. Soon they may have overwhelming control the Supreme Court. Politics requires compromise. For tens of millions of Americans, abortion is a moral outrage and is the defining factor on how they vote. Late-term abortions are rare. Are you comfortable aborting a nine month old fetus? Reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions are a worthwhile compromise, if that’s what it takes to avoid GOP control of all levels of government, and if that what it takes to win on other issues dear to progressives.
Chris Hedges suggests a similar position in his article The Coming Collapse. He writes, “It [the Democratic Party] plays to the margins, especially in election seasons, refusing to address substantive political and social problems and instead focusing on narrow cultural issues like gay rights, abortion and gun control in our peculiar species of anti-politics.” (my emphasis)
Reasonable restrictions on late-term abortions are like reasonable restrictions on guns: something that a vast majority of people want but that political extremism makes very hard to enact.