Earlier this semester, The Observer’s Ryan Williams penned a vitriolic editorial condemning those who take a definitive stance on abortion. Although he titles and begins his piece under the guise of criticizing “dangerous rhetoric” coming from either side of the issue, he soon transitions into a full-blown assault on anyone who has the gall to consider abortion a “black and white, good versus evil” issue.
Fortunately for us all, Mr. Williams provides a “common-sense middle ground on which we can all agree.” Channeling former President Clinton, he leaves us with the contention that the only position a reasonable person can take is to ensure that abortion is “safe, legal, and rare.”
It should be obvious at this point that Mr. Williams’ line of thinking is significantly flawed in a number of ways. First of all, simply stating that there is no objective moral dimension to abortion does not make it so. Asserting that anyone who holds a firm conviction on this issue is a “slave to ideology” is absurd, and insulting to the majority of pro-lifers who have formed their beliefs rationally and hold them with great sincerity.
I imagine that this type of argumentation is much the same as the kind used by those who attempted to maintain that slavery in nineteenth century America was not a clear-cut, “good versus evil” issue. I do not use this comparison flippantly or for dramatic effect. Indeed it’s one that has been used before by much more intellectually accomplished individuals than I.
The over-riding similarity is fairly self-evident: a group of people defining a weaker minority as “nonpersons” in order to justify doing whatever they want with them. The point is that society once thought slavery was acceptable, that it wasn’t “objectively wrong.” But just as society can diverge from the proper moral track, it can also learn from its mistakes and rediscover what is “right.” We certainly acknowledge today that slavery is intrinsically evil. Mr. Williams’ demand that we drop any form of debate and accept the status quo is similar to what Chesterton describes as the false belief that history is “a toboggan slide” – when in reality it’s “a road to be reconsidered and even retraced.” Indeed, Mr. Williams’ stance is the least “liberal” approach he could condone.
Clearly, Mr. Williams’ insistence that all of us abandon our own reasonably-formed convictions and adopt his preferred position is ridiculous. As someone who argues that the practice should be legal, why does he state that abortions, simple medical procedures as he would have us believe, should be rare? Removing a cancerous tumor is something that we should hope is rare, because its occurrence means that an individual has cancer. But such an operation is necessary. It is not merely a “choice,” an alternative option, as advocates of abortion are always insisting the practice they defend is. And, as the innumerable mothers who have carried their “accidents” to term can attest, unintended pregnancies can hardly be considered a definitively bad thing.
To be perfectly clear, Mr. Williams and many others who support the legality of abortion do not believe that aborting a baby is sometimes a good choice and in other instances a bad one. They don’t openly acknowledge that it is an evil, but a necessary one. They maintain that a woman’s decision is justified no matter the circumstances. After all, Roe v. Wade does not give women the right to seek an abortion if and only if the pregnancy is the result of a rape or the mother’s life is in question. It gives women the right to seek an abortion, full stop. Therefore, a woman can choose to have abortions for any reason, up to the point until she feels, as Mr. Williams maintains, “confident and comfortable” enough to have a child. Even then she can proceed with an abortion. And indeed, if this is his minimum threshold for when an abortion is acceptable, then he has none. It is right whenever a woman chooses to have one; her choice makes it right.
So if abortion is a choice to be made by a woman, always justifiable no matter the circumstances, one of a number of options that are not in any way better or worse than the rest, why do Mr. Williams and other defenders of abortion insist – at least in public – that it should be rare? That it is something that should be avoided?
In acknowledging that occurrences of the practice should be minimized, they tacitly admit that there is, in fact, something wrong and undesirable about it. Such reasoning is fatally contradictory and undermines Mr. Williams’ entire “middle ground” position. The problem with Mr. Williams and those who adopt a similar perspective is that they indirectly acknowledge that there is something problematic about the very nature of abortion, but allow it anyway. Whether they realize it or not, they recognize that abortion destroys a human life and that this is wrong. Why else should abortions be rare? Yet despite this, they turn around and condone a practice that does just exactly that.
Ayn Rand is a woman whose merits are vastly exaggerated by conservatives, and it is somewhat ironic that I bring her to my aid in a decidedly pro-life editorial. Nonetheless, her words echo true here: “There are two sides to every issue: one side is right and the other is wrong, but the middle is always evil. The man who is wrong still retains some respect for truth, if only by accepting the responsibility of choice. But the man in the middle is the knave who blanks out the truth in order to pretend that no choice or values exist.”
Rand’s insight is spot on. Those who argue that abortion is always justifiable on the basis that it is a woman’s choice, yet simultaneously maintain that it should be rare, hold an intellectually dishonest position. They don’t hold that abortion is the lesser of two evils but argue that it is an inalienable right that a woman should have, regardless of the situation. Simultaneously declaring that it should be rare, essentially that it shouldn’t occur in certain scenarios, makes this position untenable.
It is the desire to appease both sides that undermines this argument. By attempting to appear as noble compromisers, brave souls who stand in the middle and beckon those on the extremes to join them, Mr. Williams and his cohorts reveal their position to be hypocritical: either limit a choice that is always right or condone killing an innocent life even for the sake of comfort and confidence. From a purely logical perspective, their position is much less defensible than even those who maintain that abortion should be available “on demand” and without any limitations.
In fact, abortion advocates recognize the inherent contradictions of this position. In 2008, the Democratic Party removed Clinton’s “safe, legal, and rare” language from its party platform, which had essentially urged women to seek abortion only as a last resort. The new plank states that “[t]he Democratic Party strongly and unequivocally supports Roe v. Wade and a woman’s right to choose a safe and legal abortion, regardless of ability to pay, and we oppose any and all efforts to weaken or undermine that right.”
While on the subject of intellectually dishonest positions, let me address those who state they are personally opposed to abortion, yet can’t judge the decisions of someone else. I ask them to check their basic premise for opposing the act in the first place. Most likely it is because they have convictions that abortion is inherently evil, by virtue of the fact that it kills a baby. So how can they not condemn another committing the same action? Either you believe that abortion takes the life of an innocent human being or you do not. Murder does not not become murder simply because someone else is doing it. An innocent life is not not snuffed out simply because the one committing the action is ignorant.
In closing, I ask my readers to follow this solitary piece of sound advice: Choose a rational position. Do not fall victim to contradictory compromises or the false nobility of the middle ground. As Rand says, “In any compromise between food and poison, it is only death that can win. In any compromise between good and evil, it is only evil that can profit.”
Jonathan Liedl is a senior political science and Arabic major. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.